She explained that we had to be careful not to offend anyone at the Ministry of Health, but also that nobody at any ministry was likely to ever read the piece. We just had to make sure there was nothing potentially offensive in large print (i.e. the headlines and pull quotes) or in the opening paragraphs that someone important might skim in passing. We made her changes, and ran the piece.
Snow even helped us with our research. When we wanted to write about something she felt was sensitive but doable -- for example, a piece suggesting that tourism figures during the Olympics would be lower than expected due to tightened visa restrictions -- she provided figures from official state media. "This way," she wrote, it "guarantees we won't make a mistake -- even if we're wrong, it's following their error, and we won't be directly responsible."
Her reactions also provided a reliable marker of the political touchiness of an issue. One article about skyrocketing food prices around the world quoted economists saying that the rising quality of life in China, and the attendant increase in meat consumption, might play a role, because more arable land was being used to grow feed for animals. Snow called me to relate her changes, and grew so angry over that particular line suggesting a link between Chinese meat-eaters and worldwide food prices that she began to shriek, "Are they all vegetarian in the West? No! So many fat people in America, and they dare to say this is China's responsibility?"
Sometimes, just when we felt this was all a joke and had convinced ourselves that the censor changes were no big deal, something truly dispiriting would happen. A column titled "Why Joint Ventures Fail in China" got axed. The subtitle in a piece that mentioned a foreign company's failed attempt to buy a stake in a Chinese steelmaker -- "Interest from abroad stymied" -- was changed to "Interest from abroad still high." Occasionally, Snow would send something back with none of her colorful commentary or explanations, and simply write: "Wrong opinion."
After I became managing editor, though, and without particularly meaning to, I somehow won Snow's heart. I asked her for the contact info of someone I had assumed was a freelancer; Snow explained he was actually a high-ranking official at the Ministry of Commerce, who'd been contributing as a favor to her. My predecessor, Guilford, I learned, had once double-bylined one of the official's articles with one of our own reporters, and without thinking about it had listed that reporter's name first. Snow said her boss and her colleagues reprimanded her, and she had to write a self-criticism as punishment. We'd merely been listing the writers' names in alphabetical order, but I wrote back apologizing for the misunderstanding.
Until then we'd almost always communicated in English, because Snow's English was much better than my Chinese; but now she responded in Chinese saying she knew I hadn't been involved with that incident. She followed this up with a phone call, congratulating me on my new role. Her voice dropped to a conspiratorial hush and she added, "To tell the truth, I do not think [your predecessor] is a very good editor. I think you are much better, because you are Chinese. You can understand China, and why we must do things the way we do, because of your Chinese blood."
I was not sure how to take this. The implication to me seemed to be that, because I was of Chinese extraction, I would accept censorship more readily than my (white) predecessor had. Whatever her meaning, from that point onwards, I found myself in the odd position of having acquired an ally who was a censor for the Chinese government.
This was not the relationship I wanted to have with Snow. I believed in free speech. I‘d spent a summer interning at the ACLU. I was beginning to question the morality of my paycheck, of playing any part, no matter how incidental, in a system of which I disapproved. Thinking of her as my adversary allowed me to feel I was fighting the system. But my adversary wanted to be friends.
She started to call more, and email less, about changes, then wanted to chat on the phone. She loved spicy food, Snow told me. Her husband was often away on business trips. I never figured out what he did, but it often seemed to involve playing golf, or wining and dining Japanese clients. She missed her old neighborhood up near where the "Bird's Nest" Olympic stadium now stood, but had moved to the west side to be closer to her son's school.
Sometimes, when the issue was running late, I took a cab to deliver the layouts to Snow myself. I'd meet her outside her son's swimming lessons or his weekend "Olympic math" tutoring, and she would prattle: Her son was taking $22-an-hour drum lessons. She'd gotten a $30 parking ticket the last time she drove, so now they took taxis, which were $5 each way. He always wanted McDonald's afterwards, so that was another five bucks. She was tempted to halt the lessons, but she had heard that music improved academic performance.
"The world is getting more and more competitive," she would sigh. "It takes so much work just to keep up, to make sure your child will be able to keep up."