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.