Editor's note: Mitch Moxley arrived in Beijing in the spring of 2007 to work for the China Daily, the country's best-known English-language daily newspaper. While his stint at the paper lasted just one year, Moxley remained in China until 2013, publishing articles in The Atlantic, among other places. His memoir, Apologies to my Censor, was published by Harper Perennial last month. In this excerpt, Moxley describes the day-to-day work at the China Daily, which differed ... just a bit ... from what he expected.
Ms. Feng's instructions for most of the stories I wrote for China Daily were straightforward: "Find out what Westerners think."
It was clear early on that Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism would not be expected of me as a writer for China Daily, and before long, I owned the "What Westerners Think About Stuff" beat. Property prices, Chinese products, websites about China -- I was tasked to find out what foreigners thought about it all. It seemed the editors simply wanted me out of sight, out of mind, and that was fine with me.
The stories I was assigned were mostly puff pieces that would be tucked into the business section's back pages, or in a weekend supplement called Business Weekly. One of the first stories I wrote for China Daily, with a Chinese cowriter, was about an Israeli products fair downtown. We sampled olives and hummus and wine. It was a lovely afternoon, but it wasn't a story. It shouldn't have even garnered a brief, but we wrote a feature about it anyway, reporting—despite a total lack of substantiating evidence—that Israeli goods were taking the Chinese market by storm.
For another story, the editors sent me to Beijing's famous Silk Street market. Silk Street, or Xiushui, had long been a symbolic thorn in the side of Western governments and companies that wanted China to crack down on counterfeit products and intellectual property rights violations. In a rare victory for legitimate brands, Chinese authorities had recently "reorganized" Xiushui to concentrate on high-quality silk while eliminating fake goods. China Daily, in fact, wrote a story declaring the market to be 100 percent free of counterfeit products.
"Find out what Westerners think about that," Ms. Feng said.
I arrived at the Silk Market to find the place full, from floor to ceiling, with fake products--jeans, jackets, shoes, underwear, everything. Whatever one wanted, it was all there, and it was almost all counterfeit. The silk was real, so I was told, but there were no foreigners buying it. In fact, fake stuff was exactly what foreigners wanted. "I just want cheap crap to bring back as presents," one young American told me. (I did a little shopping myself, buying a pair of knockoff Calvin Klein underwear.)
The next morning at China Daily, I relayed my conclusion that the reason foreigners went to Xiushui was for cheap knockoffs, not expensive silk. I was wearing the evidence.
"You can't mention counterfeit," the Business Weekly editor said. "We could get sued."
"But the stuff is counterfeit. The whole market is counterfeit."
"But the government has really cracked down on the intellectual property rights issue, sooooo ... ," he trailed off.
After some debate with my editor, I was allowed to report that foreigners liked the market for its "low-cost goods." All mentions of knockoffs were stripped from the story.
While writing government-friendly puff pieces took up most of my workweek, Friday was the one day I still worked an editing shift, polishing the China Daily opinion pages. Many of the articles weren't so much arguments supported by fact, but rants supported by nothing. Many violated everything I had ever learned about journalistic ethics, including China Daily's own code: "Factual, Honest, Fair, Complete." It was sometimes hard to stomach editing the opinion pages, but I didn't have much of a choice. I knew any complaints would fall on deaf ears.
The articles themselves proved tricky to edit. When articles I edited for the business section were poorly written, I would return them to the reporter for rewrites before I took to editing the story. I couldn't do this with the opinion pages, however; the authors were often senior editors or important Chinese academics from leading universities.