One day I edited an op-ed praising China's state-required college entrance exam—the bane of every senior high school student in the country. Universities selected students based almost entirely on their exam scores. The story was repetitive and nonsensical. It was the fifth of seven stories of a thousand-plus words I was supposed to edit that day, and I was getting fed up. I completely rewrote the story, which we were discouraged from doing. I removed all redundancies, awkward sentences, and unnecessary jargon. The resulting story was about half the length of the original. Although it still lacked a point, at least it was written in clear, proper English.
Late in the afternoon, one of the opinion page's editors, a friendly middle-aged Chinese man with a gap-toothed smile, approached my desk. He removed his glasses and sighed.
"Moxley," he said, confusing the order of my names. "We have a problem. You have polished too much. We cannot fit the stories onto the page. It's too short."
"A lot of it was repetitive," I said. "In some paragraphs the author was trying to make one point but saying it in four different ways. So I changed it to one way."
"Yes, the polishing is okay, but we cannot fit it on the page."
After a few moments of stalemate, I agreed to redo the edits. As the editor walked away I opened the original story. Without making any changes, I sent it back to him, word for word the original—the same way it ran in the next day's paper.
Nobody said a thing.
The next week, I showed up at work and Harry, my anti-foreigner, anti-Shanghainese, anti-Taiwanese desk-mate, was gone. My new neighbor introduced himself as Wang—"just Wang is okay," he said. (For newcomers to China, keeping track of people surnamed Wang can be daunting.) Wang was the same age as me, thin and bespectacled with immaculate hair parted to the side. He was a Communist Party member, he told me, not because he was necessarily interested in politics or the Party, but because it was key for career success. Membership mostly entailed spending the odd weekend away at Party conferences, where officials would drone on about policy and ideology for hours. Wang covered natural resources for the paper and he was good at his job. He worked the phones all day and filed clean copy.
One Friday, a few weeks later, I noticed Wang was proofreading the opinion pages I had edited. Initially I took this as a slight to my work, and then I became nervous that my bosses had figured out that I didn't actually read the proofreading pages.
"Why do they need you to work as a proofreader anyway?" I asked. "You're already working all day as a reporter."
"They need me to look for political mistakes."
"Political mistakes? Like what?"
"Like Taiwan and Hong Kong, for example. Or another example: the other day there was a reference to South Korea as 'Korea.' That is not acceptable. Because there are two Koreas, South Korea and North Korea, and one Korea cannot represent both Koreas. If we have that, North Korea will call China Daily and be very upset with us."
I pulled out a proofreading sheet and found a story that mentioned Taiwan as a Chinese province.
"Hey, I found a political mistake here. Shouldn't this say 'China and Taiwan,' which are two separate countries? Like North and South Korea?"
Silence. Wang grabbed the paper and held the sheet of paper inches from his glasses.
"I'm joking," I said.
Wang just laughed nervously.