IN 2009, I HAD JUST GRADUATED from college with a degree in journalism. This was the worst time in about 80 years to graduate, and possibly the worst time in history to graduate with a journalism degree. Newspapers were closing down everywhere, and internet writing had yet to become a financially reasonable profession.
So I took an unpaid internship for the op-ed page at an English-language newspaper in Beijing. I knew that China’s record when it came to freedom of the press was a bit lackluster, and that the paper I would be working for was state-run, but I also thought it would be a cool experience, so I got on a plane and flew across the Pacific.
When I arrived, I was told to monitor the foreign editorial pages for stories about China so that the newspaper could respond. My second day on the job was June 3, 2009. This was the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
I went into my boss’s office with a stack of article print-outs.
“Anything about China in the news?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s all about the Tiananmen Square protests 20 years ago.”
“Anything else?” she said.
“No,” I responded. “Just that.”
She paused, clearly uncomfortable. I continued, “Can I write a draft of an article for you?”
“No,” she said, “Maybe focus on something else.”
“Are you sure?” I said, “Because there are stories about this everywhere. It seems weird for us to not respond at all.”
“No, you can go back to your desk now.”
“We don’t have to be critical of the government,” I said, “We can just explain it from the Chinese side.”
“Please go back to your desk.”
I went back to my desk annoyed. The next day, I wasn’t called into the editor’s office for the op-ed breakdown. Nor on the day after that. Nor on the day after that. After a week of not being spoken to by anyone in the office, I knew I was being intentionally ignored. My internship still had over a month and a half remaining, so I would go in everyday, play solitaire, and then go out drinking with the other Americans on the internship.
After a month, I decided to quit early and travel. A few of the other interns decided to join me, so some British journalists offered to take us out for drinks. I sat next to a Brit in his mid-50s, and, after getting a few drinks in me, I started ranting about the cowardice of Chinese journalists. He listened patiently, and then said, “That’s not been my experience of Chinese journalists. I’ve found them to be quite brave.”
I snorted. “How?”
“You’ve been here what, two months?” He said, “You need to get to know the system better before you can attack it. These journalists are quite subversive, but they have to be more subtle in their attacks than a British or American could be. They don’t seek to topple anything, just to chip away. Keep in mind very few western journalists are actually risking their necks when they go to work every day.”
He gave me an example. A few years back, the government told some local reporters to cover a “successful” language program, which was aimed at training a new generation of students to be international businessmen. The program, though, had been a money pit and a failure. The journalists couldn’t say this in the paper without risking government reprisals, but they knew that the censors’ command of English language was not perfect. So they resorted instead to puns.
The piece was titled, “GOVERNMENT CREATES ARMY OF CUNNING LINGUISTS.”
I have since tried to find a record of that piece, but I can’t. The journalist’s story may have been apocryphal, or maybe it was published before newspaper articles were put online. But in 2014, the Chinese government banned the use of puns and idioms, warning that the use of them could lead to “cultural and linguistic chaos.” The government had caught onto the dangers of wordplay, and apparently agreed with the journalists: language could be subversive.
For me, the lesson was the most important I’ve learned while traveling: my way of doing things is not always going to be the right way of doing things, and I should shut up and learn before I dive into a situation with a one-size-fits-all solution. I still believe freedom of speech would be good for China, but I no longer think that freedom of speech has to look like Woodward and Bernstein toppling a President. It can be more subtle. It can be a slower burn. It can be as simple as a cunnilingus pun.