Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Archive for the ‘Dispatch’ Category

How a story about Chinese journalism students led to a chance at the New York Times

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Recently, a piece I wrote, originally destined for CNN, was published on the Los Angeles Review of Books‘ China blog section. It took me a long time to find a home for the article after it was cancelled by CNN but its eventual publication, which was unpaid, has led to opportunities from, among others, the Washington Post and the New York Times.

The article is about Chinese journalism students, graduates and China’s journalism industry. It was fascinating to report on and some of the answers I found surprised and befuddled me. Here are some of the highlights:

“I think the Marxist view on journalism is right,” says Wang Zihao, a 22-year-old journalism major at Beijing’s Communications University of China. “Sometimes what the [Western] journalists do is just outrageous. They should have more professional ethics.”

According to 2013 government figures, there are over 250,000 journalists with press cards, which are mandatory for professional journalists in China.

“Sometimes one person has to do things that are supposed to be done by three people. So this is not discrimination against women, it’s just that men are better at working under pressure,” says Mr. Wang.

Issues of censorship and political agendas are, perhaps contrary to foreigners’ beliefs, much discussed on campuses and online. But the students’ opinions may not be what foreigners expect

For the whole article please use this link:


It was while I was reading an article about how the Chinese government was putting extra pressure on its journalists in The Washington Post that I came up with the idea for this story. A section in that Post article mentioned how student journalists in China and university faculties were also facing pressure, and I thought: “hmmmm, I wonder what’s it like to be a Chinese journalism student?

So I pitched this idea to an editor at CNN’s website, who I had made contact with using Twitter.

Twitter’s a fantastic resource for journalists, and I have gotten email addresses, sources and contacts aplenty from it; usually I just ask – “hey do you take freelance, if so, what’s your email?” – or something along those lines.

The editor liked the idea, and off I went. I asked a Chinese friend to help me with the reporting and because she herself had gone through a journalism degree in China.

Cue lots of research and reporting.

I wrote up the article, during which the commissioning editor at CNN had gone on maternity leave.

My article got passed on to a couple of other editors, one of whom asked for the story to be re-reported. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with that – and they eventually spiked the story. It was my first ever story cancellation but I guess it happens.

Anyway, I tried to sell the story on to other outlets all of whom liked the story but felt it was perhaps a bit too niche a topic. It was picked up eventually as you all now know, although for free. I did hope that it would be a paid for, but the value of it being published anyway exceeded my expectations.

It was re-tweeted and favourited by dozens of journalists, writers and editors, partly I guess because the story is about journalism. I followed up on these and introduced myself. Cue opportunities to pitch editors who’ve seen my work – after reading the article – and who I now know enough to feel that when I pitch them that we’re not complete strangers (every little helps).

I will think and search for new pitches, because bylines in such storied publications as The Washington Post or The New York Times would be awesome.

View from China – Britain’s Diminished Glory in The East

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In the UK we still tend to have a sense of superiority. Over Europeans. Over Americans. Etc.

After all, we had an Empire. And America used to be merely our colony. But living abroad you sometimes have exchanges which challenge this arrogant, outdated and clingy thought.

There are many Europeans now living and working in Beijing. Germans and Italians seem to be quite numerous, some of the latter prompted to move by stagnant economic conditions back home. It was while I was talking to a German cameraman friend of mine, who worked for Germany’s national broadcaster, that I realized that actually the Germans are the Masters of Europe. He commented how Germany had a much greater population than the UK, and how the broadcaster had bigger funds than the BBC (I could not verify this claim).

There was nothing I could say back to this. After all, Germany’s economy is by far the largest in Europe; stable and prosperous. And he knew it.

This sense of patriotism, of ‘my-country-is-better-than-yours’, and notions of power are of course juvenile. And yet they no doubt have currency in our national psyche and sense of national identity and self-esteem.

In China, this is doubly amplified. People here tend to be very patriotic and can tend toward nationalism. This is not surprising when you consider how patriotism is instilled through education at very early ages in school. They sing the national anthem, learn stories about self-sacrifice and generally listen to media which always conflate personal pride and your country’s pride.

Loving your country and loving your government are two entirely separate things, but sometimes in China I often feel the separation is not so clearly defined. In the UK, the cynical types that we are, we are able to reflexively criticize and mock our leaders and politicians.

On China’s social media there lurk thousands of patriotic comments, discussing China’s power and place in the world. And they don’t think very highly of the UK – if in fact they think of Britain at all.

David Cameron recently led a trade delegation (the biggest ever, numbering 131 people) to China. It received widespread media attention back in the UK. But in China, aside from some dutiful reporting about the visit by state-owned media, the event largely passed by. In fact the Thai riots was more talked about and more prominently reported.

Some choice comments from Weibo (China’s Twitter):

@jiyiran2012: “The Sino-Britain relations are similar to that between china and Australia: it’s all about money and money only”.

@侠客点徐: “Go back to Britain! We don’t welcome anyone who support japan in the air defense matters”.

@你被写在我的歌里-nadal:”now we can see how Britain has been suffering from the economic recession”.

[Translations courtesy of Lotus Yuen]

A lot of Chinese commentators consider Cameron’s visit and his compliments about China as a sign showing how China is growing more and more important on the international stage. There is a very noticeable air of superiority. Some viewed Cameron as ‘begging’ for money and that Britain viewed China as more important to it, than the other way round.

British brands are also not very well known. If pushed they can perhaps name Jaguar or Burberry. Many cannot even name who Britain’s Prime Minister is.

Perhaps it is time to accept that truly the UK is – if not quite a ‘bit-part’ player on the global stage – then at least a diminished cruiserweight but one capable of respect, dignity and influence. It is how the UK can adapt and use it to our advantage that will be the test of Britain’s power.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

December 5, 2013 at 8:52 am

Posted in Dispatch

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On David Cameron’s Visit to China

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David Cameron touched down in Beijing today, bringing with him Britain’s largest ever overseas trade and ministerial delegation. The 131-strong team will no doubt go all out in trying to achieve Cameron’s stated aim of making Britain China’s primary advocate in the EU.

Coming ahead of October’s visit by Boris Johnson and George Osborne, it heralds a major effort by the government to attract Chinese investment and cooperation with Britain. Since Cameron met with the Dalai Lama last year, Beijing has been noticeably cold with UK officials, a ploy often used to signal Beijing’s anger.

The EU is China’s largest trade partner, ahead of the US, and Cameron will be expected to talk up a free trade agreement between the EU and China in talks with China’s president Xi Jinping and premier Li Keqiang.

Britain punches above its weight in China. Recognition of British brands and expertise is strong, and British companies are increasingly looking to expand their reach into China’s giant market. China’s GDP continues to grow at a phenomenal rate, growing around 40% between 2010 and 2012, basically adding the economic equivalent of India to its economy in two years.

Speaking to Stephen Phillips, Chief Executive of the China Britain Business Council (who is on the delegation) earlier this year, I learnt a lot about how British businesses are plugging into the developing economy of China. In all the big news and shocking numbers about China’s stupendous growth, perhaps it is forgotten that in some respects China is still a developing country.

China’s rural population numbers 656 million (the percentage of urban residents surpassed countryside dwellers in 2011). And daily expenditure levels for most of the population is still very low (I can quite easily eat out in China’s capital for all meals for less than five pounds every day).

Britain’s engineering and infrastructure businesses are looking to China’s emerging second-tier and third-tier cities to capitalize on infrastructure development. Healthcare and support for the growing elderly population is another opportunity. While on the higher end, public relations, fashion and product design are knowledge industries experiencing rapid evolution. Education remains one of Britain’s top exports.

Knowledge-led, high value industries are the UK’s forte and this is reflected in the list of Cameron’s delegates where engineering, education and finance are especially well represented. Brands such as Ted Baker and Marks and Spencer have sought to make their presence felt, although high street stalwarts like Topshop have been conspicuous by their absence considering H&M and Zara did so well in entrenching themselves so quickly.

Businesses and the individuals focused on developing trade concentrate on the vast opportunities China presents. But on the political side, commentators have voiced their disappointment over a seeming lack of moral authority, which once perhaps Britain may have had. Jonathan Mirsky, writing in the New York Review of Books, after Johnson and Osborne’s visit, said: “How gratifying it must have been to Chinese officials when Cameron recently said, “I have no plans to see the Dalai Lama”, a statement Osborne took care to repeat”.

Cameron and his advisors know just how important it is to develop Britain’s interests with the world’s second largest economy. If it feels like Britain is the junior partner, that is because it is, at least in this situation – the dismay expressed at the failure to highlight human rights and other issues is the liberal edge to the same sadness that pervades Britain’s sense of lost imperial glory. But it is right that people strive for their leaders to uphold principles of freedom and justice.

The United Kingdom’s moral authority on the global stage is being compromised for the sake of capitalism, a truth keenly understood by the ‘communist’ state of China.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

December 2, 2013 at 7:36 am