When I heard that Fairfax had agreed to run a regular eight-page supplement of China Daily material, I had to wonder if they had any idea what kind of content the company would be providing to its readers. As a former employee of the state-owned Chinese newspaper, I can say that it’s unlikely to be objective journalism.
It didn’t say “censor” anywhere in my job description when I worked at China Daily in Beijing. My official title was “polisher”, and my job mostly involved tidying up the mangled English translations of articles supplied by China Daily’s vast army of official reporters. In 2005 I embarked on a 12-month contract as a foreign editor for China’s state-owned English language newspaper. I thought it would be interesting to see how the Communist country’s media worked from the inside. I told myself I wouldn’t take the job too seriously and that being in Beijing would help me brush up my basic Mandarin skills.
My initial impression when I arrived at China Daily was how well resourced the whole operation was. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of staff, and the offices were kitted out with the latest computers and other technical equipment. The China Daily operation was housed in a huge concrete bunker in north Beijing that could well have passed for the Ministry of Truth. It was a self-contained walled compound that included housing for the 10 or so “foreign experts” like myself who helped add the finishing polish to China’s official English-language output.
But life at Huixin Dongjie was anything but oppressive in a 1984 sense. If anything, it was pleasantly dull. After working frantically to tight daily deadlines in Australian publishing, the pace at China Daily was languid. Nothing too strenuous was expected of the English polishers — we might complete one or two articles in a shift, much of which was spent drinking tea and watching one of the few uncensored CNN feeds in the capital at that time.
Save up to 50% on a year of Crikey
Choose what you pay, from $99.
China Daily didn’t hire English editors for their journalistic skills. The polishers were a mix of journalistic wannabees and has-beens (at 40 years of age, I put myself in the latter category), with a few backpackers roped in to plug the gaps. The newspaper kept us apart from the Chinese staff, and we were seldom allowed to do anything that resembled actual reporting, other than restaurant and bar reviews. Foreigners were kept well away from anything deemed sensitive or political and were only hired for one year. China Daily wasn’t interested in having long-term foreign staff with expertise and insight in China reporting.
Nevertheless, after a few weeks it was possible to build a picture of how this publishing behemoth functioned. First of all, it became clear that China Daily didn’t have teams of reporters working independently on rounds to find news stories, is the case with Western newspapers. Instead there was a top-down approach that decreed what the news emphasis of a particular week would be. If the Chinese president were visiting Europe, the news stories would all be based around EC issues, with non-too-subtle emphasis on China’s interests and history in this area.
For domestic news, the elusive news editors — whom we seldom met — were guided by whatever campaign the Chinese leadership happened to be running at the time. During my tenure there was an emphasis on big national construction projects such as the Three Gorges Dam and the Qinghai-Tibet railway.
As English polishers we would be given an article that had originally been written by a Chinese reporter for local consumption. When we received it, the article would already have been translated into a form of words and some of the more obvious sections of propaganda or political jargon removed by the Chinese-English translator. Our job was to smooth the English so that it would look fluent to a native English speaker. Some articles were easy to correct. A Chinese reporter had written a piece on foreigners having parties on the Great Wall, saying they were “pissing up sacred wall”. I changed this to “urinating on a national monument”.
However, there were some articles for which we were given strict instructions not to change the meaning of, or to make any major additions or cuts. These were the articles sent down from Room 404 — the Communist Party Committee room. To guide us we had the China Daily style guide (see picture below). This hefty tome, which was not allowed out of the office, didn’t just give guidance on the English grammar preferred by the China Daily editors; the style guide contained page after page of unbending rules on exactly how certain subjects were to be written about. Most of these referred to sensitive subject such as the three Ts: Taiwan, Tibet and Tiananmen Square. Taiwan, we were instructed, must always be referred to as “China’s Taiwan Province” and its leaders must always have the prefix “so-called” added before their title.
Likewise with Tibet, there were detailed and concrete rules that must be followed, such as forbidding any reference to terms such as the “government in exile” and allowing only use of terms such as the “Dalai Separatist Clique”.
But these were just the big rules. There were also a multitude of minor protocols and guidances, such as how much prominence to give the remarks of foreign leaders and spokesmen compared to official Chinese spokesmen. China must always have the last word in any article was one rule.
After a few weeks at China Daily I became accustomed to seeing articles being re-styled in this manner, although most of the copy from local reporters needed few, if any, changes; the censorship was already embedded in the heads of those brought up within the system.
It was in the changes to the wire copy that China Daily used where the censorship was most obvious. The newspaper relied on news agencies for many of its non-political news and feature items about sport and celebrities. But while these seemed innocuous to us Westerners, these articles often arrived on our desks with the key sections obliterated by the editor’s red pen.
The undesirable sentences might be commentary that was openly in favour of China’s enemies — Japan, in particular. But often the offending words would just be comments or reports on what, in China, might be construed as subversive activity — civil disobedience, defiance of authority, or overt expressions in favour of freedom of speech or civil rights.
It soon became clear that things that we took for granted in Australia and thought of as non-controversial were deemed too sensitive by Chinese editors. In a land where official announcements are scrutinised for hints and shades of meaning, the state-backed newspaper could not be seen to be running articles that condoned un-Chinese activities or points of view.
At China Daily I also discovered that the state editorial control also meant additions as well as deletions from coverage. One of the worst tasks I had was editing the mind-numbing hagiographies of Communist Party-favoured bigwigs and businessmen and women. It was not uncommon for a whole page to be given over to a fawning article about the charitable activities and general all-round wonderfulness of some local tycoon with party connections. At the other end of the scale, when it was National Mail Day, we might be expected to “polish” an article heaping praise on a heroic rural postman who was reported to cross high mountains and flooded valleys every day to get the letters through.
When we told our editorial supervisors that such stories would appear implausible and obvious propaganda to Western readers, our advice was dismissed with a curt “this is what the editor wants”.
After a few months I became accustomed to this mixture of control freakery over sensitive political news at China Daily and a more slapdash approach to everything else. My Chinese colleagues didn’t seem to worry too much about accuracy and veracity for a “non-core” article. Sometimes they just made stuff up. During one public holiday, a junior reporter was tasked with compiling a vox pop article of street interviews with foreign tourists, asking their opinions of Beijing during the mid-autumn “mooncake” festival.
He never left the office but submitted a draft of an article to me that included a quote from an American called Todd saying something like: “I love Beijing at autumn festival. It has tasty dishes and local people celebrate the 3000 years of civilisation of China.” This was obviously just a rehash of China’s favourite memes about itself, but I didn’t have the heart — or the authority — to challenge its authenticity. The young reporter was a likeable kid who didn’t bat an eyelid when I asked him if this was actually what the “American” had said. He looked at me with an expression that said he knew that I knew.
“I have some other quotes — what do you want him to say?” was his reply.
Ten years on, I see China Daily is still publishing articles with foreign tourists mouthing the same quotes.
The young editors at China Daily were not drones working in a big bureaucracy — many of them were smart, creative and driven. Quite a few had studied at the leading journalism schools in the West. However, they seemed to see nothing wrong in “shaping” the news to fit the China Daily agenda. As I could read Chinese, I often noticed that the original Chinese-language media reports on which they based their stories were more critical and contained a lot more detail than what was presented in their English-language reports for China Daily.
When I asked them about this, they said that Chinese people could discus their problems quite openly domestically but did not want to lose face by “airing dirty washing” to foreigners.
They also accepted that the role of the China Daily was to report positive news about China.
I saw this recently when author and New Yorker correspondent Peter Hessler was interviewed in what he thought was a Q&A session with China Daily. A few of his more positive interview comments about China were cherry picked from the interview and published under his byline in China Daily as if he had penned a glowing article about China. Hessler asked for a retraction for the misrepresentation, but China Daily refused.
After my short spell at China Daily, the newspaper and its content lost what little credibility it ever had for me. I had always known that China Daily wasn’t a “real” newspaper, but it was still starting to see the hollow reality within the organisation. It was like seeing the old man hiding behind the curtain putting on the Wizard of Oz act.
I began to view China Daily as like many other things in China, such as the grand hotels — an imposing and strict facade, but underneath everything is a bit shonky and shabby. Don’t believe what you see on the surface — it’s all for show. If you want the real picture, get an inside connection.