Six weeks interning in Shanghai showed me a different side to China
Tuesday 03 June 2014
There are many unique, and often inaccurate, stereotypes commonly associated with China. The list includes the fallacy that everyone rides a bike, practises tai chi at regular intervals and drinks copious amounts of green tea. Such stereotypes evoke images of a traditional, fascinating and exotic culture overrun with people - a few of which are based on some truth: bicycles are widely used in the crowded pavements and roads; tai chi is part of the daily routine of a significant minority; and green tea is sold in several interesting variations in popular coffee franchises. Ultimately these stereotypes are harmless.
In the West however more sinister stereotypes of China persist. We are often guilty of assuming that the country’s 1.3 billion citizens live in a police state with uniformed opinions and behaviours, robbed of free speech and the opportunity to add a second child to their family. In fact, the world’s most populated country and second largest economy is rapidly developing, slowly taking steps towards being a more open, less corrupt nation. At the same time Western attitudes towards this eastern superpower are also slowly changing. Having just returned from Shanghai, where I worked for six weeks, I have a fresh perspective on life in one of the world’s most admired, and feared, countries.
I interned at the Global Times, a state-run newspaper. The paper is published in both Mandarin and English and a Shanghai supplement is produced from a centrally located office in Shanghai. The English version is packed with stories on upcoming events and local news – all with a western angle, aimed at the city’s growing ex-pat community.
On my first day working there I was thrown into the deep end, expected to pitch a Shanghai-centred opinion piece at the editorial meeting. You are not spoonfed in China but I was grateful for that. I enjoyed total journalistic freedom - finding, researching, pitching and writing my own stories but it definitely made for some challenging work. Finding stories specific to Shanghai when you’re a stranger in the city can prove troublesome, especially if you’re then expected to comment as well.
Researching many of my stories I found myself learning more about Shanghai, immersing myself in this vibrant, buzzing metropolis. I uncovered many fascinating facets of the city and its inhabitants. Writing about the Shanghai Tower I learned about its so-called "eco-friendly" design and compared that to the city’s infamous air quality. Yes, the work could be frustrating at times: no tasks were given to me and communication with the new, white girl was limited – often frustratingly so. Many of the Chinese reporters seemed reluctant to converse with me. Any efforts I made to pitch an idea outside an editorial meeting proved futile.
To anyone hailing from a free democratic society, the prospect of working in the Chinese media seems unorthodox. An industry bound by censors and legislation, unable to criticise the establishment at the risk of fines or imprisonment. But it’s not as restricted as one might first assume. Certainly, a free press does not exist: China currently has 32 journalists imprisoned for producing material deemed too sensitive for publication. Such offensive material ranges from films produced on Tibet to critiques of state officials. Prior to my trip I had preconceptions about how a Chinese office would be: I expected gruelling deadlines, plenty of rules, some menial tasks handed to me and plenty of censorship. It was nothing like that. It was no more regimented than an office in the UK and Chinese journalists are no more overworked than their British counterparts. If anything, the office had a more relaxed atmosphere than any I have been in Britain - and it was much quieter.
Cultural differences aside, Internet censorship made for difficulties when working. Western news sites would either be blocked intermittently or altogether, hindering some of my research. International social media and all blogs were blocked, and access to my Gmail account was also periodic. Within a few days I had given in and coughed up the fee for a VPN dialler. Upon arriving in the office on my first day I was pleasantly – and perhaps ignorantly - surprised by the high proportion of women working at the paper. It is women who hold the high powered editorial roles and predominantly women who work as reporters. A refreshing sight in a country typically deemed to have a patriarchal structure.
My time in Shanghai was precious. Aside from work I had a busy social life, part of a group of many other interns. It was an international, diverse group and we often filled our evenings eating out and our days off site seeing and experiencing the nightlife. I explored Shanghai fully, scratching beneath its surface. It may be a massive global city filled with luxury designer stores, busy high end restaurants and premium office blocks; but among the imposing, gleaming skyscrapers and futuristic elevated walkways are temples, gardens and tree-lined streets overflowing with traditional houses, charming little cafes and fruit and vegetable shops which spill out onto the pavements and roads. Shanghai is a microcosm for modern-day China. Its rampant consumerism blends effortlessly alongside its ancient, imperialistic Buddhist roots and current communist structure. But that’s what makes it so diverse, so unique and so fascinating – China does not fit into one political or social box, it fits into many and is so many things. It is a society of contradictions.
In Shanghai I learned that some stereotypes are a misconception. In the UK we are exposed to a minority of Chinese nationals – those who enjoy wealth and privilege, an elite few, high achievers who experience the best education possible. The UK applauds the Chinese as rigorous and polite; glorifies their state education system and tries to emulate their economic success. On the mainland most Chinese reject the image of themselves as "task machines" and many Chinese parents are frustrated by the memorization style of teaching in schools. From my limited experience, the Chinese work no harder than the average British person, and are not any more polite!
Living and working in Shanghai was a unique experience, one I would recommend to any Westerner to undertake if possible. Just be prepared to quash any preconceptions of China before you depart.
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