Our censor, an employee of MOFCOMM, was a nervous, flighty woman in her forties with long, frizzy hair and a high, childlike voice, whose name was Snow. (Snow requested I only use her English name for this article.) In late September of this year, I learned that Snow left the magazine, enabling me to finally write this story without fear that it would affect her job.
[…] In our December 2007 issue, we had a paragraph saying that the Chinese oil and gas giant PetroChina had been pushing forward aggressively in its overseas acquisitions. Earlier that year it had bought a 67 percent stake in PetroKazakhstan, and it had plans to buy more oil and gas assets in Africa, Northern Europe, and Southeast Asia. Snow wrote, “Better to delete, it is an oral request that the energy sector’s overseas acquisition is not encouraged to report.” In other words, we wouldn’t find any overt directives in writing anywhere, but those in the know understood that this subject was touchy.
All of this pointed to the petty human dynamics that underscored the censorship. The things Snow flagged were rarely taboo because of any overt directive from above. More often, it seemed to me that she thought it might offend another government ministry, which would bring retaliation upon her own ministry. Or, if Snow personally didn’t find a statement sensitive, she worried that her boss might, or her boss thought that his boss might. Everyone was guessing where the line fell, taking two steps back from it to be extra safe, and self-censoring accordingly.
A similar pattern can be seen ahead of next month’s 18th Party Congress in Beijing, where fruit knives have been removed from store shelves and window handles from the rear doors of taxis. Li Dan, of the Dongjen Center for Human Rights Education, told the Los Angeles Times’ Barbara Demick that “it has become a habit over the years. At the lower levels, officials are afraid they will be punished if anything goes wrong at a crucial moment. There is always, every year, some big reason they claim they cannot be relaxed.”