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Discoveries at the crossroads

By Erik Nilsson | China Daily | Updated: 2021-05-18 08:40
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British media professional Michael Harrold was invited to the military parade in Beijing's Tian'anmen Square marking the 70th anniversary of New China's founding in 2019.[Photo provided to China Daily]

British media professional Michael Harrold's almost accidental China journey started in 1994. He has since witnessed the country's transformation over the decades and looks forward to experiencing its future, Erik Nilsson reports.

Michael Harrold's China journey has been anything but typical. It began in 1994 with a stint in the country as a stopover on his way home after spending seven years as the first Briton to live and work in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

He decided to enjoy a few days with friends in Beijing before heading home after working as an "English-language adviser" in Pyongyang, editing English translations of the writings of, and speeches by, the country's then leader, Kim Il-sung, and his successor, Kim Jong-il.

During his visit to Beijing, he dropped off his CV with the Foreign Experts Administration at the Friendship Hotel in Beijing before hopping a plane back to the United Kingdom.

"When it came time to leave (the DPRK), I thought to myself, 'Well, I'm going to need another job'," he recalls.

"And I also thought it might be a good idea to use China as a sort of steppingstone, professionally and psychologically, on my way back to the outside world from the isolation I'd experienced in the DPRK."

China's Xinhua News Agency contacted him about a month later and arranged for him to do an interview and take a copy-editing test in London.

They later offered him a one-year contract.

"The problem was, I'd been working on the international desk, and I didn't particularly enjoy that," he says.

"I've always found that copy editing in a foreign country is a wonderful way of learning about it. You read texts and articles in the course of your work that you wouldn't normally bother with and even study them to some extent. But working for the international desk, I was learning more about banana production in Colombia than I was about anything to do with China."

So, after his contract with Xinhua ran out, he applied to China Central Television.

"Remember, in those days, television was the trendy medium where it was exciting to work," he says.

"I found I enjoyed the work at CCTV. And I also found I was enjoying the Beijing lifestyle."

He says he had little trouble adapting to China after so many years in the DPRK, where his only contact with the rest of the world was BBC radio.

"Life in Beijing in those days was quite exciting. There was always the possibility of a bit of adventure. The city was changing fast, and there weren't that many foreigners around, so you had the sense that you were doing something new and interesting."

He met his Polish wife, who's a China specialist, during this time.

They planned to stay until they were expecting their first child, after which they went to Poland for four years before returning to Beijing with two boys, and Harrold returned to CCTV.

The media professional agrees that copy editors are "unsung heroes" of newsrooms.

"This is particularly so in China, because it's my strong belief that copy editors here, if they're doing their job properly, must do far more than simply correcting grammar and checking headlines, and doing a few superficial style improvements," he says.

"In China, I believe copy editors are the real cross-cultural communicators. Often, writers and translators struggle not only with the English language but also with the thought processes-the logic, if you will-needed to express themselves effectively to a foreign audience."

And China ultimately recognized his efforts, especially when he won the Chinese Government Friendship Award, the highest honor the country bestows on foreigners for their contributions to the country's social and economic development, in 2014.

"Of course, I'm very proud and happy to have received it," he says.

"I don't know how much my copy-editing ability contributed to the decision to award it. But I like to think that in some way, somehow, my efforts and commitment over a long period were recognized.

"Bear in mind, when I first started working in China, copy editing was the only job foreign nationals did in the Chinese media, apart from maybe writing the occasional article for China Daily or a magazine. Certainly, at CCTV, you wouldn't see a foreign face on the screen like we do now."

He says it's difficult to describe the changes he has seen over the decades since not only China but also the world has changed.

"In the mid-1990s, we didn't have the internet or mobile phones. So, life was very different, anyway, especially for those of us who work in the media. I remember that after my first year at CCTV, I was presented with a complete set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica-an old edition-30 or 40 volumes. And that was my go-to source of information and research for my work of copy editing scripts," he recalls.

"But when you talk about the changes that have overtaken China, you can't ignore the infrastructure. Where I live, the Friendship Hotel, just outside was a narrow tree-lined lane in the 1990s, with a small open-air market across the road. Today, it's a major traffic highway with an office tower and shopping center beside it."

He describes himself as a "big fan "of China's high-speed trains.

"They're not only fast but also reliable, comfortable and convenient," he says.

"We've discovered that we can get up on a Saturday morning, catch the subway to the mainline railway station and be in Qingdao (Shandong province) for lunch!"

One of his regrets is that his daily work doesn't afford many travel opportunities.

"In fact, I do regret how relatively little of China I've actually seen," he says.

"That said, I'm quite proud that in recent years I've been on a number of very interesting government-sponsored trips to attend conferences on local economic development."

He has also been invited to such major events in Beijing as the military parades in Tian'anmen Square marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the 70th anniversary of New China's founding.

And he's particularly happy to have joined two trips to the Tibet autonomous region and Guizhou province.

"Initially, I was a little embarrassed about speaking at such events, where most of the other speakers were real experts in their fields," he admits.

"But as I said, as a copy editor, in my case, working on documentary and feature programs covering a whole range of issues associated with China, you learn an awful lot. And thanks to a certain amount of general research and a review of programs I'd worked on, I think I was able to make a useful contribution in the brief talks I gave."

He plans to explore more of China during the upcoming holidays since COVID-19 has restricted international travel. Shaanxi's provincial capital, Xi'an, currently tops his wish list.

The 59-year-old also hopes to finally receive his green card this year.

"China seems very well set on its course," he says.

"I have no doubt that the two centennial goals will be met, and that will be a remarkable achievement. It's something ordinary Chinese people can be excited about."

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