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