Me and My Censor

A reporter's memoir of what it's like to tell the truth about today's China.

LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images
LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images
LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images

My first day of work in Beijing, my boss asked if I knew the "Three Ts."

My first day of work in Beijing, my boss asked if I knew the "Three Ts."

I did not. It was February 2007, and I was a wide-eyed 26 year-old fresh off the plane from New York, struggling to absorb the deluge of strange information that had hit me since arriving.

The Three Ts, he informed me, were the three most taboo topics to avoid in Chinese media — Taiwan, Tibet, and Tiananmen. My boss was Taiwanese himself, and delivered this information with a wry tone of bemusement. He had been doing business here for nearly 30 years, he had said, since China first began opening its economy to the outside world, and had witnessed a lot.

"You’ll hear more about it from our censor," he said, and then, having inserted that tantalizing fragment into my head, sent me off to begin my new job.

For the next two years, I served as an editor, then managing editor, of an English-language business magazine called China International Business. The editorial staff was comprised of, at various times, two to four American and British editors, and two or three Chinese writers and research assistants. Supposedly, we had a print circulation of 45,000, though nobody I talked to had ever heard of us. In theory, there was a website too, but it was perennially under construction and, since the guy in charge of it didn’t actually speak English, never quite readable. We ran briefs on current events; profiled businesses in China; interviewed executives of international companies with a presence in the country, like Crocs and Calvin Klein; and also did long analytical pieces spotlighting industries ranging from coal to lingerie to frozen foods. Our audience was mostly expat businesspeople in China; hence, in addition to being available by subscription, we were distributed in five-star hotels, international schools, and other expat enclaves.

Technically, we were the only officially sanctioned English-language business publication in mainland China. There were a handful of other English-language magazines in town, mostly listings and entertainment mags along the lines of Time Out. These were usually founded by foreigners who’d partnered up with private Chinese companies to secure a license from the General Administration of Press and Publications (GAPP), which oversees print publications in China. Unlike them, we were published not just under the umbrella of the publisher’s private media company, but also in cooperation with the Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOMM). In other words, the government wanted us there.

Like any editor in the United States, I tweaked articles, butted heads with the sales department, and tried to extract interesting quotes out of boring people. Unlike my American counterparts, however, I was offered red envelopes stuffed with cash at press junkets, sometimes discovered footprints on the toilet seats at work, and had to explain to the Chinese assistants more than once that they could not turn in articles copied word for word from existing pieces they found online. I also liaised with our government censor.

Jobs like this are practically a rite of passage for young, aspiring writers in China who also happen to be native English speakers (and who are trying to avoid teaching English, the default job for most Westerners in Asia). Most start out as copyeditors at state-owned papers like China Daily, correcting the English on articles by Chinese reporters, and often making $1500 a month — enough to live comfortably in Beijing in the first decade of the 21st century (and two or three times the amount of native colleagues with decades’ more work experience). I myself was hired as a copyeditor with no prior magazine experience (though I’d worked in book publishing in New York), promoted to editor two months later, then another eight months later found myself running the show as managing editor, at the ripe old age of 28. This was a fairly normal career trajectory in China. Despite the title on my business card, however, I was always technically an "English language consultant" — no foreigners are allowed to direct editorial content in Chinese media. Our censor got pride of place on the masthead, with title of managing editor.

Every legally registered publication in China is subject to review by a censor, sometimes several. Some expat publications have entire teams of censors scouring their otherwise innocuous restaurant reviews and bar write-ups for, depending on one’s opinion of foreigners, accidental or coded allusions to sensitive topics. For example, That’s Shanghai magazine once had to strike the number 64 from a short, unrelated article because their censors believed it might be read as an oblique reference to June 4, 1989, when the Chinese government bloodily suppressed a pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square. Many Chinese-run publications have no censor at all, but their editors are relied upon to know where the line falls — i.e., to self-censor.

Our censor, an employee of MOFCOMM, was a nervous, flighty woman in her forties with long, frizzy hair and a high, childlike voice, whose name was Snow. (Snow requested I only use her English name for this article.) In late September of this year, I learned that Snow left the magazine, enabling me to finally write this story without fear that it would affect her job.

Snow’s name made for much late-night comedy in my office, along the lines of: "God, that article totally got snowplowed," or "Uh-oh, I predict heavy snowfall for this one." I met Snow for the first time during our inaugural editorial meeting at the office: the top two floors of a six-story, spottily heated building with a pool hall in the basement and what appeared to be fourteen-year-old security guards at the door, in central Beijing. Here, just as my boss had promised, Snow elaborated on the Three Ts, relaying an anecdote about a journalist friend of hers. A photo enthusiast, he once ran a picture he’d taken in Taiwan alongside an article, but had failed to notice a small Taiwanese flag in the background. As a result, the entire staff of his newspaper had been immediately fired and the office shut down.

Despite these words of caution, we didn’t take the fact that we had a censor very seriously, at least for my first few months on the job, and evading Snow’s changes became a game of sorts. This was easier back then; the August 2008 Beijing Olympics were a year-and-a-half away, and it behooved China to demonstrate that it was an open country. Besides, Snow was a small presence in our daily work routine. She did not come to our office, and aside from that first encounter, didn’t attend our story meetings. Each month, we emailed her our list of article topics for the upcoming issue. After we had edited those articles, we emailed them to Snow, and she sent them back marked with her changes. She reviewed them again in layout, and, once satisfied, would give the printer the order to start the presses.

Business content is not censored as strictly as other areas in China, since it seems to be understood that greater openness is needed to push the economy forward and it doesn’t necessarily deal with the political issues Chinese rulers seem to find the most sensitive. English-language content isn’t censored as much either, since only a small fraction of the Chinese population reads English. (As foreigners reporting on non-sensitive subjects in English, we could worry much less about the dangers — threats, beatings, jail time — that occasionally befall muckraking Chinese journalists.) And, in the beginning, most of Snow’s edits were minor enough that we didn’t feel compromised. We couldn’t say that a businessperson came back to China from the United States after "Tiananmen," but we could say "June 1989," knowing that our readers knew the significance of the month. We couldn’t say "the Cultural Revolution" but could write "the late 1960s and early 1970s," to allude to then Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong launching his disastrous campaign that sent millions of intellectuals to the countryside. Writing that a company planned to expand into "foreign markets like Taiwan and Korea" was forbidden because it suggested that Taiwan was a separate country from China, but we could say "overseas markets," since, according to Snow, Taiwan literally is over a body of water from the mainland.

The waters around China were always touchy. In May 2007, we ran an article about wind power, and had an artist create a map of China dotted with wind turbines to illustrate it. Snow cautioned that if we were going to depict a map of China, we had to make sure it included Taiwan and various disputed territories, including the now hotly contested small chain of uninhabited islands that China calls the Diaoyu and Japan the Senkakus. "Just put in a couple dots around the bottom, but whatever you do, make sure they don’t get cut off," she said. In lay-out those islands did, indeed, get cut off; but at Snow’s  advice, the designer haphazardly Photoshopped a few stray dots around the bottom of China’s eastern coast. The small gray blobs were not terribly accurate from a cartographer’s standpoint, but apparently they were good enough. Snow was satisfied and the illustration ran without incident.

Some of Snow’s changes arose from the inherent absurdity of having English-language content reviewed by a non-native speaker. We gave an article the subtitle "Mo Money, Mo Problems," and Snow asked if we’d meant "No Money, No Problems." A December issue included the subtitle "’Tis the Season," which Snow corrected to "It’s the Reason."

Once, Snow deleted the word "monster" from a piece that said the Hong Kong stock market had been "boosted by a trend of monster IPOs" from mainland Chinese companies. "I bet the government is trying to downplay these huge IPOs because speculation on the stock market is getting out of control," said our then executive editor, Gwynn Guilford. Later that afternoon, I walked by Guilford’s office and heard her saying into the phone, "No, it’s not monster, like, grrrrr," while she curled her fingers into a claw and pantomimed an angry bear. Then she hung up and said, "We can leave in ‘monster.’"

Many changes were enigmatic. We were told not to use "Manifest Destiny" in a subtitle because, as Snow wrote in her somewhat offbeat English, "this is an anti-government sensitive words group." This provoked a flurry of excited calls from our end, exhorting Snow to tell us more about this "words group" — ideally in the form of a full, emailed list. We had heard that some publications received a weekly fax outlining what topics were taboo, and were dying to see something similar. But she never explained further.

In our December 2007 issue, we had a paragraph saying that the Chinese oil and gas giant PetroChina had been pushing forward aggressively in its overseas acquisitions. Earlier that year it had bought a 67 percent stake in PetroKazakhstan, and it had plans to buy more oil and gas assets in Africa, Northern Europe, and Southeast Asia. Snow wrote, "Better to delete, it is an oral request that the energy sector’s overseas acquisition is not encouraged to report." In other words, we wouldn’t find any overt directives in writing anywhere, but those in the know understood that this subject was touchy.

All of this pointed to the petty human dynamics that underscored the censorship. The things Snow flagged were rarely taboo because of any overt directive from above. More often, it seemed to me that she thought it might offend another government ministry, which would bring retaliation upon her own ministry. Or, if Snow personally didn’t find a statement sensitive, she worried that her boss might, or her boss thought that his boss might. Everyone was guessing where the line fell, taking two steps back from it to be extra safe, and self-censoring accordingly.

Since we never knew when Snow was guessing about what might be off-limits, and when her comments stemmed from real political directives from above, every correction spawned wild conspiracy theories around the water cooler. One month, we ran a short news brief with figures on the number of mainland Chinese tourists that had visited the United States in 2007, and Snow flagged the number for deletion. We wondered what dirt we had unwittingly stumbled upon. Which government bureau oversaw tourism figures? What were they hiding? Finally, I called Snow, and learned that the numbers we had cited were for the number of Chinese tourists worldwide, not just in the United States.

So much for the would-be plot. Chagrined, I had to announce to my colleagues that we’d made a mistake.

We knew we were lucky to have the censor that we did, if we had to have one at all. Snow was patient with our push-backs, and, though she didn’t have to, often went to great lengths to explain the "why" of her changes. When we wanted to run a piece that was somewhat critical of China’s healthcare system, Snow spent days poring through it, typing up lengthy explanations for how we could rearrange the piece to pass muster. The changes were surprisingly minor. She reworded the subtitle "China’s ailing healthcare system — and the government’s plan to fix it" to "The Chinese government’s plan to fix the ailing healthcare system." She replaced pull quotes (excerpts from the stories displayed in larger text to the side of the article), pointing to flaws in the system, like "High medical expenditure is the main cause of poverty in China in 30 percent of cases," with more positive ones that highlighted ways China was working to reform the system – "Reform of the healthcare system has been at the top of the political agenda for some time." But Snow allowed the more critical statements to remain within the body of the article itself.  

She explained that we had to be careful not to offend anyone at the Ministry of Health, but also that nobody at any ministry was likely to ever read the piece. We just had to make sure there was nothing potentially offensive in large print (i.e. the headlines and pull quotes) or in the opening paragraphs that someone important might skim in passing. We made her changes, and ran the piece.

Snow even helped us with our research. When we wanted to write about something she felt was sensitive but doable — for example, a piece suggesting that tourism figures during the Olympics would be lower than expected due to tightened visa restrictions — she provided figures from official state media. "This way," she wrote, it "guarantees we won’t make a mistake — even if we’re wrong, it’s following their error, and we won’t be directly responsible."

Her reactions also provided a reliable marker of the political touchiness of an issue. One article about skyrocketing food prices around the world quoted economists saying that the rising quality of life in China, and the attendant increase in meat consumption, might play a role, because more arable land was being used to grow feed for animals. Snow called me to relate her changes, and grew so angry over that particular line suggesting a link between Chinese meat-eaters and worldwide food prices that she began to shriek, "Are they all vegetarian in the West? No! So many fat people in America, and they dare to say this is China’s responsibility?"

Sometimes, just when we felt this was all a joke and had convinced ourselves that the censor changes were no big deal, something truly dispiriting would happen. A column titled "Why Joint Ventures Fail in China" got axed. The subtitle in a piece that mentioned a foreign company’s failed attempt to buy a stake in a Chinese steelmaker — "Interest from abroad stymied" — was changed to "Interest from abroad still high." Occasionally, Snow would send something back with none of her colorful commentary or explanations, and simply write: "Wrong opinion."

After I became managing editor, though, and without particularly meaning to, I somehow won Snow’s heart. I asked her for the contact info of someone I had assumed was a freelancer; Snow explained he was actually a high-ranking official at the Ministry of Commerce, who’d been contributing as a favor to her. My predecessor, Guilford, I learned, had once double-bylined one of the official’s articles with one of our own reporters, and without thinking about it had listed that reporter’s name first. Snow said her boss and her colleagues reprimanded her, and she had to write a self-criticism as punishment. We’d merely been listing the writers’ names in alphabetical order, but I wrote back apologizing for the misunderstanding.  

Until then we’d almost always communicated in English, because Snow’s English was much better than my Chinese; but now she responded in Chinese saying she knew I hadn’t been involved with that incident. She followed this up with a phone call, congratulating me on my new role. Her voice dropped to a conspiratorial hush and she added, "To tell the truth, I do not think [your predecessor] is a very good editor. I think you are much better, because you are Chinese. You can understand China, and why we must do things the way we do, because of your Chinese blood." 

I was not sure how to take this. The implication to me seemed to be that, because I was of Chinese extraction, I would accept censorship more readily than my (white) predecessor had. Whatever her meaning, from that point onwards, I found myself in the odd position of having acquired an ally who was a censor for the Chinese government.

This was not the relationship I wanted to have with Snow. I believed in free speech. I‘d spent a summer interning at the ACLU. I was beginning to question the morality of my paycheck, of playing any part, no matter how incidental, in a system of which I disapproved. Thinking of her as my adversary allowed me to feel I was fighting the system. But my adversary wanted to be friends.

She started to call more, and email less, about changes, then wanted to chat on the phone. She loved spicy food, Snow told me. Her husband was often away on business trips. I never figured out what he did, but it often seemed to involve playing golf, or wining and dining Japanese clients. She missed her old neighborhood up near where the "Bird’s Nest" Olympic stadium now stood, but had moved to the west side to be closer to her son’s school.

Sometimes, when the issue was running late, I took a cab to deliver the layouts to Snow myself. I’d meet her outside her son’s swimming lessons or his weekend "Olympic math" tutoring, and she would prattle: Her son was taking $22-an-hour drum lessons. She’d gotten a $30 parking ticket the last time she drove, so now they took taxis, which were $5 each way. He always wanted McDonald’s afterwards, so that was another five bucks. She was tempted to halt the lessons, but she had heard that music improved academic performance.

"The world is getting more and more competitive," she would sigh. "It takes so much work just to keep up, to make sure your child will be able to keep up."

In addition to the uptick in phone calls, her emails, too, grew more expansive and personal. She had told me once that we couldn’t put a Chinese flag on the cover (I still don’t understand why), and so I wrote her to ask if we could run a cover image that suggested a flag more abstractly, with yellow stars against a wash of red. She wrote back in Chinese:

Dear Little One,

Stars are definitely not okay either, please please do not take the risk.

I once published, in a newspaper, a picture of a book put out by the German embassy, introducing China and Germany’s investment cooperation. The book’s cover had a big stream on it, half of it the colors of the German flag, half of it red with yellow stars. I decided since it wasn’t a flag it was okay, and sent it to print. Our newspaper office was slapped with a fine of 180,000 yuan [today, around $28,000] and I had to write a self-criticism and take a big salary cut.

Quite a lesson, yes? Sigh — we must remember it well.

Another time, in the fall of 2008, my phone rang and I picked up to find Snow in an excitable mood.

"Hi Snow," I said, trying to sound distant and professional.

"Are you busy?" she asked.

"Well, actually, I am a little…"

"Oh good. I was thinking: December will be the 30th anniversary of ‘Reform and Opening.’ It will be a big deal and there will be many celebrations in the media. Are you planning any articles about this topic? Because, I think, maybe you can interview people about their experiences from 30 years ago. Like me, for example — when I was young, we did not have meat to eat. And we lived in a building with many other families, and we had only had one phone for the whole building. If it rang, someone would answer it and shout your name. In those days, it was always for me. The man who answered the phone would yell, ‘Snow, the phone is for you again!’" She laughed delightedly.

On a few occasions, Snow asked me to lunch, and I always said no. Keeping my distance became easier as the year progressed and my disillusionment increased. Media restrictions began to tighten severely in the wake of pro-Tibet protests that were following the Olympic torch around the globe. China had naïvely been caught off guard by the expressions of anti-Chinese-government sentiment, and had reacted strongly. Visa regulations tightened, and many younger expats who did not meet the new work experience requirements had to leave the country. The June issue of the English-language version of Time Out Beijing was, due to a licensing technicality (it did not have its own separate publishing license but was piggybacked onto the license of their Chinese-language edition), abruptly pulled from the presses, though their license structure had never been an issue before. And the changes at our magazine, which had always seemed generally comprehensible and rooted in logic even when I disagreed with them, veered into the realm of absurdity.

I was told that we could not title a coal piece "Power Failure" because the word "failure" in bold print so close to the Olympics would make people think of the Olympics being a failure. The title "The Agony and the Ecstasy" for a soccer piece was axed because agony was a negative word and we couldn’t have negative words be associated with sports. We couldn’t use the cover image I had picked out for a feature on the rise of chain restaurants, because it was of an empty bowl, and, Snow told me, it would make people think of being hungry and remind them of the Great Famine (a period from 1958 to 1961 when tens of millions of Chinese starved to death, discussion of which is still suppressed). Even our Chinese designers began to roll their eyes when I related this change to them, and set them to work looking for images of bowls overflowing with meat.

Finally, in July 2008, one month before the Olympics, I gave my notice and, knowing I might never see her again, accepted one of Snow’s invitations. She picked me up from my apartment, and drove us across town to her favorite restaurant, Haidilao, a Sichuan hotpot chain. She complained about Beijing’s terrible traffic, which I had somehow thought a censor wouldn’t do, because it constituted criticism of the government.

A car cut her off, and she shook her head angrily, and exclaimed, "Look at this! They won’t let me pass even though they can see I was in front. See, this is how Chinese people are." She asked me if this would happen in the United States. I said yes. "Really?" she replied. "I imagine in the United States everyone obeys the traffic rules. People are not so backwards there. That’s what I hear."

Over lunch, she asked me about my plans. How would I support myself? I said I wanted to try freelance writing. If it didn’t work out, I’d start looking for a new full-time job. I might move back to the United States, or maybe to a new country.

"Ah, you young people," she said. "So much freedom to do what you want. To tell you the truth, I would love to change my job too. But I can’t — I have a family, I’ve been there too long, it’s not the same for us old people."

She leaned forward, and looked intently into my eyes. "Have you ever considered opening your own research firm for foreign companies that want to invest in China? You would be very good at this, because you are Chinese, too. Even though you are born in America, you understand our Chinese thinking. You can be a big important consultant. And then you can hire me so I don’t have to work at my job anymore. I’m serious — think of me if you ever do this someday. You should. And then you can hire me."

She was speaking lightly, and laughing, but she also seemed to mean it, and I suddenly wondered if this was the purpose of our lunch. I found this idea utterly depressing. I was a lost, aimless kid, drifting around China, and yet this older woman could look at me and see the possibility, however tenuous, of a lifeline.

I understood then the mundane nature of all that kept her in place. A job she didn’t like, but worked hard to keep. A system that would never reward her for good work, only punish her for mistakes. And in exchange: Tutors. Traffic. Expensive drumming lessons. They were the same things that kept anyone, anywhere, in place — and it was the very ordinariness of these things that made them intractable.

After lunch, Snow asked me if I’d seen the Olympic stadium yet, and I said I hadn’t, so she turned north to drive by it. A road was blocked off, and a traffic cop in a neon yellow vest waved us towards an alternate route. Snow remarked that with the Olympics imminent, the streets of Beijing resembled the United States, with cops everywhere. "In U.S. movies," she said, "whenever a crime happens, the cops always show up immediately. Is that true? Are they really so fast?" I said that I wasn’t sure whether American cops arrived at crime scenes more quickly than Chinese cops, but that they definitely weren’t as fast as they seemed in movies.

When the Bird’s Nest stadium loomed into view, I murmured "Wow." I had been editing blurbs about the thing for so long, it had never occurred to me that I would be impressed by it in person, but I was.

Snow asked if she could drop me off at the nearest subway stop. I said it was no problem, and as we turned I asked how many siblings her husband had. She had been complaining towards the end of lunch that she and her husband had to support them.

"Twelve, but half of them died. So there are six of them, total."

"I’m sorry to hear that," I said.

"Oh don’t be. It was like that for everyone back then. Because you know, Mao had probably gone crazy, and encouraged everyone to be a ‘hero mother’ by having five kids. They say that’s what caused the famine. But Mao was crazy and…"

She broke off and laughed.

"You see," she said, "we can say this here, just you and me; we just can’t say it in print." Then, suddenly, switching to English, she exclaimed, "That’s China!"  

We had reached the subway stop. I got out, and said goodbye, and then she went to get her son.

Eveline Chao is a freelance writer based in New York City and the author of NIUBI! - The Real Chinese You Were Never Taught in School

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