I Make English-Language Propaganda for the Chinese Communist Party
An insider's account of the bizarre world of the Chinese state-run English-language media.
Photo via Flickr user wfeiden
Every morning, my workday begins with a selection of stories. "Human Rights Advancing in China" is a typical headline. "Building Prosperity in Tibet" or "A Step Up for Chinese Democracy" are other possibilities. There is usually at least one blistering denunciation of Japan, along with a few promising economic forecasts.
I am a journalist, and not for the Onion. The magazine I work for is one of several foreign-language rags published under the eminent leadership of the Communist Party of China. Along with dozens of other "foreign experts" at the Death Star—as an English colleague nicknamed the gray block of concrete cubes on the west side of Beijing where we work—our job is ostensibly to introduce the realities of China and its socialist democracy to the rest of the world.
The Death Star is just a small patch in a constellation of foreign-language propaganda outlets. The Communist Party controls newspapers, magazines, book publishers, websites, wire services, and television and radio stations. Some are explicitly state-owned; others are nominally independent but rely on government funding. Together they employ hundreds of foreigners as writers, editors, performers, and news anchors. All of them share the patriotic duty of broadcasting the truth about New China.
My career in the propaganda machine began during the annual scramble for a work permit. I had already drunk my way through a few years in the Chinese ESL-industrial complex when I chanced across an ad for a job in the media. The pay wasn't great, but at least I wouldn't have to supervise children. After wowing the managers with my journalistic credentials (two articles in a high school newspaper) and a very perfunctory interview, I was duly furnished with a work visa, desk, computer, and stack of business cards that identified me as a "Copy Editor/Reporter."
Reporter, I thought. Damn right.
I was following in the cobwebbed footsteps of a long tradition of pro-Chinese cheerleaders. Beginning in the 1950s, Communism's Caucasian admirers founded journals like mine to refute the lies of the capitalist media. Paradise was within reach, but you couldn't trust the bourgeois Western papers to share the good news. Reporters were gladly taken around on stage-managed show tours, where they wrote of bulging granaries and happy peasants. "More Crops with Co-ops," the Peking Review announced cheerfully in 1958, on the eve of China's greatest famine. When Serfs Stood Up in Tibet was Anna Louise Strong's glowing account of that province's joyful liberation.
Today the job is rather less exciting. The "foreign experts" at the Death Star spend most of their time editing and proofreading the translated work of Chinese writers. Occasionally we might write something on culture or music, as long as we keep a safe distance from politics. I find it disappointingly non-Orwellian.
"I usually read a piece once, and then I look it up on Google to find out what actually happened."
But there are plenty of catch-22s. My editor once asked me to write an article about Mark Zuckerberg after the billionaire broke the internet by publicly conversing in Mandarin. "We'd like you to write a feature about Mark Zuckerberg's career," she said, "but try not to talk too much about Facebook. You know it's blocked here."
Then there was also the need to maintain political correctness—a phrase that takes a much more literal meaning in China. As an expat I already knew better than to mention the four forbidden T's—Taiwan, Tibet, Tiananmen Square, and the Muslim province of East Turkestan, formally known as Xinjiang. But now I had to learn a whole new vocabulary of political euphemisms. China's political system is a " consultative democracy"—the government asks for opinions before it makes a decision. By the way, it's also not a one-party system: Ours is a "multiparty system of democratic cooperation." There actually are other political parties, but their activity is limited to encouragement and helpful suggestions. Taiwan is usually referred to as "China's Taiwan" and Tibet is very often "China's Tibet"—just in case you were wondering about who owns those masses of land.
Worse than the euphemisms are the bureaucratic clichés—my job is sometimes like a Chinese version of Office Space. "I'm so sick of reading words like innovation and win-win mutual cooperation ," said Alex,* who works for the Beijing—formerly Peking—Review, one of communist China's first English-language magazines. "Sometimes you see the word cooperation four times in one sentence."
I remember finding one especially painful example in an article about "the new-type model of major power relations between China and the United States," a phrase that was duplicated in its entirety at least once in each paragraph. In every revision I mercilessly slashed it out, only to find in the next draft that some variation of "the new-type model of major power relations" had somehow crept back in. "It's a set phrase," my chief editor explained. "We're not supposed to change it." This what you get when you let bureaucratic functionaries set your editorial policies.
I quickly realized that most of us work with our fingers crossed behind our backs. "It's just propaganda," a Chinese colleague shrugged dismissively. An American co-worker was even more blunt. "I usually read a piece once, and then I look it up on Google to find out what actually happened."
Once in a while, we get a taste of proper 1950s-style agitprop. Japan is a favorite target, and it is a rare month that there is not at least one article on Japanese war crimes. There are also plenty of shrill polemics against the United States for trying to steal Taiwan and on the Philippines for encroaching on the South China Sea.
Usually these accusations are tone-deaf, like when the authorities think they're insulting someone by comparing them to the Dalai Lama. More recently, China used the Snowden revelations as ammunition against the United States, which was accused —without any sense of irony—of violating human rights.
Show tours are still a thing, too. Sometimes foreign colleagues are brought on guided trips to other provinces or ethnic-minority areas, where they "report" on festivities by the happy locals. Last summer they took us to a carefully manicured model village at the edge of Beijing, where we were treated to an excellent lunch and a droning sermon from the village leaders. I could not help noticing that, besides the hotel staff and politicians, no one actually seemed to live there.
I met Richard* on one of these media field trips. He works in publishing, writing textbooks for foreigners studying Chinese abroad. Even the language students, he says, get their share of doctrine.
"One of the biggest problems [with our books] is the propaganda," he says. "They sneak their territorial claims into the textbooks. They know that no one's ever going to believe it, but they still send it overseas."
Some of the material Richard has seen wanders into tinfoil-hat territory. "There's all kinds of ultra-nationalistic nonsense and mythology. I edited a chapter once about how the original Buddhist scriptures were written in China. It's a complete myth." Another article, he said, claimed that Tiananmen Square had "the longest history of peaceful gatherings."
"Some of the foreign staff smoke pot at work. I've seen people come in to meetings high."
Richard attributed the organizational inertia to one of communism's most famous shortcomings. "There are no incentives," he said. "You don't have to work hard here. For every person who busts his ass, there are four or five who are just moseying along. Most of this company is losing money because people have no sense of business. We spent at least a million dollars on a really high-end teaching course—professional actors, directors, everything. It's sitting in a warehouse now because they won't bother to market it."
It wasn't just the Chinese, either. "Some of the foreign staff smoke pot at work. I've seen people come in to meetings high."
Richard and I got into the habit of spending our lunch breaks in the mezzanine of the Death Star's sumptuous European-style café. It's a relaxing place to escape from Beijing's noise and toxic air. That's where I met Alex and Chris,* who sat for coffee and told me about their jobs.
"I hate it when they call us language polishers," Chris told me. "It's as if the articles were finished, and they just need us to buff out the rough bits. Like it's just cosmetics. Sometimes we have to rewrite whole articles. What we do isn't makeup; it's reconstructive surgery."
Unlike the rest of us, Chris seems to take his job seriously. "There's no sense of art," he said. "There's no style. There's no incentive to improve the writing."
Chris had held workshops to improve the quality of his colleagues' writing. "We all know that we're propagandists. We can't change the facts we use, but at least we could improve the style," he said. "What we write is a hard sell for any Western reader, but at least we don't have to keep boring them."
Of course, the journalistic standards are weaker, too. "We've got a big problem with sources," Alex said. "They don't bother with quotations or sources or anything. Sometimes they telepathize their subjects. They'll say, 'He felt deeply moved,' or 'The people were inspired by the speech.' I bring this up with the writers and they say, 'It was like that in the original,' or 'I don't see why this is a problem.' In the States you'd get fired for that."
As China develops into a country of smartphones and cappuccinos, the duties of propaganda are going beyond conventional media. Our bosses know that, like all expats , their foreign employees depend on Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) for daily essentials like porn and Google. And we're not the only ones who need them.
As it tries to rebrand, the government is looking to social media—despite the pervasive censorship, colloquially known as the "Great Firewall of China," which keeps the best parts of the internet inaccessible. Like computer-illiterate grandparents, the Communist Party needs our help posting to Twitter and Facebook.
"It's like they want all the benefits of social media and none of the consequences," Alex says. "I write the tweets for our magazine every week. But instead of just posting them, I have to send them to the web editor, who passes them on to the North American bureau.
"I only realized after a couple of days that I was expected to just use a VPN," Alex continued. "They also expect us to promote the magazine on our own Facebook profiles. They want to use us for advertising, but they won't pay $60 for a VPN."
Alex wasn't the only one. Richard was also assigned work editing his company's Facebook profile. "I said, 'How am I supposed to access Facebook? Are you going to pay for a VPN?' They replied: 'Just use your own.'"
Of course, Chinese officials could not keep face if they paid for a VPN—that would mean acknowledging censorship exists.
It was like a Monty Python sketch—a government-owned company was ready to pay for illegal software to circumvent government censorship.
The situation got more Kafkaesque last June, when the government celebrated the Tiananmen anniversary by adding Google to the block list. Several offices, including mine, depended on Google for their everyday operations: not only the search functions but Google Translate (which is far superior to China's Baidu), Google Drive, and Gmail. The sudden clampdown caught us all by surprise.
"If this goes on much longer," my boss sighed after the second week of using Bing, "I think we might have to get that software."
It was like a Monty Python sketch—a government-owned company was ready to pay for illegal software to circumvent government censorship. Part of me secretly hoped they would keep up the censorship, just to see that happen, but the irony must have been too overt even for the dimly flickering bulbs of the internet police. Google Translate and some other functions were eventually unblocked, but search and mail remain inaccessible.
West of the Death Star, in Babaoshan, stands the headquarters of China Radio International—China's answer to the BBC. Founded amid the bombs and shells of the War of Anti-Japanese Resistance—World War II to the rest of the world—the radio station is older than the People's Republic. Today CRI employs voices in dozens of languages.
Alan* used to work in the English section. Unlike some of my colleagues, he can call himself a journalist with a straight face. With 15 other regular broadcasters, his job was to keep China on the air, in English, for 24 hours a day—ventriloquizing the government with a polished British accent.
"They don't actually lie," he confided. "It's not that kind of propaganda where they change the news. But some stuff they simply won't talk about.
"I was in the newsroom during the umbrella protests [in Hong Kong], and we were talking about which stories to cover," he continued. "The protests simply didn't come up. The same thing happened during the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen—no one even suggested it."
I asked what would happen if he'd suggested those stories. "It's not that they'd shut you down," he answered. "They won't say, 'We're not allowed to talk about those subjects because it's politically sensitive.' But they'd blow you off. They'll say something like, 'We've covered that before,' or 'I don't think this story sounds very interesting.'"
Still, we have very little to complain about. Life is pretty easy in the Death Star, and most of us work at the level of efficiency for which Chinese bureaucrats are famous. After a disgracefully late arrival to the office (generally between 9:30 and 10), we try to find some time between cigarette breaks to edit a few articles before retiring to the café for a two-and-a-half hour lunch break. At two, we return to the office to study Chinese, work on freelance projects, or—if especially weakened by the day's toils—watch videos on YouTube through our illegal VPNs.
As the Russians used to say, "They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work."
Whenever I meet with foreign colleagues we usually share a laugh about the silliness we put in print. We reassure ourselves that it's just muscle-building for our serious careers in "real journalism." Sometimes we even believe it.
All countries use propaganda, of course. A great deal of my time is spent wondering if the Western media is any better. Once in a while I feel a slight twinge of bad conscience, and wonder if I should feel a bit more uneasy about working in a giant authoritarian lie factory. But at least I have the consolation of knowing that the product is defective.
"For a propaganda machine," Richard told me, "they're not that good at it."
*Several names in this article, including that of the author, have been changed to protect those still working in China.