Protesters in Hong Kong rally for press freedom. Photo from Bloomberg.com

Protesters in Hong Kong rally for press freedom. Photo from Bloomberg.com



It’s a clash that’s been coming since the British marched out of Hong Kong on July 1, 1997. Despite promises from Beijing and wishful thinking in Hong Kong, surely its people knew that China’s dictators someday would move to snuff out their freedom.

It may be inevitable.

The anniversary of the day Great Britain handed Hong Kong to China always sparks protest. Tomorrow’s anniversary will be especially tense. China’s state-controlled news media have been blasting Hong Kongers over their ceaseless clamor for democracy.

“If they overplay their hand – just like the folks did in 1989 in Tiananmen Square – the state comes down on them,” said a leading pollster in the city.

But as Martin Luther King Jr. and Mao Tse-tung knew, only by “overplaying their hand” can people successfully challenge power.

Perhaps the fear that ham-fisted repression could hurt profits from the country’s most prosperous city will keep Beijing from clamping down. It’s also possible that forceful and prolonged pressure from international powers could prevent Chinese tanks and guns from rolling into Hong Kong. Without outside aid, that little island is destined to be subsumed into a giant dictatorship where free speech is prosecuted as subversion and calls for democracy treated as treason.

And with the example of Tiananmen, there’s no way international leaders can claim they didn’t see this coming.




Next on tap – the Chinese Museum of Clean Air?

The sign beneath this outdoor water pump at the Beijing Museum of Tap Water supposedly warns visitors not to drink the water.

The sign beneath this outdoor water pump at the Beijing Museum of Tap Water supposedly warns visitors not to drink the water.

China, you may have heard, has been on a building blitz of gigantic proportions. Apartment buildings, skyscrapers, business parks, gated communities, monuments, museums, theme parks – all the infrastructure needed for burgeoning masses of proletarians turned consumers.

Among all these oversized projects is the humble Beijing Museum of Tap Water. It’s a most peculiar choice of museum subject, given that nobody in that huge, populous country enjoys plumbing that delivers potable water.

That’s right. No drinkable tap water in the whole country.

Even after it’s boiled, there’s too much sediment to drink the stuff. Even with filters, it’s too risky to imbibe.  No filter can eliminate all the pollutants coming out of Chinese faucets, which include sewage, heavy metals, lead, rust, nitrates, nitrites, bacteria, viruses, parasites and extreme levels of chlorine.

According to the website China.org.cn, the museum’s tap-water objects “… are presented in front of the visitors who will truly understand that tap water is hard-earned.”

Imagine what sort of exhibits might be displayed in a Chinese Museum of Clean Air – photos of skylines doctored to scrub away the murky fog that passes for air, an assortment of face masks and sets of lungs blackened simply by breathing. 

Life after China


CHAPTER NINE of “Commie wage slave,” in which I leave the Middle Kingdom to go home




Not a day goes by that I’m not happy to be home from China.


Every time I breathe the clean air and enjoy the blue sky of a sunny day; every time I use water from my tap without having to boil it first; whenever I wander the Internet with no restrictions, or read genuine news written by unfettered journalists, or just stand at my kitchen sink doing dishes without having to bend over because the countertop is too low: There are countless moments when I savor and appreciate everything I took for granted BC – Before China.


I expect that to continue for the rest of my life, along with a fascination for the country that developed during my year in Beijing. That year, the longest of my life, was a true character-building experience. I’ll always be glad I did it and even happier that it’s over.


Hobbled as I was by being illiterate in Mandarin and burdened by the silly suspicion that Americans were spies, it wasn’t possible to get close to any Chinese. A few of my Chinese co-workers, however, went out of their way to make me feel welcome and comfortable. A couple of them even had me to their apartments for dinner or for a lesson in making dumplings.


The latter was truly humbling. My hostess and her friend deftly filled, shaped and crimped shut dozens of dumplings in little time. My few, misshapen, lumpy and leaking, looked like things that might come out of an occupational therapy class for people with numb fingers.


The biggest difference between Chinese and Americans is attitude. The Chinese, after the national traumas of invasion and occupation, revolution and civil war, political terror, starvation and oppression, have no idea how good life can be. They know too well how bad it can get, while Americans are clueless about how many blessings we enjoy that aren’t obtainable in many countries.


My year in Beijing allowed me to pay my mortgage and save up a year’s worth of income. The money saved up turned out to be especially important, a fact that became brutally clear as soon as the customs agent in the San Francisco airport asked, What is your occupation?


“Unemployed,” I had to answer.


But that didn’t stop me from going straight to a concourse restaurant and happily spending $20 for a genuine cheeseburger, fries and a beer. The next day I’d start practicing frugality, but that day, I celebrated with guilt-free indulgence I’d spent a year earning.


Behind the Great Firewall

CHAPTER EIGHT of  “Commie Wage Slave,” in which I learn about the language of dissent in China

 An image of the mythical Grass-Mud Horse, symbol of Chinese resistance to censorship

Since Americans were thought to be universally rich, our explanations about being in China because we couldn’t get a job back home probably didn’t sound believable to our co-workers, which must have bolstered their suspicion that we were spies.

Never mind the fact that most of us spoke little or no Mandarin. Plus, it’s hard to imagine what kind of secret information anyone thought we could glean from editing news-like propaganda that was controlled and censored by state authorities.

But their assumptions about us have been shaped by generations of distortion and very limited access to information. The Internet doesn’t appear to have changed that yet.

As it has elsewhere, the digital age has created countless jobs in China. Unfortunately, many of them involve maintaining the Great Firewall. Untold thousands monitor websites, email and even text messages for forbidden content. Some write pro-government messages for bulletin boards and social sites.

At China Daily, expats ran into the Great Firewall all the time. It includes bans on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, limits on content for websites and authorized search engines, plus constantly changing and secret lists of forbidden search terms. All Internet traffic into and out of China is closely watched.

Since authorities never publicize which words are forbidden, it’s easy to run afoul of their censors. Our Internet connections would disappear for a few minutes the first time we used a forbidden word in a search. If it happened again, we’d lose access for up to a half hour.

If the website we were trying to access contained a forbidden term, we’d get a “site not found” error message.

Sometimes you could guess which words might trigger this. When the Arab Spring started in Tunisia, for example, the word “jasmine” became a forbidden search term because of the phrase, jasmine revolution. Too bad if you were just searching for a local place to buy jasmine tea.

The Great Firewall so limited access to information from outside (and even inside) China that it wasn’t unusual to learn about events in Beijing from international news outlets – which, of course, could only be accessed with the aid of a proxy server that was outside the country. Expats equipped their own computers with these services. Thus, when Google threatened to leave China rather than censor its searches, we found out by reading the New York Times online that Chinese were leaving flowers, stuffed animals and notes of support in front of the company’s Beijing office. No word of this reached Chinese media.

tank man

For a few hours during this tussle, it was possible for Chinese to access anything on a Google search, a novel and brief experience. The term “Tiananmen,” for example, brought forth the haunting photograph of the nameless Chinese man who confronted a line of tanks on their way to threaten thousands of demonstrators in central Beijing. It’s one of the most famous photographs of the 20th century. Most Chinese have probably never seen it.

We wondered, of course, whether there might be tiny cameras or listening devices hidden in our apartments. I never heard of anyone looking for them, much less finding one. But there’s no question that our computers at work were examined. It wasn’t unusual to sit down at the start of a shift, boot up the computer and discover that files were missing or rearranged, put in new places. No effort was made to hide this; making it blatant was most likely a deliberate part of the intimidation factor.

The longer we were in China, the more paranoid we became. The very atmosphere of the place made it inevitable. Thus, when democracy activist Liu Xiabo won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize after I had already left China, Renee emailed me from Beijing. There was only a subject line: “Did you see who won?”

She feared that if she had mentioned the Nobel Peace Prize or Liu Xiabo, her email might not have gone through. Or, someone at China Daily might have detected it and alerted the powers-that-be about the need to monitor her communications (if they weren’t already). Maybe someone in the IT department or one of the countless monitors paid by the government to spy on communications, looking to curry favor, would report it to higher-ups. We don’t know how realistic these fears were when applied to foreigners, but they were raised by living in a place where advocating freedom of speech is prosecuted as subversion and even a word in a text message can lead to punishment. The possibility of unpleasant repercussions seemed plausible.

Nonetheless, Chinese netizens have found a way to use the Internet for robust debate, criticism and mockery of their government. Their solution is to use code words based on homonyms.

Thus, when they want to refer to the government or the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), they use the term “grass-mud horse.” In Mandarin, this sounds almost like the phrase, “fuck your mother.” Once you know that the CCP calls itself the mother of the people, the meaning of this code word is clear.

The grass-mud horse first appeared in 2009 and became a huge hit. Videos quickly appeared of the grass-mud horse battling the river crab, a code word that sounds like the propaganda euphemism, “harmony.” When censors have scrubbed forbidden content from a Chinese website, netizens say it has been harmonized.

Other code words are less obscure. June 4, for example, refers to the day Chinese tanks and troops attacked unarmed democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

For a thorough look at how Chinese netizens and dissenters use code words, check out the Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon at the website, China Digital Times, by clicking on this link – http://chinadigitaltimes.net/space/Category:Grass-Mud_Horse_Lexicon.

Also interesting is this video about the Grass-Mud Horse. If you watch to the end, it’s easier to understand. The language is foul, but indicates the level of frustration.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3D2eh4xehc4

Coming next: Leaving China


CHAPTER SEVEN of “Commie wage slave,”  in which I learn how very foreign I am to one-fifth of humanity

A China Daily employee with her daughter and her grandmother

A China Daily employee with her daughter and her grandmother



Beijing, as a nation’s capital, is home to its most prestigious universities and bustling with business people and tourists from around the world. So it surprised me how often I was regarded as an alien species.

I walked for miles in a nearby park almost daily without seeing another Westerner. When riding a bus or subway, or strolling through the campus of a nearby university, or shopping in a food market, places that swarmed with overcrowded Oriental humanity, it was very rare to see an Occidental face unless I was in the embassy zone or near a tourist attraction.

At times, this was a little unnerving because people stared at me all the time. Even in neighborhoods accustomed to seeing foreigners, Chinese stared at me openly and constantly. I figured they rarely, if ever, saw any female foreign devils as tall as me.

After a while, I could gauge the likely response if I smiled and nodded at someone who stared. People who were middle aged or older simply stared back, their faces blank. They grew up during a time of closed borders, Cold War and national paranoia about hostile Western powers.

Those in their thirties or so generally smiled back. They’re more aware of the world outside China, less fearful of it and often eager to see it.

The high school kids next door to China Daily appeared too shy to catch my eye. Very young children would turn their faces away and hide or even cry as if they’d seen something scary. Chinese parents must tell some awful stories about barbarians.

Their less pejorative terms for Westerners are “round eyes” and “big noses.”

We must indeed have looked immense. Chinese are very small, slender people. Even when wearing their heavy winter coats, the young security guards at China Daily looked like I could have picked any one of them up and snapped him in half with a good bear hug.

Buying women’s clothes off the rack was not possible for me and many other Westerners, unless we went to a store that catered to Russians. Even when we had items custom-made by tailors who supposedly had much experience with Western tourists, we couldn’t get clothes that fit. My friend Annette, who is slender enough to almost fit into Chinese clothes, went with me to a shop at the Silk Street Market, a well-known tourist destination. She wanted a suit and I was after a coat. We picked out patterns and material, were measured, paid for the items and were told when to come back for them.

Apparently, the tailor couldn’t believe what his measuring tape told him. Our new, custom-made clothes were too tight. Since the material for my coat had been cut too small, I was stuck with an ill-fitting cashmere coat that I ended up selling.

The contrast between American and Chinese women was startling in other ways, too. When something amuses a well-mannered Chinese female, she’ll softly titter while holding one hand over her mouth. The sight of American women laughing out loud, and without covering their mouths, appalled them. We seemed to them like braying donkeys.

We also had no inkling about how to behave with superiors. If I needed to ask my supervisor a question, I addressed her by her first name, instead of using her title and last name. When clinking glasses during a toast at office dinners, I failed to make sure my glass was lower than that held by someone higher up the food chain. My ignorance about these basic points of Chinese social etiquette simply seemed like bad manners.

Western women were just too large, too loud and too direct by Chinese standards of femininity.

Chinese men kept their distance from us, but Western men eagerly dated Chinese women. Western women watched these romances with distaste, knowing that when the man moved on, his Chinese ex would face disgrace and disapproval. To Chinese parents, it’s pointless and even harmful for a girl to date anyone who isn’t a possible husband. Chinese girls who aren’t married by age 27 are referred to as “leftovers.”

My status as a never-married woman with no children was regarded as freakish. No Chinese was so impolite as to say so, but you could almost hear them thinking, “A fate worse than death.” What I regarded as freedom and welcome solitude, they considered a pitiable state and an irresponsible lack of familial duty to my parents, who surely expected grandchildren.

That my parents never pressured any of their children to marry and reproduce would be unimaginable to Chinese parents, another shocking example of barbarian (meaning non-Chinese) behavior.


Coming next: China’s Great Firewall

Beijing’s cold wars

CHAPTER SIX of “Commie wage slave,” in which capitalist running dogs battle runny noses


The result of one dust storm on the floor of a patio at my Beijing apartment.

The result of one dust storm on the floor of a patio at my Beijing apartment.


Smog obscures the view of anything more than one block away from my Beijing balcony.

Smog obscures the view of anything more than one block away from my Beijing balcony.

A month after arriving in Beijing, I gave up wearing contact lenses. The grit in the air made it too painful.

Some of it was sand blowing in from the encroaching Gobi desert. But much of it was pollution in the form of particulate matter big enough to scratch eyes and clog lungs.

In winter, the air in Beijing is especially dangerous. Cold-weather demand for heat greatly increases the amount of dirt spewing from China’s coal-burning power plants. Combine this with fumes from an astounding level of car traffic running on low-grade gasoline, and the result is sickening.

By January, the expats at China Daily had turned into mucus factories on overdrive. For days, we were forced to breathe through our mouths, carry big boxes of tissues everywhere and try to sleep sitting up, since any attempt to recline brought on coughing fits. We could feel the stuff bubbling in our lungs.

Those who smoked fared even worse. Some developed chronic bronchitis.

All of us needed to take a few sick days. To get them, we had to go to a China Daily-approved doctor and get a certificate attesting to our illness.

Imagine the fun of this, feeling sick as a dog but having to haul yourself up, stumble out into the cold and hail a cab to drive you the whole two blocks to the China-Japan Friendship Hospital, our designated healthcare provider. Like everything else in Beijing, their blocks are huge. Walking two of them while sick was to be avoided.

There was almost another block to walk at the hospital, where the wing devoted to treating foreigners is at the far end of the place. Supposedly, the staff speaks English. In reality, they know a few words. They can ask whether you speak Chinese or Japanese. Mostly, they gesture and point when communicating where you should go next.

Your first stop is at an intake desk. The workers there wear face masks. As soon as you tell them you have a runny nose and cough, they hand you a mask and insist you wear it.

It’s amazing how much of an impediment that small piece of cloth can be. Your face gets very hot because your breath is trapped under it. Just enough escapes out the top to fog your glasses. It’s hard to make yourself heard, especially if a scratchy throat and cough already have played havoc with your voice.

It’s cold in the hospital. The nurses and doctors wear sweaters and jackets while they work. Garbage has blown in through an open door. It just sits there. Sunken old couches and chairs line the hallway outside the doctors’ offices. This is where you wait, breathing into that damn mask.

The doctor, a nice woman, sticks a tongue depressor in your mouth and tells you to say “ahhh.” Then she pulls out a stethoscope and listens to your lungs – right through your clothes, even if those include a thick sweater and bra. She wants blood drawn, gives you a piece of paper and points towards the nurse’s station. The nurse points to the cashier.

You will go to the cashier every time a doctor wants a test done or a medicine prescribed. Nothing is provided until you’ve paid for it in cash, upfront. When you have a receipt for payment, you go back to the nurse’s station to proceed with the test. Then, prescription in hand, you once again go to the cashier. Receipt in hand, you can go to the pharmacist. She speaks no English at all.

Our Chinese colleagues routinely warned us to insist on prescriptions for Western medicine, not “TCM” – traditional Chinese medicine. For colds, this would include herbal teas, miso soup or concoctions containing cinnamon twig, ginger root, kudzu root and licorice.

Their pharmacies were fascinating, with big glass jars of chrysanthemum flowers, mulberry leaves, forsythia buds, lavender seeds and rosehips, among many others. There were boxes of teas, bottles of honeys and tablets made from fruit, leaves, flowers and bark for everything from weight loss to “Heat-clearing and Fire-draining.”

Glass cases displayed bones, antlers, claws and horns, many of them from endangered species.

Western medicines are very hard to find and very expensive when you do find them. It’s cheaper and safer to have them bought in America and shipped over. Chances are much better you’ll get the real McCoy, instead of an ineffective knockoff.

For some reason, the Chinese are particularly wary of antihistamines. They also regard blowing one’s nose into a tissue as a disgusting Western practice, while Westerners are appalled by the Chinese habit of emptying one’s nostrils right on the street, snorting clear first one, then the other.

One of our Australian colleagues had the bad luck to be hospitalized with appendicitis. It had to be removed.

During his stay, he was required to pay cash every day before midnight. He would throw a coat over his pajamas and, holding his fresh stitches together, tramp all the way out to the street where he could withdraw yuan from a bank ATM, then hobble back to his hospital bed.

Even though we had insurance from our employer, the best healthcare solution was the same as for those back home with no insurance – don’t get sick.

Coming next: Round eyes, big noses

Honorable-mention model worker


CHAPTER FIVE of “Commie wage slave,”  in which I learn how not to do my job

Image result for model worker china images

China Daily’s website was housed in a modern 10-story office building that didn’t contain a single Western toilet. A Chinese toilet, for those who don’t know, consists of a hole in the floor, possibly inside a stall that might or might not have a door. Users place one foot on either side and squat. The modern apartments I saw in Beijing typically had Western toilets, but public buildings, restaurants, parks, attractions and public bathrooms often did not.

One of my biggest accomplishments in China was to get through a whole year without using one of these squat toilets. I made free use of the Western toilet in the coffee shop just down the alley, where servers were accustomed to seeing foreigners dashing in for that reason. The two-percent, cultural-DNA difference here was a sign cautioning users not to throw toilet paper into the toilet. A wastebasket was provided.

We couldn’t enter or exit China Daily buildings without flashing our employee ID badges in front of the electronic eyes by the doors. It was said that those issued to Chinese employees also recorded the times of their entrances and exits. I don’t know what kind of monitoring took place in the office, but my Chinese colleagues liked to take cigarette breaks in a spot they thought was one of the few places they could talk without surveillance.

The offices themselves looked like Western cubicle farms, except that 99.99 percent of the heads bent over the keyboards were black-haired. Ours had a conference room with comfy chairs, a huge table and an awesome sound system (which younger staffers sometimes commandeered on weekend night shifts, cranking up Beyonce while dancing, singing and imbibing.) There was an attractive break room with café tables and chairs and a refrigerator. The water dispensers in every office provided hot water for tea or instant coffee. Most Chinese staffers brought their own carafes of loose-leaf tea.

The building didn’t run heat and air conditioning during the weekends, when some of us worked. When it got close to 90 degrees, someone would run out and get popsicles for everyone. Fans would be set up in the aisles.

Unlike newsrooms in the West, sites of workplace discussions and joking around, this office was quiet as a library. Nobody spoke; everybody texted. Most appeared to be in their 20s or 30s.

With few exceptions, nobody ever spoke to me even to say so much as hello or goodbye. If spoken to, most were polite but not talkative. This may have been reluctance to try speaking English, difficulty understanding it or worry about being seen conversing with a “spy” (as American employees were assumed to be).

Journalism, Chinese style

My main job was to fix the English in the mobile news reports, but every department sent me items, from the paper’s newsroom to the special advertising sections.

The Cultural Affairs department sent long, tedious articles touting tourist destinations: “Cultural Relic” (in this case, the Great Wall) “prepares to handle more tourists.”  Columnists sent editorials, some of them anti-American rants. The web site sent news stories.

Any foreigner on duty got bombarded with editing requests. The strangest I saw involved tidying up a letter from a Chinese businessman to former president Bill Clinton. Having been denied a visa to the United States, the businessman tried to persuade Clinton to intervene on his behalf. He must have had enough money or clout to ask a favor from an upper-management editor, who in turn thrust the letter upon one of the Chinese reporters to translate it from Mandarin then get the English corrected by one of the foreign staffers.

There was no assignment Chinese employees could turn down. Walls between journalism and advertising, personal gain and professional ethics simply didn’t exist. And in a country with far more people than jobs, nobody wanted to risk their own by saying no to a supervisor.

Normally, I had about two hours of work during the 2 p.m-to-10:30 p.m.  shift. About 3 p.m. and about 9 p.m., one of the Chinese editors would send me the latest mobile news report, destined for cell phones and other portable devices with Internet connections. It consisted of top news stories summarized in single paragraphs, mixed with headlines, human-interest briefs, photos and jokes. Each item was published in English and in Mandarin.

To Western minds, the logical way to do this would have been for us to write the English-language snippets, and for the Chinese to write them (or translate ours)  in Mandarin.

But we weren’t trusted. The bosses feared we’d try to slip pro-democracy messages into the copy, so the Chinese staffers prepared both versions, and their limited grasp of English showed.

Problems arose because they insisted that both versions match word-for-word (as if that were possible) – at least, that was the explanation given every time I tried to tighten the writing or reorganize the material, such as putting the most important fact first.

Western newswriting aims to be crisp, succinct, accurate and informative. Chinese newswriting is squishy, vague, wordy and open to interpretation. The element put at the top is the name of any official who wants to be credited for something or who attended an event, along with that person’s always grandiloquent title.

If an item contains news the government considers favorable, it’s shamelessly hyped. If it’s news that might cause a loss of face, it’s suppressed for as long as possible. Items that fall into the vast middle ground, where it’s unclear if something has major support or opposition, get the squishy treatment.

Part of this wordy vagueness, I gleaned, is cultural, related to the structure and use of languages I don’t speak or read. But a very big part is that it’s dangerous in China even to state an obvious fact. Someone powerful might take offense. Chinese reporters and editors have been fired and jailed for what they wrote or published.

So I learned to look first at the end of every article I was asked to edit, knowing that anything newsworthy would be buried beneath many paragraphs of inane quotes from people with long titles. Real news had to be tip-toed up to, quietly.

On a nuts-and-bolts level, one of the most common problems involved future and past tenses. Mandarin doesn’t have this feature, relying instead on context to convey such information. It wasn’t unusual to see an article simultaneously describing an event as happening now, about to happen and having already happened, which clearly called for some editing.

But any such effort on my part, which I thought of as doing my job and, incidentally, making them look good, always prompted head-shaking, heavy sighs and exasperated instructions that I couldn’t do that. If I changed the English version even a jot, the Mandarin version would have to be rewritten. Nobody explained why this couldn’t be done.

Although my Chinese colleagues supposedly had many years of education in English, most couldn’t understand the questions I asked while editing an article. This included top editors. I tried phrasing questions in the simplest terms, such as, “Does this mean black or white?” They’d answer, “Yes.” The only options left were to guess at what was meant or delete the murky language, which of course triggered protests.

Reports were compiled from the Chinese news service, Xinhua, and the websites of British, Indian and Australian newspapers, never American newspapers. Thus, they contained words and expressions such as “bourse” (stock exchange), “lorry” (truck), “thrice” (three times) and “in hospital.” Although American English is the global lingua franca, the paper clung to a type that sounded to Yankees like it might have been spoken by Dickens. American staffers fought a constant battle against this, always losing to the greater numbers and enthusiastic sabotage of the Brits, Indians, Aussies, Canadians and Kiwis on the staff, who would promptly change American words back to Britishisms after copy left our hands.

Another source the Chinese in my department used was the website Urban Dictionary, a compendium of American slang. Thus, the pseudo-word “recrap” appeared in – of all places – the Better English column in this example: “How did the meeting go?” “Allow me to recrap.”

This wouldn’t have been a problem if Chinese readers could be assumed to understand the term as cheeky slang and a play-on-words. But given the dismal English abilities of highly educated Chinese news staffers (who more than once have reprinted articles from The Onion because they didn’t realize it was satire), it wasn’t safe to assume that Chinese readers likely to be even less able with English would get that.

I spiked “recrap” three times – “thrice,” in China Daily terms. It still appeared in print.

Another gem that showed up in the Better English column was the term, blanket drill: “When I get out of the Army, I’m going to do the blanket drill from dawn to dusk” (although the writer probably meant from dusk to dawn). Not mentioned is that it’s a military euphemism for masturbation.

The paper also ran a Better Chinese column for foreigners trying to learn Mandarin. One of the examples raised alarming questions about why anyone thought a foreigner might need to understand these phrases: “Why do you refuse to confess? Someone else has already told us everything.”

The only time I managed to keep something inappropriate from publication was when the Chinese expression “iron cock” appeared in an article destined for the newspaper. It disappeared after I explained, partly with pantomime using an index finger springing stiffly upward, that the English translation pertained to a particular quality of male sexual anatomy.

It’s possible that these exercises in questionable taste simply reflected attempts by bored staffers to have a little fun. Since we couldn’t communicate well, I’ll never know.

Polishing the prose

At Western-style news organizations, my job would have been that of a copy editor, who looks for logical organization, completeness and accuracy as well as correct grammar, style and spelling. But in China, my job title was “polisher.”

This aptly describes the severe limitations of the job and the role of Chinese news media.

Although masquerading as a newspaper, China Daily is licensed, monitored, censored and used by the government for propaganda. That’s true, more or less, of everything the Chinese publish or broadcast. The paper’s resemblance to a genuine newspaper, and to the practice of journalism, is superficial.

Orders arrived daily from the propaganda authorities, cynically dubbed by Chinese as the Ministry of Truth. These described which topics, events, words and expressions were forbidden or mandated that day, how stories should be presented and what angles should be emphasized. They often included travel bans for reporters to disasters, demonstrations or riots. An on-site censor reviewed articles before publication.

I never saw these orders while in China, which considers them state secrets, but stumbled across their existence occasionally when I started writing columns for the newspaper and website. No topic was off-limits as long as these words never appeared: Taiwan, Tibet, Dalai Lama, democracy and separatism, the Chinese euphemism for independence movements in occupied “autonomous regions.”

If editors suspected something I wrote might trigger the censor to prohibit publication, they gave the column an innocuous and misleading headline. It saved the censor from having to read the entire item and the editors from having to scrape up something to fill the space at the last minute.

They didn’t hesitate to run columns about censorship, surveillance, corruption, greedy officials or suffering citizens, probably because few Chinese could read them. Publication of them gave visiting foreign English speakers, who might pick up the paper in a hotel, the misleading impression of a government confident enough to allow carping. These columns never attracted comment. The few Chinese who could read English were unlikely to risk publicly approving criticism of authorities, and it’s also likely censors deleted any.

For a column decrying the Chinese habit of public nose-picking, however, they allowed more than 440 comments to be published. A few applauded my screed, but many more accused me of cultural imperialism or a dastardly alliance with the Dalai Lama.

A Chinese co-worker quietly asked me, late one night in the almost deserted office, whether it was true that American news media were not censored. Yes, I said.

Really, he asked, none at all?

How about China Daily, he asked, can you buy it in the U.S.? I’ve never seen it there, I told him. “The government probably prevents it,” he said, meaning the U.S. government.

From his viewpoint, that’s a logical assumption. It might have perplexed him that the U.S. government would see nothing in China Daily to suggest it ought to be suppressed. He wouldn’t have believed me anyway.

Less is best

After several months of hearing exasperated sighs and seeing any corrections I made changed back to the original errors, I finally stopped trying to do anything but fix spelling and add punctuation. This delighted my Chinese editor and co-workers, but left me with a lot of empty time during my shifts.

I’d check my email, polish the afternoon mobile news report, cruise the Internet and maybe write a column, but that still would leave four or five hours to fill before the 9 p.m. report. Over time, it became clear that as a foreign expert I had leeway not enjoyed by the Chinese employees, and I began to use it.

At first, I had been scrupulous about not taking more than one hour for dinner. By the time I left China, I routinely took three or four hours, running errands, shopping and hanging out in some restaurant over dinner and a few beers.

Nobody ever said a word.

It took a while for me to reach this point. But guilt for taking advantage of my status diminished under the growing realization that the professional standards I was used to didn’t apply there. At China Daily, where only the appearance of journalism exists, trying to use notions of accuracy and fairness led to bafflement and frustration all around, as almost every skill I thought I’d been hired to provide was rejected or ignored.

At first, I’d send copy back to reporters with notes such as, “Please ask your senior editor about the underlined sentence. It may be libelous.” Or, “Please verify the accuracy of the claim that 9 million people attended the 15th annual Tianjin Special Industrial District Weekend Expo.”

This must have bemused the Chinese reporters (if they could understand the questions). I hadn’t yet learned that China doesn’t have a functioning legal system, so concerns about libel were pointless. And accuracy was far less important than putting a good face on events.

After a while, it seemed futile to continue beating my head against this wall. I could quit clinging to insistence on meeting my standards or spend the remaining long months vexing my Chinese co-workers while I fumed. I chose to let go.

Not every Westerner managed to reach this point, and those who couldn’t, suffered. Renee, for example, volunteered to update the style manual. She spent countless hours of her own time working on it under pressure of an unreasonable deadline demanded by editors, only to see it ignored, then discarded. Annette gave weekly classes on news reporting and writing to Chinese staffers who never would be allowed the chance to fully use them.

Sometimes the Chinese staffers suffered, too. One of the British copy editors became notorious for the shrill tantrums she inflicted on reporters for their poor English or sloppy reporting. Inept though their English might have been, they understood the insulting tone of her shouted criticisms.

What we didn’t realize was that our presence at China Daily was really just for face. Chinese businesses that managed to employ Westerners gained tremendous prestige. There were Americans in Beijing who got paid to pretend they worked for Chinese companies, being shown off at dinners, trade shows or conventions while collecting big per diem fees for just nodding and smiling.

That’s what we were at China Daily – Western window dressing. Our real job was to bolster the appearance of success. The actual substance required for it, beyond nodding and smiling, wasn’t wanted.

After a few months, I stopped pestering reporters and editors with questions they couldn’t understand or making changes I knew would be rejected. No doubt as a result of my more cooperative attitude, the department head told me I had been nominated for one of the paper’s yearly Model Worker awards. Although I didn’t win, they gave me a small bonus, a book of movie coupons and a gift certificate to the Japanese department store Ito Yokado, whose grocery kept me in baguettes, butter and cheese for a good while.

Coming next: Cold wars