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Reporter’s Notebook: My Brush with Chinese Censorship

During our recently-concluded 11 day reporting trip in China, our work was relatively unimpeded. We had access to top officials, critics of the government, members of the public, and we worked without a government minder.

Sure, as expected, various web sites were blocked (including the New York Times and video feeds on the NewsHour), however, we saw nothing of the more heavy handed repression — detentions of democracy advocates and lawyers, roughing up of Western journalists and intensive monitoring of the internet — that has been stepped up during recent Arab revolutions. But suddenly, a classic and blatant form of Chinese censorship hit us in the eye.

At Beijing airport on our way to southern China, cameraman Denis Levkovich bought the March 21, 2011 edition of Time magazine. On our plane trip, I asked to borrow it, and on page 12 came across a curious item. Under the headline, “Chinese Military Gets a Raise,” a few words seemed crudely blacked out by hand. The story had a Beijing dateline and the words below the half-obliterated line read: “National People’s Congress gathered in Beijing for its annual confab…”

mag.jpgI thought that maybe Denis had been using a marker that had somehow bled through to the page, but he hadn’t. It was not difficult to make out the three words someone had tried to obscure at the beginning of the sentence. By holding the magazine up to the light and tilting it to the side, the words that read clear were Time magazine’s description of the Chinese body: “The rubber stamp National People’s Congress…”

The marking was deliberate. I checked other copies of the magazine when we returned to the airport. The same words had been crossed out by hand. Time magazine spokesman Daniel Kile said such censorship “is common” in the People’s Republic of China. He said Time has a weekly circulation of 300,000 in Asia, but wouldn’t say how many are distributed in China.

It would have been a pointless exercise to get a comment from the Chinese information ministry, so I didn’t bother. The clumsy black line on the paper spoke for itself. But the more I thought about my own personal and minor brush with three banned words, the more I came to regard it as a personal affront. Someone deliberately altered the magazine that would wind up in my hands in order to prevent me from reading the banned phrase.

As government suppression goes, this admittedly was a trivial example. There had been no physical violence, no house arrest, no banned meeting or covert interception of communications, the kind of surveillance or suppression that gets dissidents whisked into interrogation rooms. But nonetheless, the same kind of perverted thinking was in play: the words were dangerous, possibly seditious, might lead to further thought, discussion, unwelcome dissent or challenge.

What was it I wondered that led to the physical act of striking out a phrase in a western publication? Did some “Committee of the Proper and Improper” read each remark in every foreign publication about China and then decide which ones would be have to be deleted in order to protect the state and which would be deemed palatable to the wider audience? Were committee members themselves completely insulated from taint? Or was there a small possibility that some censorship bureaucrats had in a moment of whimsy suffered a casual lapse by reading and considering the banned words, only to have become contaminated themselves? Did the thought occur to anyone that highlighting “the rubber stamp” so artlessly actually called unwanted attention to it by both the reader and the wielder of the marker?

And what of the actual act of censorship? How was that organized? How many were employed in this useless endeavor? Did rows of grey-suited officials armed with black felt pens have to sit at conveyer belts loaded with magazines patiently drawing lines next to the word “BEIJING?” Or was the excising the responsibility of just one poor schnook sitting at a desk with piles of Time magazines, hoping for a promotion for a job well done – maybe the possibility of hitting the big time and earning the opportunity to cross out whole sentences in future publications? Did the censor(s) understand English, or know what they were crossing out, or understand what a “rubber stamp” is? And what of the intended audience? Is it even possible that readers of an English-language newsweekly would have mistaken the Chinese People’s National Congress for a western-style parliamentary deliberative body but for the deletion of “the rubber stamp?”

I wasn’t surprised by the censorship itself, more by the hamfistedness of it. And I’m not naive enough to recognize that some form of journalistic selection and filtering doesn’t take place everywhere, even where the news media and government are ostensibly more enlightened. We just don’t call it censorship.

The markings on the Time magazine page resembled the “redactions” commonly seen on the releases of U.S. Freedom of Information Act requests. In newsrooms, the process of decision making is opaque to the viewer, listener, or reader. Even those who subscribe to the notion of “objective” journalism and profess no political agenda have their news and editorial decisions shaped by a variety of influences. Given space and time limitations, editors must decide which items get play and which ones to exclude. Influences range from the subtle effects of their upbringing, to their social circles, to the pack mentality of “conventional wisdom,” or to contacts and requests from government and military officials, friends, or other trusted sources.

That’s not to say that all censorship is equal or justifiable. In China, the limited debate and discussion, enforced by armies of monitors and censors, occurs because of the common belief that too much discourse can disrupt social harmony. In the United States, there is a common editorial consensus that tends to narrow the range of political debate. In Europe or Latin America for instance, more left-of-center factions are considered part of the mainstream.

News consumers, generally unaware of how the sausage is actually made, get a rare opportunity, when in a case in which published words are clearly blacked out, they can actually witness a heavy editorial hand at work. Maybe there’s something to be said, not for the censorship itself, but for its glaring obviousness.

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