I sold out to China | Aeon

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


I sold out to China

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

by Leslie Anne Jones + BIO

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

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.

Human rights and justicePolitics and governmentWork

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