Tiptoeing around the Great Firewall of China

Censorship at the China Daily
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Photo by Madeleine Witt.

I remember the first passage they deleted. A smattering of sentences in the middle of the second page, describing Wenceslas Square, Prague, as the site where thousands of Czech youth once shook their keys to celebrate the toppling of the Communist regime. It was a short passage — cushioned between two equally harmless paragraphs about the Old Town Square, and the Gothic architecture of Tyn Church — but a passage nevertheless. Deleted, removed, extracted cleanly as if plucked with a pair of metal tweezers. Censored.

Cen-sored. The word felt alien under my tongue, two syllables borrowed from some distant Orwellian dystopia. When I first started writing for the China Daily, as a sixteen-year-old wide-eyed summer intern, still getting over the thrill of seeing my own name in print, I already knew what kind of newspaper it was: a state-run, highly controlled publication held firmly in the hands of the central government. As long as I was within the Great Firewall of the Mainland, I would never read about Tibet or Tiananmen or Taiwanese independence. As long as I was away from Hong Kong visiting my grandma in Beijing, I would not be able to check the number of likes on the adorable new profile picture of my friend and me on a tuk tuk. These were facts of life, and the Daily’s efforts to censor were hardly surprising. And yet, I’d never felt the censor’s hand press against my lips, draw a red line over my handcrafted words.

One loud voice told me to be indignant. This Yi-Ling, who reveled in the idea of freedom of expression, who admired Rushdie for his refusal to be silent, who showed up to the sweaty vigils every year calling for the vindication of June 4, 1989, told me to rip the Daily to shreds, to boycott it. I thought myself a writer; I loved the act of creation. These deletions, this kidnapping of my babies, was uncreation, anti-creation.

But, I didn’t wear indignation well, couldn’t muster the loud and passionate holler of protest. We were, after all, talking about two skinny sentences plucked out of my Eastern Europe travelogue, not Charter 08, a manifesto demanding the elimination of single-party rule. Stick to the Hotpot columns (a lifestyle blog written by foreigners living in Beijing), the harmless humor, the nice topics like Shanghai’s Oxbridge applicants and Peking duck reviews. I listened to that voice, the mature tenor in the low-pitched part of Cat Steven’s “Father and Son.” Just relax, and take it easy, and don’t rock the boat.

I clambered down to the living room, laptop in hand, and showed the edits to my dad. He sighed, and shook his head. “Let it go Yi-Ling. There’s no point in provoking their attention.” There was a complacency in his voice; the kind of fatigue that comes from having 50 years of China experience under your belt; from weathering the tumult of the Cultural Revolution (he was yanked out of high school at 15 to till crops in the bitter cold of the northern countryside); from living through a failed political coup, two mass student protests, Nixon’s landmark handshake with Mao in 1972, the abrupt opening of China to the West and rapid economic growth. My dad knew what chaos was, and so when Deng Xiaoping introduced stability in the ’90s, he cherished it. “You are here now, I am here now, with a college degree, a career, and a family because I have benefited from a stable China. Yeah, sure. It’s not perfect. But you have to sit back, and let things get better slowly, and on its own.”

Loud or soft, active or passive, challenge the establishment or go with the system?  Follow the path of those like Liu Xiaobo, activist, poet, and Nobel Peace Prize winner who actively championed democratic reforms and now sits behind bars in his threadbare cotton pajamas, writing lonely letters to his wife? Or follow those who went in the opposite direction — editors who have compiled glossaries of sensitive words, artists who have mastered the art of filtering, writers who ‘castrate’ their works. “I am a proactive eunuch,” Murong Xuecun says, “and I castrate myself even before the surgeon raises his scalpel.”

I understood the soft voice. There are messy and intangible historical forces at work — a dynastic past followed by a Communist revolution, deeply rooted xenophobia paired with an opening up of the country to the West — that not even scholars who have written thick volumes of research and theses and antitheses, let alone a wide-eyed high school student, could ever fully grasp. My lone and feeble act of protest would not only be inconsequential, it would be uninformed and naïve.  And yet, how could I be comfortable, living in Hong Kong, reaping the benefits of a colonial legal system and a free press, kicking back with a cup of hot chocolate in one hand, my censored article and troubled conscience in the other, waiting passively for change?

I admired the loud voice, yearned for the certainty of the young protesters who filled the squares of Wenceslas and Tiananmen and Tahir, desired the conviction of every martyr who has written, published, painted, sat-in, protested, barricaded, testified, self-immolated in the name of an ideal. But I have neither the certainty nor conviction. I am too impressionable, too easily swayed by the rhetoric and passion with which other people present their ideas; my beliefs are not strong and clear-cut enough to pursue a pure and unadulterated agenda of boat-rocking.

And so I waffled somewhere in between. While working as an intern at the weekly World Insight Channel for CCTV in Beijing, I encountered the same impasse. We were having round-table discussions with the team on what news we would air that Saturday. Knowing that my efforts would be futile, I didn’t call attention to dissident activity in Xinjiang, but requested coverage on the Tunisian protests. The following summer I returned to Mainland China again, this time, working with Sony Pictures to put together the screenplay of a film that would make Chinese history accessible to a younger, hipper, and more international audience. While weaving the story together, a Night in the Museum-esque family comedy set in the Forbidden City, I tried to balance moviegoing entertainment with my own subtle criticisms of the increasing amorality, corruption, and materialism prevalent in modern Chinese society. I’d waffle, always seeking compromise, always scouting for opportunities that would allow me to gain a nuanced understanding of modern China — a country I have grown to love like a troubled teenage daughter.

This daughter, she frustrates me. When I read the news, all I can see is her faults: reports of soaring API levels, police brutality, exiled activists, land seizures, nationalism gone awry after a petty dispute over the Diaoyu Islands. And yet, it is her blood that flows in my veins, it is her language that I have spoken all my life. I could complain about her for hours on end — stop being paranoid, stick to the rule of law, quit being so defensive — and yet it irks me when others criticize her. She is multi-faceted, convoluted, and full of contradictions. To me, she is not so much a nation as a character, rich with personality and difficult to comprehend.

For my next assignment, I was working on an article on literary ties between Hong Kong and the Mainland. I had interviewed the editors of a literary journal in Hong Kong and wanted to send the article to the Daily. The draft was done and ready to be sent, except for one passage at the end of the article:

“Our idea of publishing the China Issue in June 2011 — is of course a deliberate choice,” Tammy Lai-Ming, the editor of Cha Literary Journal, stated. “We wanted the issue to coincide with the twenty-second anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre. We cannot think of a more appropriate time of the year for us to reflect on the state of our nation.”

My cursor grazed over the send button. I’ll poke the system, prod her. I won’t succumb to her or indulge her. I’ll understand her flaws, her workings, and her nuances, so that one day I can challenge and repair her from within. I’ll rock the boat gently, one little shove at a time.  Article sent.

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