I sold out to China

You know that censorship has won its war on truth-telling when journalists happily police themselves

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Journalists and editors from Ming Pao hold up front pages of their newspaper during a protest against violence in Hong Kong in February 2014. Ming Pao is noted for it's critical reporting. Photo by Bobby Yip/Reuters

Journalists and editors from Ming Pao hold up front pages of their newspaper during a protest against violence in Hong Kong in February 2014. Ming Pao is noted for it's critical reporting. Photo by Bobby Yip/Reuters

Leslie Anne Jones is a writer and editor. She spent four years in Asia, mostly working at That’s Shanghai and That’s Beijing, and is now based in Austin, Texas, where she writes about technology and culture.

I majored in journalism in California and interned at four daily newspapers in the US. I had watched Shattered Glass (2003), the chronicle of The New Republic journalist Stephen Glass’s elaborate fabrications in the 1990s, in two college classes: each viewing was followed up with an ethics discussion. One instructor was a former chief political correspondent for The New York Times, another had won a Pulitzer Prize for investigation. I was nothing if not roundly educated in my trade.

Yet three years after I graduated, I sold out to the Chinese government. Cheaply. I didn’t realise the ink was dry on the bill of sale until well after I’d collected my booby prize: a free 10-day trip to the country’s northwest corner, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Don’t let the prefix ‘autonomous’ mislead, the place is anything but. Actually, ‘free 10-day trip’ is also a bit of a misnomer. It was more a whirlwind frog-march through China’s far-west development. The trip was arranged by China Intercontinental Press, a subsidiary of China’s State Council Information Office, henceforth referred to as ‘my censors’.

I worked at a monthly magazine in Shanghai, or, in the parlance of the city’s international community, an expat rag. My employer was a private businessman, but the magazine’s title was licensed from the Chinese government. As with other domestic publications, everything we wrote was reviewed before print. Since we were in Shanghai and our censors were in Beijing, this meant that every month we sent up our issue, cover to cover. Then they cut, edited and volleyed it back to an editorial assistant. She used the Chinese honorific ‘Teacher So-and-so’ when referring to the censors individually, as they were purportedly all highly educated in western culture.

There were obvious things we couldn’t write about: Taiwan, Tibet, Tiananmen. Other requirements were subtler. Always Chinese mainland, never mainland China. We weren’t allowed even to write ‘gay’ in a listing for a gay bar, but one competitor had a regular LGBT column (different censors, different rules). This inconsistency works in the system’s favour. Lack of definitive guidelines induces self-censorship. Our censors also exhibited periodic paranoia: once we had to modify a fact box that read: ‘64 Chinese people made the Forbes Billionaires List’, because they thought the design of the 6 and the 4 was a coded reference to June 4th, the anniversary of the military crackdown on the pro-democracy demonstrations of 1989 – unmentionable of unmentionables.

Despite all of this, I took my work seriously. I reported on the urban wealth gap, the lives of migrant workers, and modern-day family discord caused by Mao-era policies. I would get nervous when the pages went to Beijing, but I never ran into major problems until I agreed to go to Xinjiang. Somebody had to go: our publisher had made a kind of government-to-government coverage agreement, never fully explained to me, but I figured I could tap out 800 words of travel fluff.

I flew into Urumqi. In ancient times, the city was a hub for Silk Road traders, but today it’s full of blocky high-rises, indistinguishable from other Chinese cities but for a few mosque domes dispersed amid the concrete monotony. It’s also the nation’s most ethnically segregated urban centre. The predominantly Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uighurs are Xinjiang’s largest ethnic group. Han, Turkic and Mongol empires all took turns ruling Xinjiang over its 2,500 years of inhabited history, and for a hot minute (1944-49), before millions of Han Chinese were moved in by the Mao regime to build up the region, part of the region was a Soviet-backed state, Second East Turkestan.

For the most part, the trip was your basic propaganda orchestration – long, boring and wholly lacking in persuasive nuance

Today, Xinjiang has heavy security, necessary for unrest and terrorist attacks, the government says. Its native Uighurs are culturally oppressed and they earn less in the private sector than Han Chinese, though their homeland is rich in oil, gas and minerals. Xinjiang usually makes big news only when violence happens, as when the rail station mass stabbings that took place in Kunming in southern China this March were linked to Uyghur separatists.

The first order of business in Urumqi was a press conference on provincial economics. We were around two dozen journalists, all Chinese nationals except for me and a pair of Japanese editors from another expat rag, and we packed into a grid of chairs in a hotel ballroom while a jowly provincial flack read us a 12-page press release verbatim. At the end, the moderator called for questions. No hands went up.

The next day we flew north to Yili Prefecture, which borders Kazakhstan. I asked the young press officer travelling with us if he had any Uyghur friends and if so was he able to talk to them about the 2009 riots – a bloody touchstone in modern provincial history when 197 people killed and more than 1,500 arrested. Yes, of course, he replied. He told me Uighurs are like black people in the US, that increasingly they have better education and social status; it’s just the ones who lack opportunity that cause trouble.

For the most part, the trip was your basic propaganda orchestration – long, boring and wholly lacking in persuasive nuance. We spent the days rolling from yeast factory to cabbage-drying plant to bathroom-fixture wholesale mall, all in a tin tube that retained the sour must of our collective morning breath. Xinjiang is beautiful. I spent plenty of time with my camera pressed to the bus window, trying to capture the glacial valleys, mountains and grassy planes specked with nomads’ yurts. Though Uighurs hold the plurality, Xinjiang is a confluence of many cultures. Yet everyone who spoke to us in an official capacity was Han Chinese with one exception: an ethnically Kazakh city press officer. At various junctures – a date farm, a low-income housing development – Uighurs and Kazakhs were paraded out to reiterate the party line: Yes, these programmes are to my benefit.

Most of our observations of the local people was during dance performances. Teenage dancers accompanied almost every dinner. They were always costumed and sometimes they were accompanied by thumping techno baselines and smoke machines. Every night, people allowed themselves to get a little bit drunker, until finally it was time to go home.

Back in Shanghai, I decided to recount the trip plainly, thinking my censors couldn’t object. It was their government that had devised the itinerary: even then the trip had casually manifested the region’s social stratification and ethnic tension. How could I be faulted for merely reporting what the propaganda showed me?

Theoretically, I could have sneaked something provocative into print. Before the edition went to the printer, I could have asked one of our page designers to switch the text. I knew they didn’t read the articles when they were working. But I would have lost my job, and it might have cost my boss his publishing licence. A lot of people might have lost jobs. I decided that nothing I could have possibly written would justify the human cost. So, the system works.

As it happens China does occasionally throw journalists into jail, and so the implicit cost calculation of defying the censors is able to keep most people in check. For all the opacity of censorship, it’s easy to figure the price of disobeying.

Writers like to rail against censorship, but they’re less keen on discussing what it’s like to work under it. When they do, shame, loneliness and psychic harm are common themes. When you build a life of letters, it’s painful to admit that your work has served the repressive status quo rather than the cause of enlightenment. The Greek law professor George Mangakis, who was imprisoned in 1969 for opposing his country’s military junta, called censorship ‘a diabolical device for annihilating your own soul’. While the Yugoslavian novelist Danilo Kis spoke of self-censorship as the insidious and inalienable counterpart to censorship; everywhere it exists, he wrote, is ‘a dangerous manipulation of the mind, with grave consequences for literature and the human spirit’. The cost to the individual is high, and though the full effect wrought on public discourse is hard to calculate, you can be sure it is not confined to domestic media or, in the case of myself and others, within Chinese borders.

China is full of foreign journalists who don’t want to jeopardise their visas or whose employers muzzle them

‘My decision not to write that story – at least not yet – proves that I am complicit in China’s control games. After all, there are plenty of other subjects to pursue, right?’ So wrote Dorina Elliott, global affairs editor for Condé Nast Traveler, in the online magazine ChinaFile last November about her hesitation to cover certain topics. Three China-based journalists left Bloomberg after it spiked a major corruption story last fall. In December, Emily Parker wrote a piece for The New Republic interviewing foreign journalists, some named, others anonymous, about the perpetual worry of not having one’s Chinese visa renewed. The precedent is there. At least two Western journalists have been denied visas to work in China since 2012.

For decades, political theorists believed that authoritarian regimes were inherently transitory, and would eventually crumble under their own lack of legitimacy. However, in the past decade, the idea of authoritarian resilience gained traction. China’s ruling party studied the failings of other post-Communist states and adapted its processes and institutions accordingly.

The long-term prospects of authoritarian resilience are still debated. But in the decades since the 1989 democracy riots, China has been able to maintain control and grow into the world’s second-largest economy. Now, the country is full of foreign journalists who don’t want to jeopardise their visas or whose employers muzzle them, and representatives of international tech companies that cede to censorship in order to access the China market. American moviemakers often amend films that won’t even show in China – World War Z (2013), the 2012 Red Dawn remake – to avoid offending, and to protect future international box office numbers. Many foreigners have been pulled into the orbit of a non-democratic regime that isn’t going away anytime soon.

I wrote what I thought I could get away with. I wrote about the businessman from the eastern (richer) Jiangsu Province who pulled me into a spin among our Uyghur dancers and told me ‘Xinjiang is happy, but Jiangsu is happier!’ I detailed one of our tour stops at a wholesale outlet where middle-aged women in camo jackets sat behind a table topped with clubs and riot shields (the anniversary of the 2009 riots was drawing near, and this was the rather unconvincing beefed-up security). And I included the fact I was on a government trip to promote industrial development.

Our censors were aghast. The page file came back marked up with giant swaths of yellow-highlighted text. This surprised none of my colleagues, but it put me out of sorts. I hammered out changes and the draft was emailed back to them. Not good enough. ‘What the fuck do they want me to do?’ I vented to the unlucky editorial assistant tasked with interfacing. I can remember the look on her face. My emotions were making her uncomfortable.

What makes writing under censorship so traumatic? In his collected essays on censorship, Giving Offense (1996), J M Coetzee draws on Freud’s take on the creative process: creative work calls on us to harness the disparate workings of our inner self to build something new. As such, it is a deeply private process. And so in Coetzee’s words: ‘Writing under censorship is like being intimate with someone who does not love you, with whom you want no intimacy, but who presses himself upon you.’

You either present the unencumbered truth, or your writing becomes more mortar patched to the walls that staunch debate

It seems silly now that I thought my story might run as I envisioned. Anyone who has worked with Chinese censorship long enough knows there’s an implicit contract. You don’t acknowledge your experience was manufactured, and you don’t report on the truth that slipped through the PR machine. Censorship doesn’t just police a finite set of unmentionables, the point is to control ideas.

It’s hard to say what the cumulative effect of Chinese influence on foreign media might be. Today’s media environment is like an expert work of Photoshop: perhaps all the contents are still in the picture, but the edges are softened, the lighting adjusted, and who can say how much the distortion affects our interpretation?

But whatever censorship’s effects, complying with it is not a form of neutrality. It’s complicity: it is a tacit way of saying that we are OK with a little bit less freedom, somewhat fewer ideas. Orhan Pamuk, who was prosecuted in 2005, accused of ‘insulting Turkishness’, wrote in Burn This Book (2009), Toni Morrison’s anthology on censorship for PEN, that ‘to change one’s words and package them in a way that will be acceptable to everyone in a repressed culture is a bit like smuggling forbidden goods through customs… it is shaming and degrading.’ In Step Across This Line (2002), Salman Rushdie reached for a similar metaphor: ‘Good writing assumes a frontierless nation. Writers who serve frontiers have become border guards.’ You either present the unencumbered truth, or your writing becomes more mortar patched to the walls that staunch debate. Both writers, of course, chose truth-telling instead, for all the victimising it can potentially draw down.

People once thought that the internet would be a unilateral force of democratisation, freeing words and thoughts to drift across borders, but, thus far, countries such as China have done a fine job of managing the thing. It’s a specious notion that free trade will singularly usher in political reform, when in fact China’s economic might has buoyed censorship beyond its national borders. At the same time, no one should expect heroism from for-profit enterprises; and I have a hard time begrudging people who make their livelihood in China, including foreign journalists, for proceeding with caution. But we should be aware of the world we’re constructing. At the very least we should raise consciousness about what we’re doing – and where we are compromising – we cannot expect the blog-and-microblog muddle to compensate when professional writers and their institutions hedge.

Read more essays on human rights and politics & government

Comments

  • Hermit

    Hey Leslie, first off, great article. I really enjoyed reading it. Throughout history, there have been oppressive governments in different parts of the world, from whom people have yearned and fought for freedom, so this isn't new. When India was under the oppressive British rule, printing presses became the outlet through which people expressed themselves. Anything that was anti-government was printed on the sly and circulated surreptitiously. Presses that openly published anything that the government didn't like were suppressed through means legal and otherwise. The point is that the internet is playing the same part in China today, and will be the target of suppression. However, where professional writers and their employers will not dare, bloggers and micro-bloggers will, and will become the outlet for the suppressed. And while China's authoritarian regime may seem to have acquired somewhat of a permanency, it's worth remembering that the oppressive British rule over India lasted close to 200 years! And while the mass of people may accept the status quo and go along, there will always be disquiet in remote, invisible corners of the country, geographically as well as spiritually, which are only going to grow and eventually force a change. And while that is happening, it is journalists like you who will keep the fire burning!

    • SmilingAhab

      Authoritarian dictatorship in China is over 6,000 years old. Being told they are insignificant, interchangeable, and the property of the State is all the Chinese have ever known. It's going to take more than muckrakers and microblogs to finally destroy the CCP.

  • Tychy

    This is a great article - one can never be reminded enough not to take Western freedom of speech for granted.

  • Trimegistus

    Now try writing honestly about the Obama Administration, sex issues, or homosexuality in the U.S. and see how the censors react.

    • SmilingAhab

      I don't understand what you're trying to imply. There are no censors in the USA beyond a blacklist on nudity and expletives. Major news outlets regularly publish the sins of the administration and violently oppositional viewpoints on homosexuality. Having a president in power that you don't like doesn't mean that there's a vast network of censors always putting the Perfection of the Party forward. take your blinders off.

  • Jingjun Liu

    truth telling? come on, the journalist always FABRICATE countless "fact" in order to...(silence). An perfect example is the southern weekly. Nobody would agree the censorship by any sense is a good mean, but if you criticize it without knowing the basic legal framework in China, in which define clearly what is applicable for the freedom of press, nothing can satisfy you until the "evil" government is dethroned. People here talking about censorship in China is much like, fictionally, a man in Kenya who scorn on the U.S government during the civil right movement.

    • SS

      What are you even talking about? The "legal framework" in China is completely arbitrary commanded by the whim of the Party.

      • Eric Young

        yeah right, totally unlike us, our legal framework is rather carefully calculated and commanded by whim from both party - even though they represent same group of rich guys - even though almost 80% us people disapprove their jobs

    • SmilingAhab

      Spoken like a true CCP censor. What is applicable to the press is nothing, because imposing any limits on the freedom of the press is willfully using the media to exterminate oppositional viewpoints. The CCP is evil, and we will not rest until the CCP is destroyed and the Kuomintang restored. Take that back to your party apparatchiks.

  • Paul

    The author admits she works for a Chinese-government publication. I've got no problem with that--whatever it takes, man. But a) don't be aghast, simply aghast, that you're censored. And b) don't compare yourself with the hundreds of true professional foreign correspondents working in China. Some might censor themselves to get their visa renewed, but you're talking about very rare cases, usually involving people holding stories until after their visas are renewed in December. Most foreign correspondents do not do this and write tough stories, sometimes at personal risk. The recent expulsions and threats against them are proof of this.
    At the end of the day, you are a Chinese government employee. They are not. Therefore juxtaposing your self-made "crisis" onto their dilemmas is outrageously arrogant, false, and misleading.

    • Leslie

      Hi Paul. Obviously, my experience is not the same as that of foreign correspondents, or tech companies or moviemakers. That goes without saying. If you haven't read Emily Parker's piece in the New Republic though, I recommend it. There's direct government censorship (which I was subject to) and then there's censorship driven by economics, and even if it's only infrequent instances where the latter affects our "true professional foreign correspondents," I think the issue is still worthy of concern.

      • G

        IMHO, Paul is being excessively harsh.

        Though, I have to raise a point about your statement that "no one should expect" heroism from profit-making enterprises. Lowered expectations are the drainage ditch to oblivion, and selfishness has become the new form of devotional worship at the altars of the Market and the Mall.

        If you want to see what censorship American-style looks like, try getting on Wired.com (not wired.co.uk, which has more intelligent content) and criticising rampant consumerism. Sometimes it's done by way of those who have vested interests in whatever the latest press-release 'journalism' is hawking, who downvote critical comments until they disappear. Sometimes it's overt, by the editors, as was the case a month or two ago when a major backlash by readers against some new and nasty Google-thing (surprising, that) prompted the editors to shut down the comments entirely after mere hours. This happened twice in one day.

        But if that's not enough, try creating a television advert to the effect that rampant consumerism is a key cause of the climate crisis and we should all consume less. Then try getting it on the air. I venture to bet that it will be impossible to reach anything larger than the occasional local audience, and that the national networks will all find excuses aka 'reasons' to refuse to carry it.

        Censorship at the point of a bayonet or the threat of a prison sentence is easy to spot and easy to raise up a movement against. Censorship at the point of a paycheck that may be denied, or the threat of being comprehensively and conclusively ignored, is the censorship that is most difficult to detect and most difficult to overthrow.

    • G

      Tell us how you've done better at maintaining your own principles in the face of pressure to do otherwise.

  • scribblerlarry

    Obviously the author's prime employer is the USA (via the NSA?) This is full of mis-information and skewed reporting. It's the sort of propaganda effort that is true enough that one can't actually say any particular thing is a lie, yet skewed enough so that the overall impression is completely false. I won't compare the subtle and blatant forms of censorship that prevails in the US to what happens in China (or anywhere else) because I don't think it relevant. But I still wonder whether there's such a great difference between government censorship in China and the unmentioned censorship of reporters in the western countries when it comes to reporting on terrible things done by corporations who happen to be big advertisers "who cannot be offended" lest the newspaper lose their advertising account.

    • Onymous

      scribberlarry makes strong accusations but provides no facts or evidence, saying he won't make comparisons because they're not relevant, and wonders "whether there's such a great difference between government censorship in China and unmentioned censorship ... in the western coutnries". Let me tell you, friend: there's a world of difference.

    • SmilingAhab

      Yes, there is a very big difference - in China there are censorship laws - to publish something, you have to send it to a person who tells you what you can and cannot say and think. While there is soft censorship, be it by morals or market share, aside from the increasingly less powerful and relevant FCC television and radio laws (which are a simple blacklist, opposed to China's whitelist policy) there is no law requiring what must be published and what must be thought. That difference spawns two different worlds of ramifications.

      Democracy Now and The young Turks and RT and Stormfront and Eugenics Today and White is Right can say anything they want and critcise corporate and government power all day long, all they need concern themselves with is a small market share. They have not been required by the U.S. Government that they are not allowed to speak, nor have they been told how they are supposed to skew their analyses to encourage certain lines of thought.

      That difference is fundamental, and it is irresponsible of you to conflate the two.

      • G

        First of all, the threat of loss of one's paycheck is, if anything, a more effective motivator of compliance than overt censorship or the threat of prison.

        The writer who suffers censorship or imprisonment becomes an instant hero. But one who suffers 'mere' unemployment is seen as a 'loser' and a 'complainer' who 'should have known better.'

        Second, the fact that vicious racists can spew on the internet is highly useful for two other reasons, one good and the other not-so-good.

        The good thing is that such spewage is an excellent source of intel for law enforcement and defence agencies concerned with preventing and prosecuting violent crimes and terrorist acts.

        The not-so-good thing is that online crankery can be pointed at by the economic powers-that-be to demonstrate that 'there really isn't any censorship,' even as the mainstream media are effectively censored by their corporate overlords.

  • Onymous

    The concept of resilient authoritarianism has begun to gain traction, says the author. Finally, it seems, some foreign observers are beginning to consider alternatives to the prejudices they have been using unsuccessfully to understand China's governance. The observers' next step should be to do the unthinkable: read Chinese history, and I don't mean simply since 1949, or 911 or 1840. You have to read back to China's Han dynasty, contemporary with late republican and early imperial Rome. That's "unthinkable" because Americans assume that the world was utterly re-invented in 1776. To understand China's governance, just imagine that the Pope had the largest army in Europe since 450 AD when the last Roman emperor's rule ended. China has been doing that for 2,000 years; it's called "unity of teaching and administration" 政教合一. It's a deeply ingrained reflexive habit and it's not going to change any time soon enough to be worth our waiting for. Start facing reality, folks!! What you see now is what you're going to be getting from China, permanently. They don't know how to do it any other way.

  • G

    _This_ is where the censorship becomes implicit and insidious:

    "At the same time, no one should expect heroism from for-profit enterprises..."

    No one

    should

    expect.

    Interesting wording, that.

    • Mickey_disqus

      Surely one of the defining characteristics of heroism is that it is unexpected.

  • Vlad79500

    I find it funny to hear it. I can not add a comment on Youtube even . I was banned literally topics such as World War II , Stalin and those who made ​​a revolution in Russia their crimes - Zionists . Of those who created the Gulag . Stalin was not snovatelem . Banned me beautiful - I see my posts , but no one else can see them . They are not visible from other browsers and computers , which I wanted to check . Re-register with the change ip and registration data - nothing has changed. I created a new account , but the comments are not visible. And global censor criticize China ? This is ridiculous

  • Freddie_deBoer

    Or you could work in the Western media, where you would also be engaged in a propaganda effort, just a less explicit one. Anyone who thinks that journalism is ever a noble pursuit of truth devoid of governmental and nationalistic influence is deluded.

  • http://exaequali.blogspot.com/ Dan Gilles

    "Ming Pao is noted for it's [it is] critical reporting"? Come on guys. No proofreaders for the captions?