Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘Freelancing in China

How to Become a Freelance Journalist in China

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This is a brief guide to the posts on this blog. I arrived in China in the autumn of 2012, and had just graduated a journalism degree. I learned the ropes of freelance journalism when I moved to Beijing.

This blog started in the autumn of 2013 after I had begun to freelance more professionally. The posts from previous years were written while I was still learning, but I hope that they may be of use to you.

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How do you get a visa as a freelancer in China? 

This is usually the most pressing question. And my guess is that this is the biggest hurdle for those thinking of coming to China to do journalism. The official J-visa (full visa status and accreditation as a professional journalist allowed to do journalism in China) is difficult to get. It’s not easy to get even with the full backing of a major news organization. Suffice to say that unless you are employed or sponsored by one of these large media companies, it will be nigh on impossible to secure a J-visa.

5 Most Frequently Asked Questions About Being a Freelance Journalist in China

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There is still a massive demand for information, news and stories

Publications are hungry, starving for new and exciting information and stories. If you are placed in a niche or location that’s in demand, then you could be hot property.

6 Things I Learned about the Freelance Journalism Market While I Was In China

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Four months equates to a season, in a year, and so 2015 was irrevocably marked by this season of difficulty. But, there have been bright spots. Most notable among these was the money I earned from freelancing. This year’s haul is almost four times as much as what I earned the previous year from freelancing.

A Year in the Life of a Freelance Journalist Abroad

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I first got paid for writing in a place where writers typically never get paid: an internship. I spent last winter in Washington DC writing for an international affairs journal called the American Interest. My main gig was producing short 200-400 word news analysis posts for their online blog. At the end of my time there I wrote my first-ever feature story and that is what I got paid for ($200).

Part One: Freelance Journalists on their First Ever (Paid) Commissions

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Meet your fellow journalists
Find them on Twitter, LinkedIn – search out bylines and reach out to them. Most will gladly meet up for a coffee. Some may even share freelance and job opportunities down the line. You’re all in the same boat, so having that network can be invaluable.

5 Things To Do Upon Arriving in a New Country as a Freelance Journalist

There are many more posts about freelancing, and the experience of freelancing in China. Please have a browse of this site if you are interested.

The Freelancer’s Puzzle

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I want to make more money, so I can do more things. But how can I do that?

As a freelancer I have a lot of time to think.

And with that time I often think about things I could do with that time. For example: travel, both near and far, to visit friends, or just to go somewhere.

I would also like to save as I can foresee myself needing money sometime in the future, for some new adventure.

More money gives you more options. As freelance I already generate a stable income where I am not tied down to location. I can do the work I do any place — all I need is a laptop. In fact I can even do the work on my smartphone.

This makes me feel like I can go. Go where? Doesn’t matter so much.

I’ve been hustling a little bit for new work, to make more money. But something crucial about freelance and the work opportunities in Beijing is that a lot of it comes down to contacts and networks, suggestions, offers, and recommendations. Those lines of contact generate chance offers.

I’ve been waiting for a few of them to finally produce results. But it’s not certain. While other opportunities have occurred without any input from me. That’s the beauty of recommendations and professional networks — a cloud that floats around you, basically invisible, supported by people you barely know but who also have clouds barely tangible to them.

It actually makes me feel a little powerless because it isn’t always clear how to move forward. How to actively and consciously get more work for yourself.

I guess I could just get myself out there. Make inquiries. Meet more people. Send more emails and pitches. That is something I definitely don’t do enough of. And yet it seems that the more powerful way of getting work is via recommendation and personal suggestions.

In China, there is an all-encompassing word for this. It’s “guanxi”, which roughly translates as “connections”. But it’s much more than that. Much more than the western idea of “networking”.

In China people will do favours for you without an immediate expectation of a favour back, because they know doing favours for others improves their own social standing. It’s not a back-and-forth exchange, it’s about creating a social web of influence for yourself.

In China, the real movers and shakers are the ones who can create golden webs of influence which they can leverage and jostle, pulling strands and moving yourself around this web. It’s beautiful almost.

Anyway, that’s a tangent. I’m just aware that I want more income and I’m not fully sure, on a day to day basis, how to go about trying to secure that. It’s a puzzle for me to figure out.

The Luxuries and the Poverties of the Freelance Life

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It’s just gone a year since I went completely freelance.

Last year I was made to leave my job as a scriptwriter at a Chinese TV company. It was around February or March.

For over a year now I’ve been self-employed. I’ve not had “work” to go to — an office which demands time obligation. I’ve had no schedule other than that fixed by my own internal compass (a hazy, inefficient compass). I don’t wake up to an alarm. I don’t fall asleep feeling guilty about the lateness of the time. And I’ve had a freedom both luxurious and, at times, incredibly burdensome and crushing.

I feel no desire to wax and shine the wonders of the freelance life or working for oneself. If you want one of those crass, “inspiring” articles about “quitting the office job” to go freelance, please go read one of those.

Read the rest of this entry »

2015: A Year In The Life of a Freelance Journalist Abroad

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2015 was strange. For me at least. It was the quickest feeling year I’ve ever experienced, when months announced their arrival with the thought: “It’s April already?!”

I arrived back in Beijing in mid-January. And I went to Burma in mid-February for 18 days. I then reentered Beijing and into March, after travel, like leaping over stepping stones instead of passing time step by step.

Burma was a delight: charming, hot, earthy, and quite magnificent. It reconfirmed for me that travel, when done, is rarely regretted. In Burma I was fortunate to meet and hang out with a fellow freelance correspondent and his crew. It was wild and reminded me of stories expats tell of Beijing twenty years ago, when parties were mostly of the house kind and simply living there was pioneering.

I envy my Burma counterpart because that southeast Asian experience seems more reminiscent of the kind of old-school correspondence conjured by the likes of Graham Greene novels. Burma is like a country wrapped in amber, suffused with a golden light, and I do hope I make it back there sooner rather than later.

The year was also one of hardship. In March, I left a job that had been my main source of income for over a year. From March onward I depended entirely on my freelancing income and the transition was not a smooth one. Financially it was difficult, but the transition was the more harder simply because the routine of commuting and office hours that my former job had given me was suddenly stripped away. I was alone.

April through to July was difficult. That’s four months. Four months where I felt, at times, a great weight of loneliness and isolation. I would go so far as to say despair, especially when there seemed to be long hours which I spent just lain on my couch, dressed in nothing save denim shorts, sweating and thinking. That’s an image for which I am thankful as I now have a mental picture of myself that I hope never to reproduce.

Four months equates to a season, in a year, and so 2015 was irrevocably marked by this season of difficulty.

But, there have been bright spots. Most notable among these was the money I earned from freelancing. This year’s haul is almost four times as much as what I earned the previous year from freelancing. However, the freelance income from the previous year was supplementary to the income earned from my other job (the one I quit in March), which meant that, overall, this year I still earned less than what I earned the previous year.

There have been other milestones. But I do not wish to bore you, patient reader, with a list of achievements. Rather I wish to convey what being a freelance journalist abroad has meant to me.

And 2015 has felt like a transitional year. And educational, for reasons that are not so clear to me now but that I think, in retrospect, will probably guide me in the future.

Certainly, there needs to be a helluva lot more planning for 2016 if I am to make the most of my time, to make the most of what I can experience and to make the most of what I can do.

I have only realized, in the past week, that I had mislaid a small but significant resource. And that is the simple to-do list. For much of the time I have been in China, I have relied on to-do lists, dutifully scribed in my small Moleskine notebooks either in the morning or before I went to sleep. Never underestimate the power of a to-do list. It provides structure to your day and a sense of purpose.

This blog continues to be a source of solace and power. By making a timeline of 2015 for myself (a previous blog entry), I could see the year all the more clearly, laid out in front of me. It’s a great tool as I can objectively examine the time I used, to see what could be learned, what themes and patterns might be picked out, and what could be improved.

And writing in this blog is always a great way to work things out for myself.

Finally, theluhai.com (I pay annually for the URL) has paid for itself many, many, times over in freelance commissions from editors, and others, who have found me via this website. If that doesn’t sway you, if you’re a freelancer, to start your own website — the lure of work and money — then I don’t know what will.

Seminal posts of 2015:

The weekend of February 13th: getting ready for Myanmar

How I learned to love reporting (and life) again while in Burma

I’m still broke

Trying to cobble together a sustainable freelance writing career

Is this goodbye Beijing?

There is much to look forward to and next year I hope to be more footloose. Being trapped in Beijing, to where I will probably return in the spring, is not good for the soul. And traveling is a great way to slow down time as it focuses you on the present. However, I will still need to base myself somewhere, and will probably need my own place to call “home”, so reconciling wanderlust and home comforts will be a defining tension, as is common for wandering writers.

Beijing itself has been the great uncaring mass it has always been. The spring was lovely, with uncommonly blue skies, summer was hot and sweaty as usual, autumn was very mild, and winter was very cold and very polluted, although this offered journalistic opportunity.

I have been traveling and basing myself in Beijing for three years now and I am tired of the place. I’d quite like to base myself somewhere else now to be honest. But what I want, as is common for all people, does not accord with what others may want. This is a reference to the nature of foreign correspondence. Editors want journalists who have a native expertise and that means Beijing, and China, and the knowledge and contacts I have accrued from being there are what makes me valuable to them.

There is a meeting I have in London in early January that is important for me and I don’t want to say too much for fear of unnerving myself. But I’ll reveal more once we get to it.

For now, happy new year. And thank you for reading.

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The previous year’s summary

A video showing a year in my life, compressed into five minutes

Where I am right now

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Published on Monday, December 7, in The Independent, p. 23.

After four weeks in Yunnan, I am back in Beijing. Before I fly back to England for Christmas I am staying on a friend’s couch in Beijing.

Recently, I was published for a piece analyzing international affairs. It was my first time writing such a piece for a national newspaper. I asked the editor for advice on tone, to which he replied: “It’s supposed to be written in an authoritative manner, by you, our correspondent, who knows about China’s approach to climate change”.

The pressure was on. Certainly I did not want to write an article with my name on it, and my picture, a first for me, that had holes in it — or a poorly researched piece that could make me look like a fool in the printed paper, and online, for an audience of millions.

But the piece was well received by the editor and appeared in Monday’s issue of the paper. As a foreign correspondent I have made progress since August, when I received a phone call from London, from the foreign editor of The Independent, asking me if I was available to write a story.

The call came around 6pm my time, which is about 9am in the UK, and of course I said “yes”. The editor knew me because I had, some months ago, Tweeted him on Twitter asking if I could contribute to his paper. We exchanged messages but nothing came of it. As no-else was available at that time, that day in August, he suddenly remembered me and gave me a call.

That evening, I rushed around Beijing, doing interviews, calling people, and wrote up my story in a Starbucks. The story I wrote impressed the editor and was printed the following day. From then on I got more work with The Independent.

A couple of things to note, especially for any budding freelancers out there. While I was on the phone to the foreign editor, even though it was my first ever time speaking to him proper, I still asked him if I could have a higher fee for the article I had not yet written. He said “yes”– he’d give me a bit of a higher rate (he didn’t have much of a choice) and so I established, from the beginning, a precedent for getting higher rates from them.

It’s important that freelancers do not price themselves out of their jobs, and importantly, price other freelancers out of their jobs.

It’s important that editors respect you, and that you respect yourself and your work. It is a question of confidence that you value yourself to a point where you feel you can ask for better payment. But it’s a good habit to have.

The summer wanes — Wednesday, 26th August, in Beijing

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I’ve been busy these past weeks. I finished up my teaching job. I was hired to teach journalism and writing to Chinese employees of a multinational company. Designing the course was a full-time consideration, and delivering it was a lesson in teaching effectiveness.

I enjoyed the challenge though. And the fee from the project will help me to travel the remainder of this year.

I’ve decided to abandon my rented accommodation in Beijing. I would have had to shell out for three months’ rent money at the end of September (a lot of rents are paid in this way here), meaning the money I earned from the teaching would have simply evaporated, all for the privilege of residing in Beijing for another three months.

Instead I will take that money and travel. I have destinations in mind. One option is to make my way around the country and check in with various friends. I am also hoping to go to Taiwan, a place I first visited in 2009 and which I enjoyed. I will continue freelancing as I move. And opportunities to do so are not unencouraging.

Another milestone occurred recently too (the first is the journalism teaching which I had not done before), and that is I got my first ever lead story for a national newspaper, their website showing a story I’d written up top.

Apologies for the crowing, but in a year that’s had some troubled times for me, I think I’ll take a celebratory moment. These kind of milestones are what journalists live for.

It’s still hot, but I can feel the summer’s wane. The days now are just slightly less sultry than before. Not that I can complain, the weather now is great: blue skies and sunny; as the government issued orders to close surrounding factories, all for a parade to come the beginning of September.

Money is still very tight, as I await a whole bunch of freelancing money to come in. Bottlenecks such as these are something a freelancer has to do their best to eliminate.

But all in all, it’s a fairly satisfying end to an otherwise mediocre summer. But I’m taking the long view.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

August 26, 2015 at 1:16 pm

Trying to cobble together a sustainable freelance writing career

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I have been somewhat busier recently. After I came back from Nepal, I was fortunate enough to be commissioned for several stories. This helped with my sanity, sense of self-worth, and, yes, my precarious finances.

I was commissioned by a couple of local magazines, both of which are English language, but companies that call Beijing home. One of those commissions was about Nepal which I was gladdened by as I was not actually expecting too much from that sojourn (it was paid for by a mysteriously well-funded monk). Otherwise that trip was an experiment in micro-reporting and micro-publishing.

There have been a few other commissions also, as well as a project to teach journalism for a corporate client, to their employees, which should be interesting. I have always liked the idea of being more involved with pedagogy and the idea of improving as an educator and teacher greatly appeals — I will have the opportunity to design the classes and deliver them.

As a freelancer, it’s only really now that it became searingly clear to me that in order to succeed, this is what it will have to come down to. Scrabbling, searching, hustling. Cobbling together a variety of income sources and maximizing the skills that I have, marketing and utilizing the full extent of what I have to offer.

But enough talk about business, enough talk about finances and money. It only corrupts free-thinking and well-being. But I do have an inkling that if one figures out how to make freelance work for themselves, then surely freedom awaits. Along with misery and joy. (One cannot have one without the other, after all).

Summer is in its full-blown heat now although the sense of summer of course is still in its infancy. There have been times recently where I have felt the tremendous weight of loneliness and isolation. Freelancing can be like this. And jadedness can result. But I had a great week last week which helpfully expunged that.