“Me and My Censor”

Eveline Chao, one of my favorite Twitterers, has a great piece in FP about the realities of censorship in China. You should really read the whole thing.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Go read it!

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Filed under censorship, China, journalism

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