The Long Transition
Bureaucracy is why it took over a year to get to China.
The tedium that accompanies any country’s work visa rules was compounded by China’s stereotypically-communist manner of getting things done. The fact that I was to be working for a government organization didn’t speed things up. If anything, it only slowed things down further.
“After an offer is accepted, the visa and approval process takes approximately four months. We have to stress that final approval of a new hire comes from the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television (SAPPRFT). For these reasons, we encourage candidates not to resign from their current positions until the final visa paperwork has been sent.” This was in the formal job offer letter that CCTV sent to me, 12 months before the process was completed.
The uncertainty affected, with intensifying sharpness, fundamental life decisions. The possibility of scrapping the whole mission was always in the air. Should I plan to lease my loft again? Should I save money for an international move, or use it improve life here? Should I work toward some ambition at work, or should I take it easy, knowing I’ll be uprooting my life soon? There was also my business, Ganglecom. Should I strive to pick up new clients, at the risk of disappointing them when I abandon the work to head overseas?
I also had to maintain a real willingness to walk away from this China job if something about it started raising red flags (as it were).
I went about my life in this unsure state while maintaining the assumption that I would in fact be leaving, maybe in a month, maybe in half a year. My job was arranged through my business, technically making me a contractor. I was able to use this to keep from getting in too deep. When managers pressed me to come aboard permanently in a higher role, I delayed giving any firm answers by saying I had other clients who had projects that needed finishing first, and this could take a few months.
Meanwhile, everything I did, everywhere I went — moments at home, working on my car, biking, kayaking around Detroit — was done with the awareness that it could be my last chance to enjoy these things for a while. The period of downtown loft living was coming to a close. Even if I did come back after only a year or two, it wouldn’t be the same.
Bad Faith, Midstream
Halfway through the drawn-out process, now well after the December starting date we’d originally planned, my contact in Beijing said I had to take another editing and writing test.
“Recently based on the new added requirement, all the new copy editor candidate should attend the formal copy editing test. So the General News producer Mr.– will contact you soon for doing copy editing test.
And thanks very much for your kindly understanding.”
The message came flying out of the sky. The testing part of the process had been completed at the very start, over six months earlier, and to their satisfaction. Retesting had the potential to trigger a restart, further delaying the move by months. Not to mention the possibility it could torpedo the whole thing if I didn’t pass. I wasn’t so much concerned about my editing ability as about the added injection of chance into the process. You never know what kind of mind is on the other end of these things — the whims, peculiarities, pet peeves, and petty arbitrariness that might shoot you down.
Just before this, I’d finally confessed to my patron at my job that I might be moving to China. Some key milestones in the visa process had been reached, giving me the confidence to talk about my big plan. Now, if the retesting failed, I’d look foolish. I’d have to go back and rewind all that China talk. Flaky. Chasing fantasies of moving to faraway lands when I should be stepping up to manage serious business at hand.
But I didn’t raise a fuss with my China contacts. The possibility of getting rejected was probably slim. Just a formality to appease managers, I thought.
The test entailed editing two news scripts to be read by someone for broadcast. I had an hour from our agreed-upon time of receipt to edit them and email them back.
There didn’t appear to be much to do. The test came with no guidance as to the depth of editing to be done, an essential starting point in any editing project. But the scripts were already pretty clean, and broadcast stories are laughably short compared to the newspaper stories I was used to. Also, the subject of the pieces was Iran. There I was, an American trying to get a job for Chinese state media by manipulating content about Iran. Maybe that is the test, I thought — to see if I’d try to inject American bias into it. I thought it best to use a light touch.
That was the wrong approach. A few days after the test, my contact said they’d be sending me yet another test. This news was delivered offhandedly in a message about a separate paperwork matter.
“I have received your document and we will re-organise another test for you in the near future, will contact you when everything is ready.”
“I took a test Sunday. Will there will be another one?” I asked.
“Yes, as the test result is not much satisfied with producer, we would organise another test soon. Please kindly well prepared and all the best. … Mr.– had some comments on your last test, which shows you’ve adjust very little on the writers’ script. As our news writer are almost Chinese people with the language limitation, so we suggest making more adjustment on the copy-editing part.”
I noted that I’d spent over $1,000 on this mission of ours so far. Administrative fees, trips to the Chinese consulate in Chicago, handing over my university degree and passport for periods of time, skipping holiday family time, avoiding disruptions to my current job. “With all these late changes to the process, I’m beginning to question the wisdom of my agreeing to the offer,” I said.*
“Thanks again for your kindly understanding, cooperation and patience,” was the reply.
They sent me what was now the third test. This one was more intensive, besides editing several pieces, I had to write a full story on the Syrian war as well as a shorter one. I had three hours to do it. I got it done with about ten minutes to spare.
A few days later, China’s president toured the offices of major state media outlets, including the one I was testing for. He was putting greater pressure on state media, news reports said. That might explain the scrambling on their end. People were watching their backs, double-checking everything.
“The new added test is to meet the standard of our current production line in the new headquarter,” my contact had said in our back-and-forth. “Meanwhile, the HR is asked to help maintain the output quality at the similar level with our global production centers.”
More than two weeks passed before they gave me their opinion on the third test.
“Good news! You passed the exam and the producer and final script editor all agree with that. What a relief! To be honest, I have been worrying and struggling during past days and will start your process soon,” said my contact, who’d previously given no hint of being concerned about any of this.
By now it was mid-March. This retesting business had begun on February 2. I’d first interviewed for the job in early June. Our target for my arrival to Beijing had shifted from December to springtime, and now to July or August.
* Indeed, the poor communication demonstrated here would prove to be a sign of things to come. It was not an exception to how the organization operates, but rather a predictable characteristic of it.
This post is part of the Moving to China series, documenting my transition to mainland China in 2015 and 2016, when government-operated broadcaster CCTV flew me over to work as a news editor at its Beijing headquarters. The channel is now known as China Global Television Network. It is a soft-power endeavor of the country’s Communist Party-ruled government.