Feature

Coming to America

China wants to buy its way onto your TV screen. Will it work? 

Last November, Michelle Makori, a business reporter formerly of Bloomberg News, joined a small group of seasoned Western television journalists for a whirlwind tour of China. The trip, arranged by China Central Television (CCTV), the world's largest broadcaster, culminated in a visit to the network's two headquarters: on the quiet, far west side of Beijing, a drab campus that sits in the shadow of a giant space needle, and, in the frenzied Central Business District, the new digs -- a twisted pretzel of steel and glass dreamed up by Rem Koolhaas's architecture firm, an engineering marvel that manages to look both muscular and terribly fragile.

Makori and her soon-to-be colleagues had come to China to learn about CCTV America from their new employers, who had plucked them from other networks to develop another peculiar headquarters: a roughly 100-person bureau in the center of Washington, D.C., producing a slick news channel aimed at delivering China-centric news to a U.S. audience. "China has a place in the world economy, so it's only befitting that China has a place in the global media platform," a senior CCTV executive told them, according to Makori. "The reason you people are before us is because we want to be recognized as a legitimate, objective journalistic force," he continued. "The idea is for this to be not a Chinese mouthpiece, not a Chinese propaganda tool, but a global channel produced with a Chinese flair.'"

Nearly a year later, that vision is coming into focus, and it offers a curious indication of China's search for soft power. Despite the promise of wider editorial latitude, CCTV America's coverage of China is largely scrubbed of controversy and upbeat in tone, with a heavy emphasis on business and cultural stories in places where Beijing hopes to gain influence. Reporting on topics sensitive to Beijing, like unrest in Tibetan regions of China or the Tiananmen Square Massacre is off limits. Coverage of scandals involving disgraced Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai and dissident legal activist Chen Guangcheng -- topics that dominated U.S. and European headlines over the summer -- were confined to reports that echoed official government statements. (CCTV America broadcast a stern-faced anchor in Beijing reading the statement "China has called on the United States to apologize over the issue of a Chinese citizen entering the U.S. embassy here in Beijing in late April," after Chen escaped to the U.S. embassy there.)

"Foreign audiences expect to hear stories about China from Chinese media, and CCTV has nothing to say about the two most important stories of the year?" asked Michael Anti, a Chinese blogger and free speech advocate. "Why would an American audience want to listen?"

Since the U.S. bureau began broadcasting in February, CCTV's fresh cast of reporters and producers have been struggling to answer that question. Based out of a sparkling new office in Washington, the service comprises a block of news on CCTV News, the network's recently-revamped 24/7 English-language channel, and covers a range of U.S. and international stories with a cast of 60 reporters, producers, and technicians who have experience at established news organizations like CNN, CBS, and the BBC. Long news pieces, Western accents, slick graphics, live stand-ups in foreign locales, and prominent guests (the likes of Thomas Friedman and Tom Brokaw have appeared on a weekend evening talk show called The Heat), emanate a feel of credibility that has long been absent in CCTV's dull, starchy news coverage. "They were saying ‘we want you to be doing breaking news and investigative pieces' and this was the first time a lot of the senior people in China had heard this," Barbara Dury, a former 60 Minutes producer who now runs CCTV's Sunday newsmagazine program Americas Now, said of initial discussions with top CCTV officials. "And they were asking, 'how's this all going to play out?'"

In a turbulent and uphill battle for the world's hearts and minds, and in an effort to stem what it sees as anti-China coverage in the Western media, Beijing's global television gambit -- part of a multi-billion dollar propaganda push by the Chinese government -- is its most ambitious yet. And CCTV America is one of the main beneficiaries of Beijing's largesse. With heavy emphasis on coverage of under-reported places in Latin America and Africa, the network aims to be what some at CCTV call "China's CNN." But it takes its biggest cues from Al Jazeera, the state-funded upstart from Qatar that, despite distribution challenges, has won many supporters in the United States.

"CCTV's strategy is to find niches where other people have let down the global TV audience in the English sphere," said Jim Laurie, a two-decade veteran of ABC who has consulted for new broadcast ventures around the world, and who is helping CCTV develop its American service. From the new U.S. headquarters on New York Avenue, less than a mile from the White House, Laurie and a team of producers and editors, as well as three Chinese managers who have relocated from Beijing, oversee 16 bureaus in North and South America, supplementing hundreds of Chinese and African reporters working at offices in Africa, Europe, and Asia. On another floor, some 40 Chinese journalists and technicians prepare reports for the domestic service.

In one corner of the bustling, glassy newsroom, a giant central desk is surrounded by a phalanx of screens carrying CNN, Fox, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera, and CCTV's other news channels. Seen together, CCTV's broadcast looked buttoned-up and serious next to CNN's unceasing parade of graphics and heavy emphasis on pop culture. (And yet CCTV America surprised The Atlantic's national correspondent Jim Fallows, who spent three years living in China and estimated he's watched "thousands" of hours of CCTV, as he channel surfed. Compared with CNN, "I've generally heard a lot more, and in a lot more detail and less tendentiously and cutesily, from, gasp, CCTV America," he wrote on his blog in April.)

Currently, the bureau produces seven hours of English-language content per week split across three shows, but plans to grow to over 20 hours by next spring, and to add over a dozen more producers and correspondents. "The mentality is expand, expand, expand" said Dury. Half of the service's new coverage will emphasize business, Laurie said, "because the Chinese believe that the business of China is business."

Thanks to government investment and growing revenues from big advertisers in China like Procter and Gamble and Coca-Cola, CCTV's own business is booming. The network now boasts international channels in five languages and claims a total global audience of about 125 million. In January, the company opened a studio in Nairobi, Kenya, and has plans to increase the size of its overseas staff dramatically by 2016. New production centers in Europe, Asia-Pacific, and the Middle East are scheduled to open by the end of 2015. The eventual idea, Makori explained, is to rely on a continuous flow of reports from outposts around the world, "a global 24-hour news operation -- we come to America during its relevant hours, go to Kenya, and China."

Beyond CCTV, China's news media reach now extends from mobile phones in Nairobi to newsstands in London to the radio dial in Boston, where WILD-AM, formerly home to the city's "home for classic soul and R&B," now hosts the state-owned broadcaster China Radio International. Cut-rate prices on syndicated articles and news footage have made Chinese outlets a popular source for media organizations in developing nations. CCTV has also formed partnerships with Western media organizations, inking syndication deals with Reuters, the Associated Press, and NBC.

Even as China deals with a decline in exports and a softening economy, the global economic tumult has also given Beijing a new opening to lucrative resource-for-development deals in Africa and Latin America, and boosted its confidence in promoting a "China model" of development. The same holds true in the media industry. With budgets shrinking and bureaus shutting among major news outlets, the tumult has left room for new entrants. CCTV America claims to have more television correspondents in Africa and Latin America than either Al Jazeera, CNN, or the BBC, and is one of the only major services to boast of a bureau in Havana (one October story by former BBC correspondent Michael Voss even examined Cuba's "democratically questionable" upcoming elections). "Global TV news competition has only gotten stiffer over the past 10 years," says Dave Marash, Al Jazeera English's first American anchor, and an ABC veteran. "It's broken the mold of Western dominance of news media, and who gets to define 'current affairs.'"

The rise of state-funded English-language television outlets from places like France, Iran, and Russia has made the State Department anxious, and led a frustrated Hillary Clinton in March of 2011 to praise Al Jazeera for its "real news around the clock instead of a million commercials," while lamenting the de-funding of Voice of America. "CCTV already has a tremendous influence on Africa and certain parts of the Middle East, too," says media scholar Ying Zhu and author of Two Billion Eyes, a book-length investigation of the network published in October 2012. "It's building its empire in regions where Western media are having trouble."

In 2011, two years after President Hu Jintao announced a $7 billion plan for China to "go out" into the world, a shake-up at CCTV landed Hu Zhanfan at the top of the media empire's hierarchy. The former editor of Beijing-based intellectual newspaper Guangming Daily, CCTV head Hu had cautioned journalists against placing the truth above Party loyalty, reminding them that news must always reflect "our party and country's political stance."

Even as reforms meant to loosen state control over the media industry began in 2009, CCTV was not among the companies chosen for reorganization. Right now, weeks away from a once-in-a-decade leadership transition on Nov. 15, thinking outside of the box is not encouraged, said political scientist Joseph Nye. "There are some people in the system who clearly get it. But right now is not the time to stick their heads above the fox hole."

While a near-monopoly on advertising in China earns CCTV over $2 billion in revenues each year, CCTV is still funded by the government, which still exercises editorial control, just as it has since its launch, as Beijing Television, in 1958. "They've got the mechanics down to a ‘T,'" says David Shambaugh, director of George Washington University's China Policy Program. "But the substance is another story. You have Western faces with unstilted English reading off teleprompters. The key question is, what's on the teleprompter?"

* * *

For an hour each weekday at 9pm Eastern time, a program called Biz Asia America -- anchored by Makori and Philip Yin, both veterans of Bloomberg News -- features top national and international stories. Aside from business and political news in Asia and the Americas, the service includes reports from correspondents in cities across Europe and the Middle East, delivering dispatches on stories like Spain's growing reliance on Chinese trade, Syrian refugees seeking shelter in Turkey, and volunteer medical centers in Greece.

The day begins with a morning pitch meeting, where the evening's prospective stories are discussed. Nothing is off limits, but editorial decisions ultimately fall with Chinese news managers, led by Director General Ma Jing, who have relocated from Beijing. (Ma Jing and all Chinese staff contacted declined to be interviewed for this story.) "There's vigorous debate about what stories will be covered on that day," said Laurie. "It's a process you see in every newsroom, wherever you are. But when there's a lack of decision, then the managing editor who's Chinese will step in."

The roughly 10,000 people that work at CCTV around the world produce over 20 channels, from sports to entertainment to news, all intended to serve the network's ultimate mandate: promote the values of the Communist Party. Still, Laurie believes that CCTV's newest foreign broadcasts have arrived at a critical juncture for China, amidst an embryonic debate about further loosening foreign media from the restrictions that dictate domestic broadcasts. "The people that I have learned to know since 2007," he said, "have been bright, sometimes courageous, young journalists who, just like journalists in Europe and America, want to do good journalism, want to push the envelope, want to be responsible people."

"Our operation has to be guided in the end by the limits that Beijing would allow," said Laurie, who speaks in the tidy sentences of a seasoned television correspondent. "There's no getting around that." Still, Laurie likes to urge skeptics to stay tuned. The idea with CCTV America, he said, was "to do broadcasts that would be able to push the envelope in ways that weren't possible before on China's domestic television."

Laurie's relationship with CCTV is in many ways as complex and puzzling as the media conglomerate itself. While he began working with the company in 2007, his first encounter with CCTV was in the late 1970s, on a black-and-white television across the border in Hong Kong. As a young reporter for ABC News when China was still in the thrall of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, Laurie and his colleagues would gather over bottles of beer and study CCTV's 7:00 p.m. domestic news broadcast for clues to the current ranking of Communist officials. "We'd take a stopwatch and measure how many seconds each leader had [on screen]," he said, referring to a longstanding practice on CCTV of allotting screen time to officials according to their standing in the Party. The more airtime officials receive the more in favor they're seen to be. The young journalists would then trek out to the border between Hong Kong and China and look longingly across. "I remember thinking," said Laurie, "‘shit, why can't I be in there?'"

A few years after winning a Peabody Award for his reporting for NBC in Vietnam in 1975, Laurie landed in Beijing as one of the city's first Western correspondents in decades. In 1989, when students began gathering in Tiananmen Square, ABC sent Laurie, who was then chief of its Moscow bureau, back to Beijing to cover the protests.

In the late morning hours of June 5, 1989, after witnessing soldiers shoot at dozens of civilians as they fled for safety in and around Tiananmen Square, Laurie and a producer turned down a side street. In the crowd they spotted a tall man in a sport coat named Xiao Bin, frantically ranting about what he had witnessed and overheard from others. "The bastards killed thousands!" said the man, a factory worker from the northern city of Dalian, when they interviewed him. "Tanks ran over people. Crushing them." While no official death tally exists, estimates of the dead, including soldiers, now range from the hundreds to the thousands.

As Chinese officials rushed to cover up the events of the previous night, Laurie and his colleague managed to send their footage to Hong Kong for transmission by satellite to ABC's studios in New York. But somehow, someone in Beijing was watching.

"The Chinese -- and its unclear to me this day how they actually did it -- intercepted the outgoing signal," said Laurie. The unencrypted signal from Hong Kong had been hijacked. Around the time that ABC's audiences in New York listened to Xiao Bin's testimony, so did 200 million Chinese viewers of CCTV, with a subtitle underneath: "This man is wanted," it read. "'He is a rumor-monger and counter revolutionary. Please turn him in to your nearest Security Bureau office.'"

A few days later, Xiao was turned in, and in a public hearing also broadcast on CCTV, accused of "hooliganism" and forced to apologize for spreading "rumors." He was sentenced to 10 years in a labor camp.

Laurie was horrified. "The Xiao Bin story is probably the most traumatic journalistic event in my life," he said. "Very rarely in a career as a journalist do you, in effect, send someone to prison. The story is very complicated, and with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, you can always say ‘that could have been prevented if you had done A, B, and C.' But in the context of the day after the Tiananmen massacre, it was almost unavoidable, in a way."

Laurie returned to Moscow to witness the end of the Soviet Union, and in 1994 reported on South Africa's democratic transition under Nelson Mandela, earning more plaudits along the way. But the memory of Xiao Bin lingered. In 1997, he returned to Beijing, and learned that Xiao had been released after five years. "He was living quietly, but I can't say happily, back in his hometown of Dalian." Through a friend, Laurie sent a few hundred dollars. "Once you go through the Chinese prison system, your life is pretty messed up."

Laurie, who taught journalism at Hong Kong University from 2005 to 2011, acknowledges the irony of his consulting for the network that once turned his reporting against an innocent man. But, now 65, he points out, mustering a chuckle, that the current group of CCTV America's Chinese editors "were all four years old in 1989." And given his experience, he sees his role as nudging the network in a more open direction, an approach he said some elements at CCTV have tried to embrace. "There are limitations, and they're constantly trying to find ways they can work around those limitations. They absorb some ideas [from me], adopt some and not adopt others."

* * *

Despite the challenges, a tough economy with dwindling prospects for television journalists can make the attraction of a job at a place like CCTV hard to resist. Western staff at CCTV like Laurie and Makori have been lured by the promise of highly competitive salaries, bigger responsibilities, and ample resources for travel and production. And it's a chance to be on the ground floor of China's first big foray into Western media.

"China is the emerging/emerged superpower, so it was a no-brainer for me," Makori explained after a taping of her show in April at the NASDAQ site in Times Square. A few blocks away, the square's tallest billboard was cycling through a bucolic slideshow of Chinese landscapes -- an advertisement for Xinhua, the state-owned wire service that's another beneficiary of Beijing's media push.

"It's like getting on the ground floor of Facebook or Google. You already know that China's going to be a huge player," she said. "It's exciting, it's innovative. China's obviously pegged to be one of the global leaders, if not the global leader. So for me as a journalist to develop expertise in China, that's not a bad career move."

Makori told me that even though Chinese editors in Washington and Beijing vetted all stories, censorship was not an explicit policy, and said she was surprised that her reporting on more sensitive issues, like trade disputes, hadn't been a problem.

"Honestly, a part of me thought that these would be taboo topics, but on the contrary, we highlight them," said Makori, in her light South African accent. "We really try to have a balanced view of both sides, but we make sure to also show the Chinese side of the story." Asked if there were omissions, she said that editorial freedom was greater at CCTV than at a previous employer, SABC, South Africa's state broadcaster. "I can tell you that CCTV, in my experience, has not been controlling at all from an editorial point of view, from a content point of view -- certainly not more so than any other news channel that I've worked at."

Nina Donaghy, who left her job as a reporter at the BBC to work as the network's Washington correspondent, insisted that her coverage was not done "in coordination" with Beijing. "Otherwise I wouldn't be here, frankly. With my kind of background, I wouldn't."

Censorship isn't the network's only challenge. Distribution remains a hurdle. While CCTV already has greater reach in the United States than Al Jazeera, finding the channel on your television can be difficult, and the network hasn't generated much buzz among viewers or critics. Like some other foreign broadcasters in the United States, there are no public ratings for CCTV America. Its clunky, often poorly translated website occasionally descends into accidental comedy ("Egypt's Mubarak in comma, but 'not clinically dead'" [sic]), and its live stream is often broken. It was only after Barbara Dury's lobbying, she said, that CCTV agreed in June to launch its first channel on YouTube -- a service, she noted with a chuckle, that's banned in China.

Laurie is hoping to solve CCTV's distribution problem in the United States by getting the channel into hotel rooms, a tactic that helped CNN gained traction among business travelers during the 1990s. For now, the hopes of CCTV America's journalists are pinned on emulating the success of that upstart from Qatar. "I remember when Al Jazeera started, people called it 'the terror network,''' said Walter. "But now, years later, they're producing really quality stuff that's being recognized. That's what I hope for CCTV. I think it will just get better."

Still, CCTV's Western employees are taking their new jobs in stride. Donaghy complained that the CCTV label can be an annoying liability. "You get some comments. Running from, 'I'm sure you're paid a fortune!' to 'Do you speak Chinese?'" When The Heat host Mike Walter, a former anchor at the CBS affiliate in Washington, interviewed for his CCTV job, the station's chief Ma began by reading him a newspaper report skeptical of the new network. "The argument was, it's basically going to be a puppet for the Chinese government, basically a propaganda instrument, and she said, 'what do you think of that?'" recounted Walter. "I said, ‘obviously it was a concern of mine. I don't want me working for CCTV to change the circuitry in my brain.'"

"Personally, I think their mission is to learn as much as they can," said Donaghy. "And to open up, and to look to the United States to see how to run an international cable network. They're very open. It's very early days yet."

Being on the ground floor also means the chance to do good reporting on topics that can't offend government sensibilities -- and, perhaps, on topics that might. "The wall is always shifting," said Walter, whose TV anchor affability seems to belie an eagerness to probe some boundaries. "It's always good to bump up against a wall and see how strong it is, and whether there's some softness. I think we are going to chart new territories."

With broader distribution, the network may have a chance to woo audiences in Latin America and Africa, where television reporting has dwindled in recent years. To make inroads in the United States, CCTV will continue to focus on business stories, coupled with a greater emphasis on cultural documentaries about Chinese history, culture, and nature -- programming that projects a "cute" image of the country, says Ying, the media scholar. As for its news content, "CCTV won't change until the government changes."

Marash, Al Jazeera English's first American anchor, cautioned against writing off the network just yet. If it can manage to loose itself of Beijing's grip, gain wider distribution, and sway audiences with marquee interviews and exclusive coverage of the Chinese economy, for instance, it might find a foothold on Wall Street, if not on Capitol Hill. "And it's almost certainly going to get better."

But Walter said that pushing the envelope, even a little bit, was a challenge for the network's newest journalists, and for the Chinese producers who serve as a middleman with Beijing.
"You got all these Western journalists who want to push this further, and then you work with the other side which says, ‘wait, don't push too much.' They have to find a happy balance and operate within these confines. That's not easy."

"American journalists have the attitude that it's better to ask forgiveness rather than permission," added Walter. "In China, it's better to ask permission than forgiveness. We've run headlong into that. The approach is very different. It's something that will be a struggle here."

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Laurie and a camerawoman reported on the Tiananmen Square Massacre together. In fact, it was a producer. Foreign Policy regrets the error. 

Clarification: In an earlier version of the story, Jim Laurie recounted an incident about his reporting during the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Laurie later said he misspoke when describing that incident; the latest version of this story has been updated with that quote omitted.

 

Feature

Me and My Censor

A reporter's memoir of what it's like to tell the truth about today's China.

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.

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.  

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."

In addition to the uptick in phone calls, her emails, too, grew more expansive and personal. She had told me once that we couldn't put a Chinese flag on the cover (I still don't understand why), and so I wrote her to ask if we could run a cover image that suggested a flag more abstractly, with yellow stars against a wash of red. She wrote back in Chinese:

Dear Little One,

Stars are definitely not okay either, please please do not take the risk.

I once published, in a newspaper, a picture of a book put out by the German embassy, introducing China and Germany's investment cooperation. The book's cover had a big stream on it, half of it the colors of the German flag, half of it red with yellow stars. I decided since it wasn't a flag it was okay, and sent it to print. Our newspaper office was slapped with a fine of 180,000 yuan [today, around $28,000] and I had to write a self-criticism and take a big salary cut.

Quite a lesson, yes? Sigh -- we must remember it well.

Another time, in the fall of 2008, my phone rang and I picked up to find Snow in an excitable mood.

"Hi Snow," I said, trying to sound distant and professional.

"Are you busy?" she asked.

"Well, actually, I am a little..."

"Oh good. I was thinking: December will be the 30th anniversary of ‘Reform and Opening.' It will be a big deal and there will be many celebrations in the media. Are you planning any articles about this topic? Because, I think, maybe you can interview people about their experiences from 30 years ago. Like me, for example -- when I was young, we did not have meat to eat. And we lived in a building with many other families, and we had only had one phone for the whole building. If it rang, someone would answer it and shout your name. In those days, it was always for me. The man who answered the phone would yell, ‘Snow, the phone is for you again!'" She laughed delightedly.

On a few occasions, Snow asked me to lunch, and I always said no. Keeping my distance became easier as the year progressed and my disillusionment increased. Media restrictions began to tighten severely in the wake of pro-Tibet protests that were following the Olympic torch around the globe. China had naïvely been caught off guard by the expressions of anti-Chinese-government sentiment, and had reacted strongly. Visa regulations tightened, and many younger expats who did not meet the new work experience requirements had to leave the country. The June issue of the English-language version of Time Out Beijing was, due to a licensing technicality (it did not have its own separate publishing license but was piggybacked onto the license of their Chinese-language edition), abruptly pulled from the presses, though their license structure had never been an issue before. And the changes at our magazine, which had always seemed generally comprehensible and rooted in logic even when I disagreed with them, veered into the realm of absurdity.

I was told that we could not title a coal piece "Power Failure" because the word "failure" in bold print so close to the Olympics would make people think of the Olympics being a failure. The title "The Agony and the Ecstasy" for a soccer piece was axed because agony was a negative word and we couldn't have negative words be associated with sports. We couldn't use the cover image I had picked out for a feature on the rise of chain restaurants, because it was of an empty bowl, and, Snow told me, it would make people think of being hungry and remind them of the Great Famine (a period from 1958 to 1961 when tens of millions of Chinese starved to death, discussion of which is still suppressed). Even our Chinese designers began to roll their eyes when I related this change to them, and set them to work looking for images of bowls overflowing with meat.

Finally, in July 2008, one month before the Olympics, I gave my notice and, knowing I might never see her again, accepted one of Snow's invitations. She picked me up from my apartment, and drove us across town to her favorite restaurant, Haidilao, a Sichuan hotpot chain. She complained about Beijing's terrible traffic, which I had somehow thought a censor wouldn't do, because it constituted criticism of the government.

A car cut her off, and she shook her head angrily, and exclaimed, "Look at this! They won't let me pass even though they can see I was in front. See, this is how Chinese people are." She asked me if this would happen in the United States. I said yes. "Really?" she replied. "I imagine in the United States everyone obeys the traffic rules. People are not so backwards there. That's what I hear."

Over lunch, she asked me about my plans. How would I support myself? I said I wanted to try freelance writing. If it didn't work out, I'd start looking for a new full-time job. I might move back to the United States, or maybe to a new country.

"Ah, you young people," she said. "So much freedom to do what you want. To tell you the truth, I would love to change my job too. But I can't -- I have a family, I've been there too long, it's not the same for us old people."

She leaned forward, and looked intently into my eyes. "Have you ever considered opening your own research firm for foreign companies that want to invest in China? You would be very good at this, because you are Chinese, too. Even though you are born in America, you understand our Chinese thinking. You can be a big important consultant. And then you can hire me so I don't have to work at my job anymore. I'm serious -- think of me if you ever do this someday. You should. And then you can hire me."

She was speaking lightly, and laughing, but she also seemed to mean it, and I suddenly wondered if this was the purpose of our lunch. I found this idea utterly depressing. I was a lost, aimless kid, drifting around China, and yet this older woman could look at me and see the possibility, however tenuous, of a lifeline.

I understood then the mundane nature of all that kept her in place. A job she didn't like, but worked hard to keep. A system that would never reward her for good work, only punish her for mistakes. And in exchange: Tutors. Traffic. Expensive drumming lessons. They were the same things that kept anyone, anywhere, in place -- and it was the very ordinariness of these things that made them intractable.

After lunch, Snow asked me if I'd seen the Olympic stadium yet, and I said I hadn't, so she turned north to drive by it. A road was blocked off, and a traffic cop in a neon yellow vest waved us towards an alternate route. Snow remarked that with the Olympics imminent, the streets of Beijing resembled the United States, with cops everywhere. "In U.S. movies," she said, "whenever a crime happens, the cops always show up immediately. Is that true? Are they really so fast?" I said that I wasn't sure whether American cops arrived at crime scenes more quickly than Chinese cops, but that they definitely weren't as fast as they seemed in movies.

When the Bird's Nest stadium loomed into view, I murmured "Wow." I had been editing blurbs about the thing for so long, it had never occurred to me that I would be impressed by it in person, but I was.

Snow asked if she could drop me off at the nearest subway stop. I said it was no problem, and as we turned I asked how many siblings her husband had. She had been complaining towards the end of lunch that she and her husband had to support them.

"Twelve, but half of them died. So there are six of them, total."

"I'm sorry to hear that," I said.

"Oh don't be. It was like that for everyone back then. Because you know, Mao had probably gone crazy, and encouraged everyone to be a ‘hero mother' by having five kids. They say that's what caused the famine. But Mao was crazy and..."

She broke off and laughed.

"You see," she said, "we can say this here, just you and me; we just can't say it in print." Then, suddenly, switching to English, she exclaimed, "That's China!"  

We had reached the subway stop. I got out, and said goodbye, and then she went to get her son.

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