China’s censors can be a sensitive bunch.
Once upon a time, your friendly reviewer worked as an Editorial Assistant on a tier-2 city expat rag. The title Editorial Assistant was more than a little overblown: it was little more than a glorified copy writer and certainly didn’t deserve the capitalisation. I would never claim to have been at the forefront of journalism (my biggest scoop was tracking down the reservation number of a local teppanyaki joint), but I did have the occasional brush with China’s hard-working censors.
March 5th is Lei Feng Day – the happy-clappy Socialist holiday built around the Communist hero Lei Feng who is revered in China for darning the socks of his colleagues and getting run over by a truck. The holiday – which has been declining in recognition over recent years – typically is used as an exhortation to the nation’s youth to volunteer, do good deeds, and be a good Socialist role model. The veracity of Lei Feng’s existence is held in some doubt by more than one observer, but even today you’ll see posters of the deceased do-gooder posted round schools every March.
As part of our March edition of the magazine, we decided to include a section on Lei Feng, his history, and what his legacy meant today. All good stuff guaranteed to please our sinister Overlords – the idea was even suggested (read: he told us we had to do it) by our magazine owner (a slimy businessman who was more concerned about filling the magazine with adverts for his private English language school than genuine content). For the cover we chose a glorious Cultural Revolution propaganda painting featuring a rosy-cheeked Lei Feng valiantly leading the masses of the world towards a bright future of volunteerism. This painting was done during the period in the 1960s when China tried to align itself with many African countries in order to position itself as a leader of the Third World against the US and the USSR; so the crowd in the background included two or three black people amongst the Lei Feng worshippers.
What wasn’t to like?
We were more than a little confused when our censor informed us that we couldn’t run the cover. Our initial thoughts were that the Cultural Revolution era poster may have been deemed too politically sensitive, but similar pictures within the magazine had been deemed fit for approval before. The timing of the rejection coincided with one of the censor’s ad-hoc visits to the office, so we had the rare opportunity to ask the censor (a middle-aged woman with a bureaucratic job in a local university) what was the issue with the Lei Feng cover.
Her reply was astonishing.
In her eyes, the issue was not Lei Feng nor the Cultural Revolution themed painting, but actually the inclusion of black people amongst the volunteers stood behind Lei Feng. She stated that it wasn’t racism – she insisted she had no problem with black people – but that featuring black people as volunteers implied that they were more likely to volunteer and do good deeds than Chinese people were. To her, the fact that the revolutionary crowd included three fictional Africans, was a damning indictment that three fictional Chinese had decided to stay at home that day. Her suggestion was to edit the cover so that the skin colour of the Africans was altered to make them appear to be Chinese. With little time left before our monthly deadline, we had little choice but to swallow our distaste and put the Africans through the whitewash.
Such is the logic of China’s mysterious censors. I’m not the only person to have encountered such experiences. Australian JFK Miller was editor of well-known expat rag That’s Shanghai from 2005 to 2011. Now, in his book Trickle-Down Censorship, Miller exposes to the wider world the trials and tribulations of being an editor within the world’s most censorious regime.
The story is a fascinating one. The saga of the That’s magazines will be familiar to most long-term expats in China due to the well-publicised story of how it was founded by Mark Kitto… and subsequently stolen from him. Kitto was a pioneer in the world of China expat magazines, and is well known for his own book China Cuckoo * and an article on how laowai can never be Chinese. Kitto’s shadow looms large over the narrative in Trickle-Down Censorship. Though never referred to by name – he is always referred to as “The Briton” – Miller picks up the story from when he joined That’s Shanghai as editor in 2005 shortly after Kitto’s forced departure. We are immediately introduced to Miller’s opaque boss “Mr Li”, the person accountable for cutting Kitto out of the business and the main person responsible for ensuring the ever-watchful red pen is never far from Miller’s editorials.
And that’s where Trickle-Down Censorship becomes its own story. Rather than choosing to be a book about “What happened after Kitto”, instead we are treated to an insider’s perspective on the day-to-day dealings with the magazine’s censors. This is a wise move from the author. Instead of playing second-fiddle to another person’s story, Miller chooses to highlight to the world on how it is to be a foreign journalist in a highly controlled Communist country.
The author is humble about his limitations. He readily acknowledges that his main task is to provide fluffy city-info to expats rather than being on the forefront of investigative journalism. This self-deprecation continues throughout the book. Though Miller bemoans the censorship and nonsense he had to combat daily, he is ever mindful that the magazine he steered was just a small small ship within the ocean of Chinese authoritarianism.
Trickle-Down Censorship will provide few surprises to the Old China Hands out there. The insights on what is and what isn’t sensitive in the eyes of the CCP will not be revelatory to anybody who has lived in China for many years or worked within the journalism industry. However, what it does do is provide a fascinating, well-written and concise overview of Chinese censorship at both the micro and the macro level. Miller was new to China when he arrived in 2005, but he obviously invested his time well and is able to cite numerous anecdotes and stories about the smoke and mirrors of what China tries to present to the world; whether it be its obsession of deleting images of supposed poverty in China-based Hollywood movies (we’re looking at you, Mission: Impossible III), or hiding stories of the Shanghai stock market’s collapse.
Miller encounters several ludicrous situations similar to my Lei Feng cover. Early on during his tenure at That’s Shanghai he is almost forced to delete a map of China because it doesn’t feature the geographically-minuscule Spratly Islands, and is reprimanded by his censors after using the phrase “Mao would turn in his grave” to “not make fun of Chinese leaders”. However, the more insidious side of censorship soon begins to show its face. As any journalist operating in China will tell you, the biggest censor at That’s Shanghai was neither the official censors, nor “Mr Li”… it was none other than Miller himself. He quickly learnt to self-censor and edit out any potential sensitive subjects before it ever even reached his censors. He writes:
“Self-censorship is essentially self-preservation. The first law of nature is also the first law of self-censorship. Work goes into a story; work you’d rather not waste with a careless indiscretion that may fall foul of your censor. You often edit something questionable out of story in order to save the story; you sever a limb to preserve the body. You “murder your darlings”, not to rid the page of extraneous ornamentation, preserve a plot line or enhance pacing, but simply to maintain the life of a story. Plus you don’t want to waste other people’s time. You have freelance writers, photographers, designers, illustrators and editorial staff to consider. You don’t want to risk their hard work coming to not either.”
Or, more succinctly:
“Self-censorship is the true genius of the system.”
And there’s the rub. The truly Orwellian aspect of censorship is not only what is removed from the public’s sight, but the effect it has on the writer themselves. If something potentially sensitive is never written, before it even gets to a censor, then the battle is already won. That’s the true power of censorship. I can totally understand the situation of people working in China like Miller who have no choice if they wish to continue earning a living. Sadly, more than one China-watcher adopts this mentality even when not based in China and takes it upon themselves to be the country’s White Knight even when not necessary – “the Pollyannas who run the expat magazines assuming the burden of preventing China at all costs from losing face” as Isham Cook describes them. As an author who has had his own tell-all book on China rejected from review by both expat magazines and the Western mainstream media, I have more than a little understanding of the infection of self-censorship.
I recommend JFK Miller’s Trickle-Down Censorship for anybody looking for a glimpse within the machine that is the world of China’s censorious regime. It’s smoothly written with more than the occasional flourish of the absurd (an occupational hazard when dealing with CCP censors). It’s also a very timely book: in a time when the Western mainstream media is more controlled by political and economic interests than at any other time in its history, the lessons of Trickle-Down Censorship are increasingly applicable to our own culture as well as China’s. Miller never won his battle against censorship in China – it was an impossible fight and one that was lost before he even arrived in China – but his description of the process and its effect on people has never been more needed.
Of course, the supreme irony is that there isn’t a chance in Hell that That’s Shanghai would ever review their former editor’s book on censorship.
*For a fascinating little diversion, there’s an intriguing review of Kitto’s China Cuckoo on Amazon that is worth reading.
If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy my book Party Members – a dark comic fantasy that exposes the corrupt underbelly of modern China.