Attention new writers on China, and writers new to China, too. No doubt the Middle Kingdom is so dazzlingly different, so esoterically exotic, so alliteratively awesome, that you’ll want to write about it. Here, then, is a cheat sheet that should enable you to write an article for the local media after you have visited for a week.
China is “on the rise”, so talk about the good things you have seen, like the new buildings in the center of Beijing or Shanghai, and the new airports and subways, rather the bad things you have seen, like the toilets and the lack of drinkable tap water. Thomas Friedman’s New York Times columns are a great exemplar here: come in, rhapsodize about new infrastructure, leave. The new transport infrastructure you can equate to a country “on the march” – that sounds great, sort of Marxist or something. Don’t mention the vast differences between urban and rural life, or between the different provinces. Most people won’t know about them anyway. If you need to talk about agricultural areas, mention “paddy fields”. Don’t mention the fact that China is the world’s largest producer of potatoes. Keep to that narrative!
China is “a big country”. But if you want to describe people you met, keep to a few familiar types. The retired man hanging out in a hutong will be perceived to have some sage-like wisdom. It’s a shame he won’t have a beard, but no matter. A female university graduate, ideally pictured using with her iPhone outside Starbucks, will represent the young cosmopolitan urban professionals. A middle-aged male middle-manager would round things out nicely – but these guys drive rather than taking the subway, so they might be hard to find. So go with a taxi driver, they always know what’s happening. Don’t ask them what they think about Didi. And don’t start confusing readers with less familiar types, like the rich bored housewife (might seem too Western) or the diaosi guys (what’s up with them anyway?).
In your descriptions of ordinary people, they should be “striving”, “busy”, or “on the move”. Don’t write about the epidemic of childhood obesity. Don’t mention the retired guys sitting outside the apartment complex playing cards all day, and how they sing songs of praise every Sunday to the Communist Party for selling off housing stock and making them fabulously wealthy. Write about students studying, or about workers working, because that’s all that Chinese people are known to do – they just work so damn hard compared to the idle west. This helps to play up on fears of China having the largest economy. Don’t describe shop staff who refuse to help or threatening chengguan.
China is known to produce great businesspeople and negotiators. (You can add something about the Chinese game “Go” here, if you like). Where better to describe this than Beijing’s Silk Market? Here you can perfectly describe how you got a great deal on a knock-off Gucci handbag, just two-thirds the price of the real thing. Here too you can meet and describe how many foreigners come to China. Why are there so few locals there? (But that’s a question for another day). You can also talk about the scams you fell for: the teahouse scam, the art-exhibition scam. Advanced writers (especially on business), talk about business etiquette, like how to receive a business card or how to comport yourself during a banquet. Ignore the fact that Chinese businesses look to profit first and foremost, and that customers reading your book won’t learn much about how there are fresh fish to be feasted upon.
Chinese may be “developing fast”, but is known to “lack innovation”. You can describe Baidu as a “Google knock-off”, WeChat as comparable to WhatsApp, and Weibo as “Twitter-like”. Don’t mention the new services these products offer, from translation to ticket-purchasing. If you talk about Chinese industries, keep to the low-cost manufacturers, and make them sound as dreadful as possible. Ignore the fact that most workers there were happy to escape their agricultural jobs. Don’t write about high-tech companies like Lenovo or Tencent, who are in the vanguard of Chinese innovation. They just confuse things.
China has a “rapidly growing middle class”, so feel free to talk about the “new consumer class”, and the developing “domestic demand”. Write about all those “glittering malls” and hotels, and the “luxury” restaurants. Don’t mention how empty most of them are, unless you are writing about the ghost towns, or the fact that domestic consumption is still remarkably low by international standards. You can mention these things if you want to be a China bear, always predicting collapse and chaos, but be warned that you might end up forever forecasting apocalyptic turmoil, with China still stubbornly growing at a decent clip.
Finally, don’t write about you know what, or – well, you know what.