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.
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.