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For aspiring writers few things are as genuinely exciting as exploring strange new lands, late-night hi-jinks, falling in love, and maybe even putting in an honest day’s work now and then. Journalist Mitch Moxley’s details all that in his book Apologies to My Censor: The High and Low Adventures of a Foreigner in China, a fun and entertaining look at working at the country’s state-run newspaper China Daily and beyond.
And now Mitch, or Mi Gao as he’s known in China, was kind enough to open up about his time spent ringside at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, misconceptions about censorship, and why pandering is never a good idea.A definite must-read for anyone interested in international journalism, and check out our review for Apologies to My Censor: The High and Low Adventures of a Foreigner in China.
Congratulations on the book! What’s most interesting is that your adventure in China just happened to coincide with one of the country’s most critical modernization efforts, the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
What was it like to find yourself in a place where the lines between patriotism and propaganda often blurred?
The lead-up to the Olympics was an interesting time in China. Patriotism was running at crazy highs but all these big problems were becoming increasingly evident. There was the ongoing environment problems; the displacement of people to make way for huge development projects, including the stadiums; the stresses of urban migration; strife in Tibet and Xinjiang, to name a few. A lot of Chinese were aware of and angry with all of these things, but at China Daily, where I worked, there was often a lot of tension between the Chinese and Western staff when discussing these issues. There was this sense the Olympics were China’s celebration of the country’s achievements, and they didn’t want anybody to rain on their parade.
The timing of your book must seem like a bit of providence, given the kerfuffle surrounding the outing of the US government’s substantial data mining activities with NSA, PRISM, Ed Snowden and the like. Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer even suggested tech companies could be tried for ‘treason’ for noncompliance with government requests.
This kind of stuff just isn’t supposed to happen in America, right? I’m curious what your thoughts on the whole mess are?
I think there’s this idea in Western minds that our system of government and way of life is innately better than China’s. Maybe there’s some truth to that – I would certainly prefer to live in a democracy, whatever its faults, than in an one-party state – but it’s much more of a gray area than that. There are wonderful freedoms in the U.S., but then you have a government that monitors you. There are horrible things happening in China (a Nobel prize winner languishing in jail, for one), but at the same time anybody who goes there for an extended period is amazed at how much freedom there is on the ground level. A lot of people are not afraid to be critical of the government. There’s a sense in China that the government is more of an inconvenience – “It’s doing its thing, I’m doing mine.” I had conversations all the time with Chinese who were critical of the government, and they weren’t worried about being hauled away to a gulag.
No spoilers here but I was surprised to find that, apart from early chapters about working for China Daily, there weren’t many examples of you actually being censored. In fact, you go so far to say that “the greatest form of censorship at China Daily was self-imposed”, suggesting their failure to challenge norms had less to do with state-sponsored censorship than simply being in a country with no tradition of press freedom.
You were even able to clandestinely freelance – from your desk at China Daily, no less – a story to the Globe and Mail concerning Chinese media’s virtual blackout about the Tibetan riots that preceded the 2008 Olympics without consequence.
Western impressions about Chinese media freedoms and their treatment of journalists has been far from kind. Has everything we’ve heard been exaggerated, or is there really a need for concern for Chinese journalists at the moment?
It is true that censorship in China isn’t as draconian as many in the West believe it to be. Mostly, working at China Daily felt like working at a… newspaper. By far the majority of stories were reported and printed without interference. Censorship came into play when dealing with news about the government or sensitive issues (Taiwan, Tibet, Tiananmen). But as I said in the book, most censorship was self-imposed. There was no designated censor at China Daily looking over everybody’s shoulders saying what we could and couldn’t write. But censorship definitely exists, and Chinese journalists who try to challenge that can put themselves in danger. Some have been fired and sent to prison.
As a freelancer, I was surprised to find very little interference while reporting. And I reported on some sensitive issues over the years: human trafficking, human rights, corruption, the environment. I was never once taken “for tea” – a euphemism for when officials lecture journalists – but that could be because I was flying under the radar as a freelancer or because I wasn’t big enough. Regardless, I was always able to report freely and I found most people were very willing to express their opinions. I think that surprises a lot of people. There’s this idea that Chinese live in fear, but regular people are a lot braver than that.
As writers we’re used to having our work, at one time or another, severely butchered by inept editors. But there are instances when even our best work is enhanced by a little snip job, especially in the right hands.
One story in the book that stood out was your reporting at the 2008 World Economic Forum which, under pressure, was severely stripped of most of its content, leaving only “the China stuff” intact. You requested that your name be removed and your editors complied. Was this experience different than having your work edited by western editors?
I’ve had good and bad experiences with editors in the West and at China Daily, but the rules were different at China Daily. That story, for example, touched on sensitive topics, so I wasn’t surprised that it was cut the way it was. What was annoying is that I explained what the story was going to be about before I wrote it, and my editor said go ahead. But that was still fairly early on in my tenure at the paper and I was perhaps expecting too much.
For me, the two most interesting and exciting chapters concerned your Chinese travels after leaving China Daily: Dinosaur Bones and Brothels, where you dig deep into the seedy world of Mongolian prostitutes, and Chocolate City, a look into the growing influx of African immigrants into Guangzhou.
Easy question: how was it like to transition back into “real journalism” after working for state propaganda?
It wasn’t difficult at all. I only worked at China Daily for a year and I freelanced a bunch of stories while I was there. To be honest, I always saw working at China Daily as a story in and of itself. Before I went there I had ambitions to write a book about my experience (as did everyone else who worked there). It turned out to be a lot more than that – it was an invaluable introduction to China, and I met a lot of great people – but I was always aware that China Daily wasn’t going to be journalism in the Western sense of the word.
I’m sure you’ve heard that satirist David Sedaris recently stirred the dragon’s nest with his column “Chicken toenails, anyone?”, which he expressed – colorfully – his dislike of Chinese cuisine (and Chinese hygiene in general).
Given your experience in the country is he guilty of cultural bias or are his observations correct and he might just enjoy his dining experience with a little less phlegm?
That story sparked a big stink among expats in Beijing. A lot of people were up in arms about it. How could he! Sure, it was insensitive, but who cares. I thought it was funny. Besides, hygiene in Chinese restaurants could be appalling, and people do spit a lot. In fact, more than once I gagged at seeing somebody spit a big wag of gray phlegm at a restaurant! I actually love Chinese food, and I loved going out to eat in Beijing, but there are a million and one articles about how great Chinese food is and I didn’t understand why all these westerners in China would be offended by a David Sedaris article. I mean, it’s David Sedaris – this is what he does.
Hollywood is increasingly looking to China to co-produce and release their latest blockbusters, something you’ve called “China Pandering” as the process usually involves a bit of give and take – especially when the content involves Chinese interests. We’ve seen examples of this leading to Hollywood adding new scenes (i.e. Iron Man 3), cutting others entirely (i.e. MIB III), and even some hasty ethnicity-swapping in the editing room (i.e. Red Dawn). Given that China limits the number of foreign films that can be shown yearly in the country (20 plus 14 3D/IMAX-enhanced versions as of 2013) it makes sense they’d like to hedge their bets as much as they can.
I can’t help but remember photos of the Dali Lama being, unceremoniously, escorted through the White House’s rear exit as to not offend Chinese leaders who expressed “strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition” to the meeting. Do you feel shades of China Daily when you hear stories like this?
Absolutely. The funny thing is, even the Chinese don’t like Hollywood’s China pandering. Box office receipts for Hollywood blockbusters are way down and Chinese cinemagoers are increasingly opting for homegrown fare. Online, netizens often tear into the additional scenes included for Chinese screens. I watched Looper in Beijing, and the audience laughed throughout the ten minutes of lard the producers squeezed into an otherwise cool movie. All the pandering in movies feels so contrived. It’s sort of like a Western guy showing up for a date with a Chinese woman wearing one of those Mandarin outfits. It just looks ridiculous.
On a lighter note, has there been any follow-up to the planned “Rent A White Guy” movie, because it was easily the funniest chapter in the book. If so, who’s your dream casting choice to play Mr. Moxley, quality control expert?
I’m Canadian, so… Ryan Gosling? Is that asking too much?
When all that was happening one of the producers pitched a buddy comedy with Danny McBride and Zach Galifianakis. I would love to see that. There was a lot of interest at first but it died down a long, long time ago. A friend and I wrote a screenplay based on the premise, but we’re not holding our breaths.
So have you left the world of late-night alcohol blitzed, drug-induced haziness in the past now that you’re an accomplished writer? Not that there’s anything wrong with any of those things…
I still like to go out but even in the five months since I left Beijing I’ve settled down quite a bit. For one, New York is about five times more expensive so not as conducive for big, boozy nights. The other thing is that I got here and fully realized that in the real world I’m not a kid anymore. That goes back to the artificial reality that is the expat life, which I talk about a lot in the book. But I’m really happy to be in New York. I miss Beijing and hope to go back one day, but it was the right time for me to go.
Before we dim the lights might you have any advice for aspiring freelancers, especially those with more global ambitions?
I’m of two minds about freelancing, even after all this time. It can be a very difficult, competitive and humbling existence. If you are hoping to earn even a decent living, do something else. You need to be able to deal with rejection and setbacks. But I wouldn’t trade the last six years for anything, and even now that I’m back in North America and I’ve started thinking about other things I could do, I always come back to the reality that writing is still what I want to do for my career.
For aspiring freelancers looking to go abroad, I would say be aware of what you’re getting into and be prepared to give it time before it really gets going. Pitch far and wide, look for stories that you find interested (and trust your instincts that they are), network (have to do it), and try to get a few marquee brands on your resume. It gets a lot easier from there.