LITTLE ROCK — 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.
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 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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 naively 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 meetthe 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, 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.
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.”
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 lessons for her kids. 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.
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.
Eveline Chao is a freelance writer based in New York City.