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.