How to write a China article

(I first wrote this in 2007 for Arguably, it was my most successful ever article. It was reposted in quite a few places, was translated into German, got featured in some mag, and even got linked to on Shanghaiist. Most of that seems to have completely disappeared now. There was even one person at the time who claimed I copied this off a Kaiser Kuo article. Pfffft, as if. There are better places to plagiarise from than that. The article still seems to hold as true today as it did back then. If you want to use this template for Japan just replace any instance of “Dragon” with “Samurai”. I’ve updated a few dated references too.)

“My name is Shaun Rein and I fully endorse this guide on how to write a China article.”

You’ve just arrived in your 5-Star room at the Shanghai Hilton and unpacked your fancy new Apple laptop.  As you pull the top off the mini bottle of Hennessey XO, you finally turn to your instructions from the editor back home.  2000 words by Monday about the important issues facing China today.  Easy.

But two days have passed and you are still staring at a blank screen.  You’re experiencing a stretch of writer’s block as long as the Great Wall of China and the deadline is hanging over your head like the proverbial Sword of Damocles.  It seems that more research than flicking through a copy of Wild Swans in the airport is needed after all.

Sound familiar?  Then you, my journalist friend, need the Meursault’s fully patented guide on how to write that Pulitzer Prize winning China article.  Simply follow the steps below, and you’ll have your name splashed across the front page of every newspaper in Britain faster than a convicted child molester.


Each and every good China article begins with a carefully considered and well thought-out title.  “Cor, what a scorcher” may be good enough for a tabloid article about heatwaves in April, but if you’re going to impress your fellow tofu-eating, goatee bearded colleagues at the Grauniad office (not to mention that hot feminist who writes angry columns about women’s issues), then you’re going to need to think up a snappy headline.  Thankfully, titles for China articles follow a strict guideline, and a catchy media soundbite can be created in seconds thanks to Meursault’s (TM) China-headline-o’matic.  Just choose one of the words from column A, and match it with a random word from column B.

The Dragon
The East
1.3 Billion People
Red Star

Does Dallas

The only exception to this rule is when writing an article about the clash of western commercialism against old-style Communist practices, in which case the title “Mickey Maos” must be used.

Interview a taxi driver

You may well be isolated from the unwashed masses of China in your luxury Shanghai hotel room, but for God’s sake, you don’t want the brainless idiots who read your newspaper to know that.  A good journalist never loses his common touch: after all, the whole point of your article is to pretend that you care about “the Chinese people themselves” and how unfairly the system treats them.  Bob Geldof has made a career about appearing to care for African people, and hopefully you can do the same for Chinese people, earn loads of money, and buy a big fuck-off house in the south of France.  There’s no way you actually want to meet any of the Chinese people though.  It’s OK to let some of them clean your hotel room, but any more contact than that and you risk catching tuberculosis.  So you might as well make use of the only Chinese person you ever come into contact with – the taxi driver – and pass off his opinions as your own.

Interest rate predictions for the coming quarter?  Ask a taxi driver.
Improving Sino-Japanese relations in the post-Koizumi era?  Ask a taxi driver.
Financial aid to developing African economies?  Ask a taxi driver, but leave out his politically incorrect opinions regarding “those dark folk”.  The students in the Harvard reading room don’t like reading about that kind of thing.

If you can’t find a taxi driver whose political views match those of your readers, then just make one up.  Call him Mr. Wang, inform your public that he only earns a hundred dollars a month, and they’ll believe any old crap you write.  “I’ve been following the latest series of Game of Thrones with interest,” says Beijing cab driver Mr. Wang (43), “though Ramsay Bolton’s recent behaviour has been quite reprimandable.  Still, it’s hard to follow all this TV gossip when I only earn five yuan a year.”


Nobody really understands China.  Especially you, because you hadn’t even heard of the country until last week when you failed to be chosen as a New York correspondent.  So get around the whole problem of writing difficult conclusions by just presenting a series of contrasting images.  Here are some easy ones to start you off:

  • A statue of Mao with an advert for Coca-Cola in the background.
  • An elderly Chinese man, with a long wispy beard, sat on a bench next to a fibreglass model of Ronald McDonald.
  • A sign saying “Promote Environmental Awareness” stuck in a field full of nuclear waste and dead babies.
  • A girl with a mobile phone walking past a tramp.
  • A description of a fashionable Shanghai socialite who hangs out at Starbucks and likes KFC, quickly followed in the next paragraph by a description of a former prostitute who works 5 million hours a day in a condom factory for just two grains of rice a year.

A comment on “guanxi”

It is absolutely essential that you insert at least one line about this mysterious Chinese force called “guanxi” – pronounced “GWAAN-SHE” that dominates Asian business. Nobody in the West can even comprehend what “guanxi” is, let alone utilise it, so it is a huge obstacle to foreign businesses. Don’t forget to say that there is no English word equivalent for “guanxi”, except maybe “relationships”. Or “connections”. Or any of the other twenty words that can mean “guanxi”.

Vague Conclusion

When you’ve finished writing your pointless and vague summary of obvious contrasts, follow it up with an equally pointless and vague conclusion.  Write how some things point to x, whilst some other things point to y.  “The future, it seems, is still uncertain for China” is always a good one to sign off with, especially because other countries are all governed by psychic fortune tellers who know everything that will happen for the next 200 years.

If, for whatever reason, you want to try something different (perhaps this is not your first time to write a China article.  It might be your second, say), highlight the enormous population of China, and then focus on a single individual.  That way you’ve covered all the bases and it looks like you care.  You could even try and combine both conclusion styles if you’re feeling cocky.  For example:

“It seems that the future is looking bright for the 1.3 billion people who make up the world’s most populous nation.  But for Li Hui – who is still working at the condom factory for just two grains of rice a year – that future is still unclear.”

Follow the above guidelines and you can’t go wrong.  Before long, you’ll be printing the words “CHINA EXPERT” on your business card and you’ll have your own book about the Chinese political landscape listed under the Lonely Planet Guide to China’s list of recommended reads.

Perhaps you could even call the book “China Awakes”.

“My name is John Naisbitt and I categorically deny ever using a how-to guide on how to write a China article.”

Don’t believe me on the titles? Take a look at these…


If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy my book Party Members – a dark comic fantasy that exposes the corrupt underbelly of modern China.

5 thoughts on “How to write a China article

  1. Pingback: Hao Hao Report
  2. Enjoyed reading this almost a decade ago and I enjoyed reading it again, gomer. Amazingly, it seems the j-school interns are still following your advice. Old tropes die hard I suppose. Other than the GoT reference update was there anything else you changed from the original?


  3. Glad to hear from an old reader. I added in the guanxi section which was something I wish I had put into it the first time but forgot to. Other than that, you’re right, sad to say very little needed updating!


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