Wednesday, June 13, 2007

About China Daily ...

Thanks to all who have emailed me about working as an English polisher at China Daily. It's been a few years since I was there, and I'm sure it's a whole different kettle of fish now. Besides, there are other people at China Daily who have more up to date blogs - try doing a Google search or look on wikipedia. And any advice I could give is already included in my blog.

I will leave you with a China Daily news meeting:

China Daily, Beijing Weekend

Friday, June 30, 2006

Behind the scenes at China Daily: an introduction

In the summer of 2005 I spent a couple of months working at China Daily in Beijing, as a foreign copy editor on the Beijing Weekend supplement. This is the blog I wrote at the time describing my day to day events and thoughts about working for the paper. When I wrote it I did so anonymously and changed everyone's names - and didn't even mention that I was working for China Daily.

I'm now back in Sydney working as a real journalist again. However, I'll leave up the old posts for curiousity value - and to inform anyone else interested in working for the "Window on China".

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Back in Australia - Blogging Elsewhere

I'm no longer working at China Daily, and so this blog is not being updated much, unless something affecting me and the China Daily crops up (like the detention of Hao Wu, for example). I'm now back working for a newspaper in Sydney.
There's an interesting thread at Danwei about recent happenings at the newspaper and its website.

Friday, January 20, 2006

China Daily: foreign editors/polishers lunch

Here we are on one of the "useful idiots" lunches.

L-R: Christl Dabu [Toronto/Philippines], Brian Publicover [Ottawa], Pan Zhongming [foreign affairs liason], Julia Grindell [UK](obscured), Simon Farnham [London], Ian Morrison [Scotland], Charlie Gidney [UK], Wang Hao [foreign affiars], Ken McManus [US].

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Just like I'd never been away

MO Lunch
Originally uploaded by jiulong.
It's funny experiencing the transition from being a "foreign expert" in Beijing with all the privileges that entails to being unemployed and broke in Australia. I've spent the last couple of weeks taking it easy and spending time with my kids. Playing cricket in the park [real grass! real fresh air!] and of course been down the beach and doing a bit of bushwalking in the Blue Mountains. I've been living off my last wages from China Daily, which not surprisingly have disappeared at an alarming rapid rate: 6000 kuai doesn't go very far in Beijing, let alone Sydney.
I came across my former editor, Zhu Ling, while surfing the net this week, hosting a forum on Sino_Japanese ties.

Zhu Ling, editor-in-chief of China Daily, said the China-Japan ties now face serious challenges, and media organizations could and should do more in promoting good relations between the two nations.

I think he's being a bit hypocritical to say the least, given that China Daily has been banging on so much these last few months about the dastardly Japanese and how China won the war against them single handedly in 1945. I'm all for making Japan make some sincere and concrete steps towards acknowledging their WWII aggression and atrocities, and facing up to their past. But the way China is now drumming up anti Japanese hatred is scary.
Zhu Ling (朱灵), editor of China Daily

Zhu Ling: "Japan should follow China's example and come clean about the past. What? No I haven't read the Tiananmen Papers or Jung Chang's latest book, why?"

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Richard of Peking Duck blog visits China Daily

Richard of Peking Duck blog

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

So you want to work for China Daily?

crecon, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Despite, or perhaps because of what I have written here, I have had quite a few emails asking me how to get a job at China Daily. Well, let me try spell out the basics here.

What's the work like?
As someone has already pointed out in the comments, the job of a foreign copy editor is undemanding and low paid. You work a five day week, and some of this may be in shifts, working say 6pm until 1am, or more likely 10am to 7pm. It depends where you work. Generally, the work on the supplements such as Beijing Weekend, 21st Century and the business supplement tends to have more regular hours. The work isn't that busy or difficult, so long as you can correct badly written articles. But it can be frustrating, like when you spend two hours re-writing a feature and then find they put it through without any of your changes.

You can expect to earn 6000-8000 rmb a month, which is a bit less than what you would get as an English teacher. However, you do get a nice new apartment (with dial up internet) and all your bills are paid for you. And three quarters of your pay is in US dollars rather than rmb, so you can save it up and take it home if you wish. Also, the China Daily office don't muck you about or rip you off, and will sort out all your visa stuff for you and even give you a [one way] ticket to China, and a return ticket if you complete your one year contract. Most English polishers are given a one year contract - in rare circumstances this might be renewed, but most have to leave after 12 months.

Most editors have some basic experience or skill in editing/proofreading, but a qualification or experience in journalism doesn't seem to be essential. You have to pass a writing/editing test that China Daily will email to you, to see if you can manage the basic copy editing skills. You won't be working as a journalist but as an English polisher, so don't expect to be writing features or working as a reporter (though there is talk that this may change). Working at China Daily might be a good introduction to the basics of editing, but is no substitute for experience on a western newspaper.

Most polishers are Brits at the moment, but there are some Canadians, Kiwis and Americans. The China Daily style is British, but this doesn't preclude North Americans.

You are entitled to about 20 days holiday a year, I think, but can't take any in the first six months of your contract. You also get the extended holidays like National Day. As you may have read, China Daily does organise some outings to local sightseeing spots and resorts, all of which are on the company tab.

China Daily is stuck up in the wilds of north Beijing, not near anywhere in particular. It is half way between the student ghettos of Wudaokou in the north west and the expat/business/bar districts of Sanlitun/Chaoyang in the east. You can get around by taxi for about 20 kuai a pop, but the traffic is terrible. The China Daily office is midway between the third and fourth ring roads, and about half an hour away from the nearest subway line [number 13 at Shaoyuju]. There's no decent coffee or bars nearby, and Carrefour is about 15 minutes by taxi.

Social life?
There are about a dozen foreign editors working at China Daily, most in their twenties and there's usually something happening at the weekends. As you can read from my posts, there's usually plenty of drinking involved.

Do I have to be a Communist/Pro-China?
Nah. There are some card-carrying foreign Party members on staff but it's not compulsory. Likewise they are not expecting you to be Israel Epstein. but I wouldn't apply if you are a practitioner of Faln G0ng.

Language? Do I need to speak Chinese?
No. All the Chinese staff speak English. So much so that it's not a good place to practice your Chinese, and if you want to learn you will have to enrol in lessons outside working hours.

If you are still interested after all that, you can contact the foreign affairs bureau [Waishiban] at The guy in charge is Pan Zhongming ( They have vacancies from time to time, and do all the application procedures via email.

But don't tell them I recommended you. Good luck.

(And in the meantime here are some pics of the place):

China Daily building

100_0559, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Huixin Dongjie

beijing 012, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Tang Dynasty bar zone

100_0654, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Along the canal, near Huixin Dongjie

"Tang Dynasty bar street"

beijing 013, originally uploaded by jiulong.

The canal near China Daily.

China Daily lobby

100_0918, originally uploaded by jiulong.

China Daily lobby

beijing 042, originally uploaded by jiulong.

China Daily compound

beijing 252, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Taken from the foreign experts' apartments.


beijing 251, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Foreign Expert's card

expert1, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Beidaihe - Pan Zhongming takes us to Vassily's bar

Beidaihe boozers, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Me, Pan Zhongming (acting head of foreign affairs department at China Daily), Ravi Narasimhan (China Daily senior editor and columnist) and Charlie Gidney (foreign copy editor).

Party Committee room

100_1773, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Red Flag computer

Red Flag computer, originally uploaded by Zhuan Jia.

The newsroom.

Foreign editor's night out at a North Korean restaurant in Beijing

Pyongyang restaurant, originally uploaded by Zhuan Jia.

Here you can see Charlie, Julia, someone from 21st Century magazine, and Ian Morrisson.

Huixin Dongjie

Huixin Dongjie, originally uploaded by Zhuan Jia.

China Daily is at number 15.

Huixin Dongjie

Huixin Dongjie 2, originally uploaded by Zhuan Jia.

Or is it Yinghua Lu (Cherry Blossom Street)?

View from China Daily foreign experts' apartment block

Overlooking the chemical engineering university high school.

China Daily newsroom

China Daily newsroom, originally uploaded by Zhuan Jia.

The English polishers sit on the left at the far end of the room.

China Daily canteen

China Daily canteen, originally uploaded by Zhuan Jia.

"The Noodle"

"The Noodle", originally uploaded by Zhuan Jia.

The restaurants opposite the China Daily compound.

Some of the Beijing Weekend staff

Beijing Weekend staff, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Here you can see (L-R): Wu Liping, (designer/sub), Li Shuo (head up), Zhang Tianxing, Xiao Changyan, Tan Rui, unknown, Ye Jun, Clara??, photographer.

Monday, October 03, 2005

From Chai to Bondi

Originally uploaded by jiulong.
I went to see the cardiologist on Friday, here is Sydney. She took one look at my Beijing ecg report and raised her eyebrows. If the machine was correct, I'd had one of the highest rates of cardiac arryhtmia she's ever heard of. But now it's all back to normal. She just couldn't work it out, and wondered whether the machine or technician had recorded things correctly. She also took a look at the pills I'd been prescribed for my heart condition by the internal medicine specialist at the Sino Japanese Friendship Hospital in Beijing.
"Did you take any of these?" she asked.
No, I replied, somewhat guiltily.
"Just as well, they would have made things a lot worse, not better," and she threw them in the bin.
After a thorough exam, she said I'd had apparently had a temporary but potentially serious episode of atrial arrhythmia [a heart murmer to you]. Her prescription was rest, no coffee or chocolate, some beta-blockers just in case, and a decent diet. She couldn't say what had caused it, but it wasn't stress or psychological, she reckoned.
"It must be something in the water over there," she concluded.
Well I guess that's my Beijing adventures over for a while then.
Looking back on it all, I have realised that I was never going to adapt to working in Beijing. I love the city and Beijingers, but as a place to work the city is, well, not for me. Despite all the hype about Beijing being the wave of the future, and China having a "can-do" culture, I found that it is still the same crusty old northern city underneath. The can-do attitude may apply to business, but in the media it is definitely still "foreigners can not do". Just ask Rupert Murdoch, Mark Kitto [founder of That's Beijing] or Scott Savitt [founder of Beijing Scene, also run out of town]. The lesson is that when it comes to the media in China, unless you are a foreign correspondent working for a western company, you are going to get screwed.
Another thing I realised was that most of the Beijingers I met were working like mad to try and attain the things that I already have at home. A car, a decent house in a nice suburb, interesting places to visit, and a little luxury. They all want the VIP lifestyle, but I already have that here: I can drive down to Bronte beach and let my kids play alongside those of Lachlan Murdoch and supermodel Sarah O Hare any weekend I like.
If I want to read some interesting Chinese literature I can find the latest by Ma Jian at Kinokuniya, but not at Xinhua on Wanfujing.
Of course there are some things I will miss. The ridiculously cheap and excellent food. Overhearing the wry humour and civilised talk of everyday Beijingers. Riding my [now stolen] bike down through the hutongs. Stuff like that. Oh, and the chance to see weird and wonderful things like North Korean and Cuban cabaret.
But I can't say I'll miss the weather, the pollution, the traffic, the spitting or the "Let's All Hate Japan and Blame the Foreigners For Everything" national mentality. I also found that a lot of expat life in Beijing revolves around drinking, which I can do without. And the concrete. It's nice to be able to have a bit of grass that you can sit on that doesn't have a fence around it, or need daily sprinkler treatment to keep it green.
I've also realised that my interest in China is really focused on the south west, and I will revert back to my annual treks down into the unexplored parts of the Yalong canyon and the peaks of Muli (see my other blog, In the Footsteps of Joseph Rock.
In the meantime, I will keep one eye on China Daily, on the off chance that they actually start to report something on what happening about bird flu. The WHO and the UN are now saying that a worldwide pandemic of H5N1 flu is a certainty, and guess where it will orginate from? China - and most likely Guangdong. But while every other country in East and SE Asia is reporting an increasing number of suspected cases and deaths, China still has a news blackout on the whole matter. All they are saying is that they are "prepared", and that some wild ducks in Qinghai have died. China is covering up hundreds and possibly thousands of cases of bird flu, and no doubt many human infections and possibly deaths too. For all its moral posturing about being a country of laws and more openness, it is now endangering the whole world with its secretive attitude towards this potentially global disaster.
Well, I hope we get a bit of warning before it hits Australia's shores. I'm off now to buy some Tamiflu. Because I think that when bird flu strikes. it will make the 2008 Olympics, the Taiwan question and even the occupation of Iraq seem insignificant.

North Bondi
As for the future, I will continue to blog about Sydney. The problem is that a comfortable and pleasant life makes for excrutiatingly boring reading. If you're feeling masochistic, or just want to see some nice photos of beaches and happy families, head to Photos of Sydney. See you there.

Thursday, September 29, 2005


Originally uploaded by Zhuan Jia.
On my first night back in Australia I fell asleep listening to rain pattering on a tin roof. I woke up to sunlight filtering through the blinds, and the sound of the wind blowing in the trees. Outside it was cool and there was a scent of flowers and earth in the air. Blue skies and clouds - how long since I'd seen those?
When I'd arrived back at the airport the day before, the passport control guy had huge mutton-chop sideburns. He looked at my landing card and said: "Beijing ... Have fun?"
"Yes," I replied.
"Welcome back," he said, and waved me through.

And if you want to see what happened next, go to: Photos of Sydney.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

On reflection ...

Azure Cloud temple
Originally uploaded by jiulong.
When I arrived in Hong Kong from Beijing I passed through a branch of WH Smith. There on prominent display were books by the Dalai Lama, Jung Chang's latest screed on Mao and the tell-all memoirs of Mao's personal physician, Li Zhisui. It shouldn't have surprised me but it still does, even now, almost 15 years after my first visit to the PRC, to see the contrast between societies with an open and closed flow of information. In my Herald Tribune on the plane I read about the latest crackdown on internet news sites in China. Maybe that explains why Google News doesn't work any more - I presume that falls under the category of a news distribution site - banned with immediate effect.
This all seems to be the work of the new Hu Jintao-Zeng Qinghong partnership and their hardline approach to information freedom.
Looking back on my China Daily experience - all two months of it, I found it gave me a fascinating insight into just how far China has come in opening up, and just how many barriers remain. Back in 1990 when I first strolled across Tiananmen Square, the tank-track marks from the June 6 massacre were still visible on the roads. And the only English news available in the capital was the dour propaganda and statistics of the China Daily. I don't think there was even a CCTV9 back then - just a summary of news in English on the main CCTV channel.
To find out what was really happening in the world you had to hike over to the Friendship Store and go to the foreigners-only section to buy an expensive copy of yesterday's SCMP.
How things have changed. Despite the cyber-nanny you can now get news on just about anything via the internet in China. There's a lot of roadblocks if you want to find out about Tibet, Fal*n G0ng, or any of the leaders of the CPC, but it's do-able. You expect censorship from the Communist Party authorities, and they are still obsessed with reining in the access to information. And yet, while there may be a few people in China interested in democracy or more liberal causes, I think most people have other priorities. If the Chinese "broad masses" want a more open society, I think they would fight for it themselves. At the moment it doesn't seem to be something they get worked up about, unlike say, hating Japan or getting their kids to an American university. What I find most disappointing is the enthusiastic cooperation being shown by western companies like Yahoo and Google in helping the CPC to suppress information. Go to Beijing and watch what happens if you type in something as incuous as "Zhongnanhai" into Google. You get locked out for about half an hour.
Companies like Google say that this is the price of doing business in China. I would say that price is too high. Leave it to the Baidus, Sohus and the Sinas. Haven't Google got something in their mission statement about "doing good stuff" or some other vaguely benevolent slacker-like intention? Completely meaningless.
Anyway, I return to Australia and find myself glad to live in a society that [so far] treasures freedom of speech.
Having worked briefly at China Daily I find myself seeing it as a bit like the Truman Show. I was one of those workers behind the scenes, trying to keep the 1.3 billion Chinese Trumans living in a fantasy world of sunlight and smiles. Where Chinese leaders are always warmly welcomed on their overseas trips, and visiting speakers always say kind words about the Chinese Communist Party, even in the case of Li Ao, when they don't. If one single thing summed up the absurdity of working at China Daily, it was last Friday when Li Ao gave his speech at Beijing University. As I have already mentioned, the China Daily ran only a brief article noting his comments about life being better under Communist Party rule. At the same time, the staff at China Daily - and presumably even the person who wrote that article - were all avidly hanging on to Li Ao's every word from the limited access cable-TV broadcast. These were the same words that they wouldn't publsh themselves.
But I don't think the Trumans of China are going to have a defining moment when they hit the false horizon and disover there is another world out there. The CPC and its Ministry of Information, my former employers, are all too adept at serving up to Chinese people what they want to hear and see and believe. When the mobs turn up outside CCTV headquarters with bricks and petrol bombs, it will probably be because the station has broadcast a documentary sympathetic to Japan, challenged the myth of Luding bridge crossing or revealed that Da Shan has been lip-synching for the last 20 years.

Thanks and goodbye for now.


Tuesday, September 27, 2005

A paranoid farewell to China Daily

room 404
Originally uploaded by jiulong.
I’m writing this on the flight from Beijing to Hong Kong. The strangest thing happened to me as we readied to board the flight. When the boarding call went out, the [predominantly HK and western] passengers got up and spontaneously moved into this strange pre-ordained formation. I was automatically doing my usual Beijing bus and train boarding technique, shuffling up to the front to hang around the edge before wading in with gentle but firm elbows. Yet all around me people were standing in this bizarre conga dance formation, stretching right down the hall. Then I realised what it was – a queue. And it worked – it was moving swiftly and efficiently through the doors, so that within half a minute I was left, mouth agape, near the end of the line, which I joined uneasily. Only two months in Beijing and already I am suspicious of these strange western habits.
My last day in Beijing was a mixture of misplaced fear and farce. Having cancelled my plans for a soothing trip to the mountains of Sichuan, I had sorted out all my gear and left a huge amount of much-loved clothes, books and camping equipment behind. I simply didn’t have the time or money or energy to arrange shipping it back to Sydney. But aon the morning of my departure I got a call from Pan Zhongming, the foreign affairs organiser, who wanted to see me urgently. Why now, just hours before I was due to leave? I made up an excuse about having to sort out my tickets [still half true, actually] and said I’d see him later that afternoon. But then he started behaving oddly – ringing me back with more and more urgent requests to go see him, immediately. And this wasn’t funny Xiao Pan, this was serious Pan Zhongming. This started to get me worried. As a precaution, I moved all my bags to the apartment of a friend down the hall, and left the China Daily compound. As I left, I bumped into one of the foreign editors, who, instead of saying farewell, gave me the cold shoulder. What was going on? Then I remembered back to the night before, when at my “leaving do” down in Sanlitun a few people had remarked about my blog. "Leaking State Secrets" was now being talked about in the office, and I was no longer anonymous. One of the other editors said it was fairly harmless, so long as I hadn't been stupid enough to have actually posted from the office computers.
Err, yes I had actually. “But you used a proxy at least …”
No I hadn’t.
“Oh well you’re leaving tomorrow, if they were going to do anything to you they would have done it by now.” he consoled me.
But with my imminent departure I had even been cocksure enough to have put the real name of China Daily on the top of the blog. Now I was beginning to get paranoid – maybe the authorities had found out about it, and were not happy. I had visions of being jumped on by a mob of Beijing’s finest PSB goons, and a trip to room 404.
I resorted to some rather ridiculous cloak and dagger techniques to get my bags out of the compound – getting some of the other editors to bring out my bags and stick them in a waiting taxi parked down a side street, so I could head straight off to the airport. I arranged all this by SMS and mobile phone. Was it just a coincidence that as we did this, some members of the China Daily foreign affairs bureau came walking down the street, and another drove past [as I hid behind a wall]?
Whatever, I managed to get to the airport and get on my flight with no further trouble.
But that’s what working in China does to you. Paranoia. Always wondering who is taking an interest...and why.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Time to say farewell

Foreign editors lunch
Originally uploaded by jiulong.
Well, that's it - my time's up. I'm no longer with China Daily, although I'll be holed up in their expert's apartment block for a short while, until I had off back to the sunny shores of Sydney.
Last night I made the mistake of going to an all-you-can-drink bar along the smelly canal near the newspaper's office on Huixin Dongjie. For 30 kuai you could have some lukewarm fake beer or some disgusting fake whisky. I picked the latter, and really regretted it this morning. I don't know why I did it because I hate whisky.
There was just me, Brian, and Ravi the cool Indian guy who is a senior editor at China Daily. We had a long, increasingly drunken discussion about the newspaper and what needed to be done to put it right. I heard that the actual editor, Zhu Ling, is something of a livewire, and is really pushing for change.
Zhu Ling, China Daily editor But despite his enthusiasm, there is a huge amount of resistance both from long established senior editors, as well as from the grey men in smoky offices who control these things.
One thing that came up was that they want to expand the number of foreign editors and even more excitingly, to give them more to do than just "polish" articles. Primarly, they want to get more foreigners working as reporters and writers on the newspaper, because they can see how that will boost their credibility and reporting skills. And a lot of the moans that I've mentioned on this blog were brought up at the recent editorial improvement meeting apparently - the whole indepedence and open-ness thing, plus the iron rice bowl mentality. In other words, they have some great reporters there, but they just aren't making use of their skills.
Well, we'll just have to see how it all works out, but I won't be there to find out. I will keep on with this blog on an occasional basis with any other bits of gossip that I hear about China Daily. But right now I'm about to head off into the wilderness. I will leave you with an article I did about the search for the real Shangri-La. Have fun!

Friday, September 23, 2005

I'm history

China Daily
Originally uploaded by jiulong.
As we all know, China has a 3000 year history - and now I am part of it. Yes, I'm history as far as the China Daily is concerned. I am a non-person, already airbrushed out of the wholesome daily life of our foreign copy editors. You see today we had a lunch for the "FCEs" as we are known. But I only found out about it by accident when I was ringing around trying to get some white person to turn up for the company-sponsored tournament. Beijing Weekend's acting editor, Yu Wentao, has been nagging me all week to get some token European faces to turn up for this golf trip, just to show the sponsors that we have some real live laowai trophy people. Well of course nobody wanted to play golf, but while ringing around I did discover that all the other China Daily foreign editors had been invited to meet the board of directors of the newspaper. And the picture shows me standing outside the Ying Hua hotel, right next to our office, as everyone else trooped in to hear some words of wisdom from our equivalent of Mr Burns. The distinguished gentleman was Mr Qu Yingpu, who as he reminded the guests on several occasions, has been to Harvard.

Apparently he acknowldeged that China Daily was currently not much more than a government mouthpiece, but things were going to change. At this point the Chinese foreign affairs minders started to look very unsettled.
Mark my words, said the old boy from Harvard, the newspaper must become self supporting. And to do this it must increase its independence, and report more objectively. There will need to be more foreign editors. And there will need to be more independent reporting. As the foreign editors tucked into their Sichuan spicy chicken, our Ivy League speaker spelled out what the core policy of the newspaper would be: if the Party strays from its policies then we sould investigate and report. But we should not criticise the basic Party policies. I wish I'd been there. I would have loved to ask him how any even semi-serious newspaper could ignore the rampant injustices perpetrated against groups like the F#lun G0ng. Or how any paper can even dream about being "independent" when it does not allow itself to question the propriety of the national leadership (Jia Qinglin, you know what I'm talking about ...). I mean, how far do you take that ruling: "we must not question party policy"? Is the party like the Pope? If the "Party" says that Beijing really needs a massive foreign-style Opera house just because Jiang Zemin's mistress wants it, should we say nothing? Really, I thought Harvard could have done better than this. Maybe we should have a director from Yale instead.

Something worth watching on TV at last ...

Picture 003
Originally uploaded by jiulong.
Yesterday I wrote about the don't-push-too far style of editorial "independence" being mooted by one of our directors. Then today I read the caustic comments on independent reporting and criticism of the party from by China's close ally in Taiwan, Li Ao. The New York Times emphasised the comments on "freedom", of course, in terms like this:

During an address at Beijing University on Wednesday evening, broadcast live on a cable television network, Mr. Li chided China's leaders for suppressing free speech, ridiculed the university administration's fear of academic debate and advised students how to fight for freedom against official repression.

"All over the world leaders have machine guns and tanks," Mr. Li told the students and professors in the packed auditorium. "So I'm telling you that in the pursuit of freedom, you have to be smart. You have to use your cunning."

What did the China Daily do on it? It's headline was Li Ao: Life greatly improved under Communist Party Rule

"China had experienced such poor conditions in the past," said Li. "But the situation now is truly much better. I thank the Communist Party of China."

Strangely enough, as I am working here on the afternoon shift, as I write, the large screen TVs are on in the office - the first time this has ever happened. And guess what all the staff are watching? Last night's speech by Li Ao. See the picture.
I hope our board of directors are watching it too.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Let's have a meeting

Originally uploaded by jiulong.
Here we are, the last editorial meeting. Wasn't it fun? Well I've had worse, but poor old TR is looking like he's had enough. He's had a bad week since Sting the goldfish departed this earth earlier this week. Maybe I should get him a replacement as a leaving pressie.

Pictured (L-R): Li Shuo, Zhang Tianxing, Xiao Changyan, Tan Rui (head slumped on table), Ye Jun.

Same old, same old

Originally uploaded by jiulong.
When I first started here I was very impressed with the works canteen. It was like being back at school and getting free school dinners - and the food was a lot better. The canteen here is open at 8am, 12 noon and 5pm for about forty minutes each time. Being China, there is a big rush to get there first, and there are usually two separate serving lines each serving four different types of Chinese dishes. We pay about three kuai for a meal, which would be two dishes plus rice - that's cheap even by Chinese standards. At first I was impressed by the quality of the food. Typically I might get something like stir fried pork with green peppers, or Ma Po tofu or even beef in black bean sauce.
However, after about three or four weeks, I noticed that the same dishes were being served up again and again - almost every day now it seems to be meatballs, fried chicken wings or fattty pork with carrots.
There is a parallel here to the magazine I work for. When I first started only two months ago I had all these great ideas for articles: a feature on young Chinese film-makers in Beijing, something on women's football, an interview with a leading portrait photographer to see what the impact of digital technology has been ... Then I started to read the back issues.
Looking back through five years of back copies I found that almost all my ideas had been done at least once, and sometimes two or three times. And the journalists are all the same people. So when I enthusiastically tried to sell the idea of an article on Aussie Rules football or Caving to our sports reporter, it's no wonder he gave me a patronising been-there-done-that look. Likewise when I suggested we do something on the Biennale, I got the same give-me-a-break look from Xiao Changyan, the female "culture" writer.
I don't know how they manage to keep up their interest up in what is a fairly limited scene that they have been covering for year after year. Despite all the talk of Beijing being a hip new city with a thriving arts and entetainment scene, it is actually a bit of an overgrown village. I'm sure there is still a lot of stuff they could dig up if they had the motivation and resources, but that doesn't seem to be the case. The reporters here seem content to cruise along and just get by doing the bare minimum. Unlike in Australia there don't seem to be any eager freelancers, interns or wannabee writers ringing up and pestering us with story ideas. The fax machine isn't overflowing with press releases, and the mailbag isn't bulging with invites to media launches or requests to do lunch.
And of course there is not much pressure to keep abreast of the competition. As a state-run magazine there is still something of the iron rice bowl mentality here - a job for life, and little need to prove yourself. That's not to say the journalists are no good, only that they can't or won't stretch themselves. Why bother sticking your neck out when there's no money or glory in it, only the risk of getting your head on the chopping block?
The only area where the staff here do excel is in doing paid advertorial work and sucking up to advertisers. One guy has launched a semi-independent magazine targeting the lucrative expat schools market. We are also running a whole series of ludicrous advertorial articles for cheesy dance shows, law firms and hotels.
So as I am about to leave China I am glad I have learnt something about the reality beyond the "booming Beijing" hype. When you switch on the TV or pick up a western newspaper these days it always seems to be that Beijing is the happening place, and China is the new klondike gold rush. The world's most powerful media tycoons are all itching to get in here - but even Rupert Murdoch can't get what he wants. So it's strange to be on the inside of this bubble and find that it is all very humdrum and mediocre. Our magazine here has a staff of about 20-30, but what they produce is neither efficient nor inspiring. I reckon the same, or even better results, could be achived by one quarter of that number of journalists in Australia. I suppose labour is cheap here. But it's more than that. The very basics of journalism are not there - the journalists don't ask the most fundamental questions, they don't approach the most obvious sources for comment, they can't start an article with an interesting intro ... I could go on. In a way, it's amazing anything gets published at all.
We had a good moan about this over a few beers last weekend, and we [the foreign editors] got on to the same old refrain: they aren't interested and/or don't need to make the publications more readable and relevant. There is simply no desire or motivation to do that. The few experienced western journalists who have worked here and pointed out the mediocrity and tried to push for change have been sidelined and ignored, or even accused of being disruptive and hostile.
"Why is it that in editorial meetings I am the only one making suggestions when I have absolutely no experience?" asked a young British guy who has just graduated from uni. "There are seven or eight Chinese journalists there who have been overseas to study journalism at some of the best schools in the US and the UK, but they just sit there and say nothing ..."
I don't know the answer. But for the time being, the paper will continue to rely on a steady stream of inexperienced amateur "English polishers" who are willing to work for peanuts.
The other significant thing about this paper is the lack of anyone with clear responsibility. There is no identifiable editor or news editor prowling round to keep you on your toes. There is no chief sub to bawl you out when you get some fact or spelling wrong. And there is no publisher swanning round boasting of how many ads he or she has sold. It's still a newspaper run like a state tractor factory where the real bosses are behind the scenes, consulting with the party hacks on how to meet this week's quota. Meanwhile the workers just do the bare minimum until the five o clock whistle, muddling through to produce something that at least "looks" like a newspaper.
And finally, of course, there is the obvious factor of "freedom of the press" and open-ness. You can never have a decent publication if you know that so much of your obvious subject material is off limits. Even an entertainment magazine like ours is neutered because we can't point out the bleeding obvious sometimes. Last week, for example, I edited a short article about the annual book fair, which lamented that "Chinese books" were not that popular overseas. What an absurd claim to make when we all know about the success of books like Wild Swans, etc. But we are unable to talk about authors like Jung Chang because they are "sensitive" - and I wouldn't be surprised if most the reporters here had not heard of her. When you first start working here or first see the magazine you might think how open and "normal" it all appears to be. But after a while you start to really notice the limits and the gaps. Maybe that's when it's time to bail out.
And that is what I'm doing now. I'm just about to go in to my last editorial meeting, for what that's worth. But if anyone tells me in future how much China is developing and "opening up", I will have to tell them that it still has a long way to get near to what we take for granted.

beijing 134
Canteen at 11.55am.
beijing 006
Canteen at 12.05pm

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

English as she is written

Interesting little observation: why is that a person's English language speaking ability is no indicator of their writing? One reporter, who speaks languid and eloquent English, can't write for toffee. He always submits his copy at the last moment and I dread editing it. It's usually easier just to write a completely fresh article on the same topic, taking his prose as a rough guide. Our fashion correspondent,on the other hand, speaks as if she is Scottish and has marbles in her mouth, but writes perfect prose, like a native. Discuss.

Monday, September 19, 2005

I'm out of here

It's with a heavy heart [literally] that I have resigned from China Daily. I have to go back home to get my heart checked out. No disrespect to the good Dr Fu, but I want a bit of peace of mind and to sort out actually what is causing the old ticker to behave in this strange and very scary way. I wouldn't have thought it was stress, because the workload is anything but onerous compared to what I've been used to at magazines and newspapers in western countries. And it can't be culture shock, because I've been coming here for almost 15 years without any such problems. Maybe it's been all the hassle of trying to find a school for my kids, bless 'em. I tried to get the local school to take them, but no way. Unless you're on an expat package here there's only one school in Beijing that will take your little ones, and that's Fangcaodi, miles away in the embassy district. Just too far away for us, and even then, at 16,000 kuai a year, still more than we could afford for two kids.
Ah well, China's loss is Australia's gain, I suppose. I shall take my literary talents back to the convict shores of Botany Bay and resume my former life as a medical journalist on a whopping salary, albeit without a subsidised canteen.
I broke the news to Pan Zhongming today and he seemed quite sympathetic and understanding. And most of all, he didn't demand that I refund the cost of the free ticket they gave me to come here. So long as I clear out of the apartment by the end of the week.
My other Chinese colleagues took the news of my impending departure as if I'd just announced I was stepping out to buy some pens. "Oh? Will you be coming back? No? What a pity ... oh, and by the way there's some listings on page 6 that needs polishing, thank you."
Yu Wentao, the party man and acting editor, just slapped me on the back and breathed the usual gale of garlic on me, as if to say having a cardiac arrhthymia is just a big joke. When I said I would be leaving at the end of the week, he gripped my arm and said: "Staying around that long? Well done!"
Well, I will miss Beijing. I could definitely see myself living down the hutongs of Jiaodaokou, and maybe one day I will, in ten years time when the little runts have grown up and are at university or something.
For now, I am planning the perfect little break for someone with a cardiac complaint: trekking over the 4500 metre high mountain passes of Sichuan in the footsteps of Joseph Rock, to find the old monastery that inspired the whole myth of Shangri La. You can read about it in my other blog In the Footsteps of Joseph Rock.

Now all I need to do is get rid of all the stuff I have accumulated in two months in Beijing, stuff like: an iron, a year's membership to the Bookworm library, six mooncakes and a load of winter clothes. They won't be much use in a Sydney summer.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Subversive Cubans at the Elephant

Red Detachment of Women
Originally uploaded by jiulong.
Last night I saw one of the most brilliant, audacious and in-your-face pieces of political satire imaginable in China. And it was performed by a troupe of Cuban lap dancers at a sleazy cabaret club in the Beijing Russian ghetto of Yabaolu. A few of the editors from work went to the Elephant Club, down a dark side street among all the hole-in-the-wall shops selling fur coats, and which is full of dodgy-looking Russian businessmen and women. The Elephant is decorated in a florid Muscovite style and has old Russian movies and Russia's answer to CNN playing on big screens. They do a great all-you-can-eat [and drink] buffet for 58 kuai, which we tucked into with gusto. We'd just finished our mixture of east and west food when the buffet area was cleared away and turned into a stage. On came some go-go girls wearing skimpy purple tinsel bikinis, to do a bit of pole-dancing. Because they looked vaguely European we thought they were from Uzbekistan or some other down-on-its-luck part of the Russian empire. But then they returned to do turns from different parts of the world. They did cowgirls [just like that scene in Apocalypse Now], some cheesy rhumba, Riverdance and even a bit of belly dancing with a black guy playing the role a hareem overseer. But they save the best for last. Suddenly the stage was lit up pink and on strode the same girls in Mao uniforms, complete with red armbands and red stars, brandishing fake rifles. To the accompaniment of the earnest revolutionary music from Red Detachment of Women, they did a suggestive sado-masochistic piss-take of the whole thing, bumping and grinding and using those rifles in very suggestive ways. To cap it off the brought out the "bad landlord", who was played, in a stroke of brilliance, by the same black guy, dressed in a confucian gown and topped of with a Fu Manchu cap and pigtail. They chastised and criticised him and he responded with a "What? Why me? What have I done?" bemused and pained look on his face that could have been straight out of a Mel Brooks movie.
He was "executed" and then all the dancers returned on stage holding up a huge picture of Mao. But at this point the music switched from revolutionary chorus to a techno blast version of "Fight the Power". It was awesome. I don't think the Russians got it, but the Chinese present certainly did, and had looks of shocked bewilderment and mischievous grins on their faces. Us western Europeans were just cacking ourselves.
Being a twerpy reporter at heart, I went backstage to find a troupe of Cubans hurriedly packing their bags to go to another engagement at the Tropicana Club. Only one of them, Cesar the black guy, could speak English. He said sorry they couldn't stay and chat, but spoke long enough to say that they'd been in Beijing a year and had come up with the Red Detachment finale themselves as they knew it well from their own Cuban education. Cesar translated my words of thanks and appreciation into Spanish for the girls stuffing themselves hastily and quite revealingly into ordinary clothes. They all said gracias and disappeared into the Beijing night. Delicious.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Not a heart attack

Originally uploaded by jiulong.
The picture is of Dr Fu, the internal medicine specialist who checked my Holter monitor ECG reading this morning. In the early hours I woke up with all the symptoms of a heart attack (well except dropping down dead). So at 8am I got China Daily's foreign affairs assistant Ma Jun (aka Helen) to take me down to the Sino-Japanese Friendship Hospital (I hope the clinical standards don't bear any relation to the degree of friendlieness at any particular time). We were ushered into the clinic for big shots [or gao ganbu 高干部 as they say here]. You see, the plebs, the workers, peasants soldiers and other laobaixing all have to go into a scrum on the ground floor to register,while big ganbus like me can go straight up to the fourth floor and get service with a smile from a pretty nurse with a squeaky voice. Who said Chinese hospitals don't have a fourth floor because it sounds like death? They have a fourth floor, but only the big Party members can go there - maybe that's a Chinese joke.
Anyway, I sat around in air conditioned luxury, to wait for Dr Fu. Once I got in to see him I found that Chinese hospitals - even ones for big ganbus - are just like all other aspects of Chinese life. People push in and jump the queue. As I was sat in the consulting room having some suckers painfully removed from around my nipples people kept coming in and asking if he could just spare a moment to look at their uncle or their boils. Excuse me - take a number and sit down!
Once he'd dealt with the various queue jumpers he was able to tell me that I'd had - wait for it - 237 supraventricular ectopic beats since yesterday. "A slight problem," he told me. Tell me about it. I remember every one and they weren't nice. I've never had a great sense of rhythm and now my heart has confirmed this by adding a few extra contractions on the offbeat whenever I get stressed out.
Dr Fu told me I'd better get checked out for rheumatic heart disease, coronary heart disease and a few other things he couldn't translate. So there will be more investigations ahead and I may not be sticking around in Beijing to to do them.
Oh, and after that good news, and a 1200 kuai bill for it all, I came out to find that some bastard had stolen my bike that had been chained to the hospital fence.
Not my best day in China.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Get your tits out for the lads

Originally uploaded by jiulong.
Here I am modelling the new Ipod Holter monitor. 24 hours of your favourite lub dub sounds on one set of Duracell copy batteries. All your favourite ST segments that you remembered from the 1970s. If I am still alive tomorrow I will let you know what I think of it. Courtesy of the Sino-Japanese Friendship Hospital, who are very good value for money if you have chest pain. Mr Koizumi all is forgiven. Sayonara, pengyoumen.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Feeling better now, thanks

My persecution mania seems to have passed. Nothing like a cup of tea and a bit of ironing to set you right. Oh, and a few laughs at work. Now, do you want the good news or the bad news?
The good news is that they wanted almost a thousand kuai to fix my Powerbook keyboard because the num lock key was stuffed. I said "no thanks", took it home and found it's working again! It must have just been a breadcrumb stuck under there. I feel a thousand yuan better off already.
The other bit of good news is that I was called into the office to get ... a huge box of mooncakes and a bottle of Cab Sav [local unfortunately] for the Zhongqiujie. What nice people these communists are when you are in their good books.
The bad news is that Sting the office fish is on his last legs, or should I say his last fins. He is lying sideways and flapping a bit pathetically. The general consensus is that this is because his tank is refilled from the office water cooler. I know nothing about fish, but I'm sure that distilled water is probably not their natural medium. They all asked me what to do, as if Laowai are fish breeding experts. I suggested setting him free in the algae ridden canal nearby.
The other funny thing was meeting the Serious American in the dining room tonight. A few days ago we were asked for our suggestions on how the paper might be improved [I had to resist facetious comments like "tell the truth"]. It seems that the senior editors and the Laowai trusties have been in conference all day debating what direction the paper should take. I half jokingly said we should go tabloid and start putting pictures of models on page 3. Believe it or not this is what they are planning to do. They must be noticing what Xinhua are doing. The official word is that we are going to be less "avant garde" and to reach out for the "youth market". So fewer articles on Tang Dynasty pottery and more beauty contests! And watch out for more features on bodypainting, which the Chinese seem to have an unhealthy obsession with.
Well if you'll excuse me I have some more ironing to do.

PS They are also planning a "talkback" section in which they will print some of the comments they get by email and on the website. So get writing: "Dear Editor, Please do more style features on that fashion-conscious young Mark Anthony Jones. Where does he get his ties from?"

Just because you're paranoid ...

The weather has turned cooler in Beijing today and I woke up this morning shivering. But I don't think it was the air conditioning. I think that unconsciously, I'm frightened. I know it sounds crazy but I have this creeping feeling of falling foul of the law. For the last couple of days I've had a weird lethargic feeling, combined with a sense that I am extremely wound up and fit to burst. At first I thought it was because I'd been pushing myself too hard at work, combined with some late nights out. But now I'm not sure what it is.
Over the last few days there have been a few things that have set me on edge. Reading about the case of Shi Tao and his betrayal by Yahoo has made me wonder what I would have to do to get an eight year jail sentence. All he did was what I've been doing on this blog - revealing what a Chinese newspaper has been telling its employees to do and what not to do. I have our "style book" here in front of me that tells us how to edit articles on Taiwan or Tibet, the names we should use and so on. Is that a state secret too? OK, Shi Tao is a Chinese citizen and I'm a foreigner, but I have just read a book recently about a British guy who spent five years in a Shanghai prison for possessing cannabis that he'd bought in Xinjiang. So having a foreign passport doesn't make you immune when "breaking the law".
My paranoia was increased when I heard an offhand remark from one of the other foreign editors here recently, about how our emails are monitored. Last Christmas one of the foreign staff emailed his parents in the UK to say he was cold and wished he'd brought his favourite scarf. A few days later he was presented with a silk scarf by his fellow workers who said they'd heard he was suffering.
And yesterday I got a fright when two security guards marched into our office and came up to me. It was a false alarm - they were just looking for some boxes they had been told to move.
Finally, today I read an article by a Uygher woman who went from national hero to traitor [and an eight year jail sentence] after sending some newspaper clippings to her husband.
It may all be paranoia, but I've now started thinking about what I might need to do if the goon squad turns up to lead me away for a little chat about the website, or other comments I have been making online. I've even contemplated getting an "emergency bag" ready for such an occasion, and leaving contact details of my family and journalist colleagues on the Australian papers.
Am I being paranoid? Or is this what happens to anyone who tries to write more openly in modern day China? Whatever, it certainly shows how successful the party has been in making all of us here think twice before speaking out.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Testing times

I've been very poorly, as they say in the north, these last few days. I feel like I've got ME or chronic fatigue or whatever they call it. Yesterday I could hardly get out of bed, but had to drag myself into work to get the issue out a day early. My listlessness wasn't helped by having to turn stuff like this into readable English:

Nowadays, caving is a much a breakaway from the plain-looking nature to be a recreational sport of exploring caves as it is often undertaken solely for the enjoyment or for the physical exercise thought the original exploration or biological science still viewed as important goals for many cavers.

The writing test never prepared me for crap like that. If you want to work for our newspaper you have to take a writing test, in which you have to polish a few sample stories - a couple of features and some two paragraph fillers. When I first did mine it was returned as unsatisfactory and I was told to try again. I don't know what that was all about, given that at the time I was the news editor on a major Australian publication and this kind of editing was just what I had been doing for the last ten years. Maybe it was just a psychological ploy to make new editors feel insignificant. Anyway, I "passed" the test second time round, and here I am.

Yesterday I had to edit [ie rewrite] and polish 20 pages of gobbledegook like that. By the end of the day I was shattered both mentally and physically, and went home to collapse into bed and stay there for 12 hours. Not a word of thanks or praise form any of the Chinese staff.

I think this is a big difference between how editorial offices work here and in Australia. Here, people just come to work, do what they need to do and go home. You don't get any credit for doing a better than average job or for making a special effort. In Sydney, if I'd have put in a day like yesterday we would have got a pat on the back from the editor and probably an invitation out for dinner after the rush was over.

The editorial meetings are the same. In Sydney these would often start off with a discussion of what we'd seen on telly the night before, or the editor's new shoes. And while discussing what was on the agenda we would often go off at a tangent to bitch about someone in particular or to tell a joke. Here it is all very plodding and lacklustre and by-the-book. And surprisingly, there seem to be quite a bit of pettiness and argument over things that in Australia we would settle with flattery and humour. Just now we were discussing whether to do a story on tennis. After the journalist in question mentioned it, the editor just said something like" "No, that's not interesting, our readers won't like that." They then had a five minute bickering session about why an article on the Tennis Open would be worth doing. It all ended on a kind of abrupt , sour note and I got the feeling there was loss of face and resentment all round. I couldn't help thinking of how the same situation would have been handled in Australia. Someone would suggest doing the article with a "How about this .. . wouldn't this be interesting,?" then the editor and other writers would jump in and say: "Well, this angle might be good but we don't want to do this or that ..." - constructive, face-saving criticism, in other words. And even if the idea was rejected, the journalist would be given a pat on the back for coming up with the idea in the first place.

Maybe it's a case of the "grass being greener", or maybe it's just a case of sour grapes. When I suggested we do a feature on radio personalities in the capital I was told this was "not very interesting". Instead, they are going to do a feature on Dental Health week.

When I look at some of the past issues of this mag I see that they used to be lively and full of variety. I don't know what it is about the present set-up that makes a feature on dental health a priority. I get the feeling that I'm reaching a crossroads where I can choose either to "Try Make a Difference" on this publication or just to go with the flow. GIven our pitiful wages and our one year use-by date, I get the feeling I may just opt for the latter.

Monday, September 12, 2005

On yer bike

I have invested in a Flying Pigeon "Fei Ge" bike, and it has really changed my impression of Beijing. Until now the city seemed like a huge, impenetrable sprawl with streets constantly in gridlock. Now with my "two wheels good" mode of transport, the city has suddenly shrunk and become much more accessible. It feels like I can reach almost anywhere in the centre within half an hour. It's like living in Palmers Green [as I once did] and being able to reach the West End or Walthamstow in 30 minutes. The fact that Beijing is as flat as a pancake and the streets are laid out in grids make it really easy to get around. I am slowly filling in the gaps of my local knowledge built from having surfaced from subway stations, so that now I am joining up all the bits like a jigsaw puzzle. I can see how Chaoyangmen leads to Wangfujing, and how Sanlitun connects with Guomao.
There's something almost mesmeric about riding along in the bike lane for what seems like hour after hour, watching the street life unfold around you. One minute you can be on a street corner where they are having an impromptu bird market, then you are passing old men sat out at tables playing chess, and round the corner there will be a whole street of traders with Cyrillic nameplates selling swathes of fur coats to podgy Russian blondes. And you notice the other riders more - especially the parents chatting with their kids on the back seat, or the girlfriends riding side saddle with their boyfriends.
Riding a bike in Beijing is not as hazardous as everyone has made out - I haven't had any collisions or near misses yet, and I get the feeling that as long as you take it easy and don't try to speed around, then you'll probably be OK. The key is to keep pace with everyone else and use them as buffers. Whenever I cross a major intersection I always try ensure that I have someone alongside me, so that if a car does fly out from nowhere, it'll take someone else out first.
The other thing about having a bike is that you can duck off down all the little hutongs at a moment's notice and use them as shortcuts, or just to get away from the noisy traffic for a while. People say the hutongs are disappearing, but there still seem to be plenty left when I bike around. I guess the only real problem with biking anywhere in the hot dusty climate is that when you arrive anywhere your eyes are full of grit and your hair has taken on the texture of a brillo pad.
Yesterday I took a bike ride down to Chaoyangmen, to try get my laptop keyboard fixed. One of the other foreign editors, Simon, tagged along. Simon is from London, and as we sailed down Andingmen Lu he was talking on his mobile to his Chinese girlfriend in cockney-accented Mandarin. Very surreal. Simon has tattoos and looks like a pirate with his shoulder-length hair and ear rings. Wearing a leopardskin top also makes him stand out a bit on the average Beijing street.
As we biked along together I learnt a few things about him:
1. He thinks Beijing women are really fit ["which isn't that difficult when you've been living in Preston"]
2. He used to be a London fireman but didn't approve of them looting stuff from burned-down houses and premises.
3. Has strong left wing/pro-China views.
4. He really misses his toolbox, which took him ten years to build up and is now in storage in England. ["I feel naked without a screwdriver"]
5. Like most expats here, he loves Ikea ["Especially the cafe']
6. He reckons you should only ask women directions in Beijing as they are more likely than men to admit if they don't know the way.

When we eventually reached the computer centre at Bainaohui we parted ways, as I tried to get the Apple dealers to fix my Powerbook. Instead of fixing it, the guy there actually made it worse, but that's another story.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

The Mysterious Mr Song

One of my favourite movies is The Third Man, and I like the scene where Holly Martins is abducted in a fast car by what he thinks are Russian gangsters in Vienna, only to find that he is actually being taken to give a lecture at the British Council on the modern novel. I had a similar experience last night when we went to the North Korean restaurant.
In our office we sometimes see an older guy about the place called Mr Song. No one knows who he actually is or quite what he does. He sometimes edits articles and will come over and ask advice on a complicated bit of syntax. He inevitably knows more than you do about English and it usage. He's a very gentlemanly, scholarly type and speaks flawless English with a clipped British accent and a world-weary air. If you closed your eyes you might think you were talking to an Oxford don. Some of the foreign editors think he writes the main leader articles for the paper, while others say he is some relation to the founder of the paper and is just allowed to hang around to keep him busy.
Well yesterday I had my first real chance to speak to him.
Last night when we went to the North Korean restaurant in Liangmaqiao we had to split taxis. There were four of us, and it ended up three in one taxi [because only one could speak Chinese] and I was left looking for another. Standing at the gates of the office compound trying to flag down a taxi, who should pull up but Mr Song, sitting in the back of a posh black Audi complete with driver. He asked where I was going and when I told him he ushered me to get in.
As we cruised along in air-conditioned comfort he started off the conversation with: "You speak good Chinese ...", making this sound like a statement of fact rather than a compliment. Then he continued: "... but you are Australian?" {As if this were a contradiction]
When I explained that I was British born, he seemed to relax, and put his head back, as if that explained everything.
We then had a bizarre conversation about which nationalities made the best editors.
"We have had some Australian editors before," said Mr Song. "They like to drink a lot. We had one who drank all the time. So we sent him to Hong Kong!"
I didn't quite get the logic of this, but Mr Song seemed to think it was funny.
"Now we have many British editors, and this is better, I think." he said. "The editors from Britain are more stable and they do not complain so much. And they get along well with the Chinese staff. We used to have more Americans but there is often some trouble with them. Americans are...." he thought for a minute, "...They are too arrogant. For them there is always right and wrong, and the American way is always right. They cannot accept that there may be other ways of doing things. And after a while this causes problems with the Chinese staff."
He finished off by pronouncing: "I think in the future we will mostly have British editors. This is an inevitable trend."
We rode in silence for a while and then as we passed the Kempinski Hotel, he suddenly started up again:
"You were a journalist before. What do you think of our newspaper?"
I made a few neutral comments about it being different to those in Australia, and how it was now "more open" than five years ago.
He then surprised me by saying: "It is not good enough. Some of the articles are very low quality. We should publish more different opinions ..."
By now we had arrived at the restaurant. As the car stopped he started saying my name over and over:
"I have seen some of your articles. They are very good. You should write some articles like that for our newspaper. Our Chinese writers are not able to write in this way!"
And with that the door was opened for me and Mr Song gestured goodbye. I was left standing on the kerb as he drove off, wondering what it all meant.
Is Mr Song the local PSB guy or just a harmless old man who thinks the paper needs to loosen up a bit? If he has access to an Audi he must be fairly high in the pecking order at the publishers. And I wondered what he meant by having seen my articles - everyone knows I've been doing some freelance stuff for Australian papers, which has also appeared on the net. Or was he referring to this blog? All very cryptic.

OK yah, xiexie

Originally uploaded by jiulong.
One of the funniest things about working for a Chinese Communist newspaper is discovering how many upper middle class English girls work here. It's like a finishing school for debs. Roedean, Cambridge, Kitzbuhel ... Chaoyang? I don't know if it is the official hiring policy but there are now a serious number of well spoken English gels among the foreign editors. I was talking with a couple of them at Kai the other night and found them to be charming, witty, very attractive - but they make you wonder about what they teach 'em at public schools these days.
One of them was complaining about an article she'd had to edit on Taiwan and the DPP.
"It was so unfair. It was saying the DPP were cold blooded and lots of other nasty things. I knew this newspaper was government run but I didn't expect it to be be so, well, communist ..."
A few cosmopolitans later I think I discovered what really brought them to China. Breaking into TV.
They were all bitching about Laura Kyle, the other well-spoken English woman in Beijing who reads the CCTV9 news. They all wanted her job.
"I mean, what has she got? And did you see what she was wearing last night ...?"
I was just beginning to enjoy their company when they were whisked away by some French guys who were having a private party somewhere. OK, ciao ...

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Nice headline for the PRC

Originally uploaded by jiulong.
For all of you who wanted to see the headline, here it is. Next week I will try push the boundaries a bit further with a headline like Free Tibet or Hu Jintao - How corrupt is he? I shall return to some serious blogging tomorrow when I get my keyboard fixed. Now I'm off out to a North Korean restaurant with the other foreign editors.

Update: The Pyongyang restaurant was great. Bacon wrapped in lettuce and dipped in a kind of satay sauce ... plus waitresses who burst into song to praise their Dear Leader. All this and beers too, for less than ten bucks.
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[My in depth interview: "Do you you like Beijing?" Yes. "Do you miss Pyongyang?" Not much.]
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