The drama in JFK Miller’s tenure as a magazine editor in Shanghai from 2006-2011 came not from deadlines or chasing stories, but official censorship. Six years later, Miller’s account of this experience isn’t so much outdated as understated, because censorship in China is still just as pertinent now as it was then, except it is more severe and wider ranging.
Miller worked at That’s Shanghai, one of the city’s main expatriate English-language magazines, during which he had to face down constant censorship as he rose all the way to editor-in-chief. It is a sad reflection of the current government that censorship has increased from six years ago instead of the opposite, which Miller describes by mentioning more recent incidents such as the 2015 summer stock market crash. Miller’s time in China ended before the rise of social media in the country on local platforms like Sina Weibo and Wechat, but even then censorship also extended to the online sphere.
Far from being a political publication that pushed buttons with provocative political stories, That’s was filled with mainly entertainment, arts and restaurant review articles geared at expats. There were also feature stories about social and cultural issues, as well as edgier arts pieces, and not surprisingly, this was where Miller often ran into trouble.
Magazines like That’s are mainly for non-Chinese and was one of the most interesting expat magazines when I was in Beijing a couple of years ago. However, the origin of That’s is rooted in controversy. It was started by Mark Kitto, an Englishman who built up a mini media empire in China which was then ruthlessly taken from him by his former partner, who Miller does mention in the book as the secretive publisher of That’s. Kitto would later write two books about this ordeal and his career in China, but many probably know him for his provocative 2012 article about why he left China and why a foreigner could never be Chinese.
Through the scope of censorship, Miller provides insights about Chinese society such as Chinese media, the official attitude towards history, and Chinese film industry. He is able to do this is because censorship is such a pervasive part of life in the country, extending from the news to textbooks to even entertainment. While there are several major topics, namely the three Ts—Taiwan, Tibet, Tiananmen—that can never be contested, trivial or non-sensitive stories can also fall afoul of censors. Even stories that are non-political but may have a bit that is remotely offensive or insulting to the country or the government can be censored or cut, such as a story profiling migrant workers in Shanghai that the censor flagged because it was about “poor” people and would supposedly shame the city.
For people who live or work in China and are familiar with the news, little of this may come as a shock, but there are some particularly insightful parts in the book such as the chapter comparing Beijing and Shanghai, and the writer’s meeting with several of his magazine’s censors. But Miller does well in highlighting the scope, severity and absurdity of China’s censorship through his daily experience, meticulous explanations and examples.
As someone who worked in China at a state media outlet, I could attest to how censorship is ever-present in the workplace. Even something as innocuous as Chinese leaders’ names in a story or a Western automobile executive exclaiming about the bad smog in Beijing could lead to deletions of entire paragraphs or entire stories being scrapped.
Besides censorship, the book is an interesting account of a foreigner in a media outlet in China. While Miller was not exactly doing hard-hitting journalism, he still faced the force of censorship regularly. As a foreigner, especially from a Western country like Australia, he did not bear the full brunt of censorship. It certainly is an annoyance, and something he feels constrained his career all those years in China, but he does not need to fear it. He has the ability to directly question and challenge instances of censorship, which most local Chinese do not have the luxury to, having learned to accept and not question it.
But the author’s most striking admission is how censorship can become self-controlling as it became a habit for him, an Australian, to second-guess himself about whether he should run certain articles. As Miller admits,
self-censorship is essentially self-preservation. The first law of nature is also the first law of self-censorship. Work goes into a story; work you’d rather not waste with a careless indiscretion that may fall foul of your censor.
One can imagine how galling this is for someone who grew up in an open, democratic society where the media can always be counted on to report on the most provocative news, whether it be politics or arts.
If a Westerner like Miller, and many other expats in Chinese media organizations, can become cowed by this, one can easily understand why Chinese are even more gripped by censorship. Not that there aren’t local editors and journalists who struggle against censorship to still produce important journalism, but their toil seems like a sisyphean struggle.
Enduring censorship and then engaging in it as well is the perplexing quandary that foreigners who work in Chinese media outlets of any kind, whether a newspaper or an entertainment magazine like That’s, must endure. It is even more frustrating because there is always something monumental or bizarre or tragic going on in China that one can always report on, or try to. This compromising media environment is not something that anyone should put up with for too long, and eventually Miller does not when he decides to leave the That’s and China after six years.
At the end, Miller admits to being profoundly touched by his time in China, something that is true for many other expats. And it is also true that as a foreigner working within a Chinese-owned media organization, Miller had an ideal vantage point to observe and record the censorship going on around him. Unfortunately, the problem of censorship does not seem to be in any danger of fading anytime soon in China.