I originally wrote this piece as one installment of the monthly metacolumn called “Little-known Corners” that I write for a local glossy called That’s Beijing. I’d spoken a couple of times with the editors before taking the gig, and one topic that came up was that of censorship. Here in China, at the time this column was published, every publication had an in-house government censor, usually an old man, almost always an ex-journalist from one of the “official” newspapers or wire-services, who spent most of his time chain-smoking and napping, sometimes simultaneously, and occasionally roused himself to make life difficult for those around him. (He did this by passing everything he thought possibly problematic through to a committee of currently active government journalist-censors, and letting them deal with it. This is no longer always how it works -- many magazines, including That’s Beijing, now deal directly with the committee.) I was told that the only truly verboten topics were Tiananmen and Taiwan, and that the censors could occasionally get snotty about other subjects or tones, but that as long as I stuck to things that had truly happened or had no relation whatsoever to reality, I’d be fine. And that works for me, since I’ve never been particularly comfortable with reality anyway.
So I wrote “The Chamber of the Initiates,” which is about -- SPOILER ALERT -- a soccer match that took place at Worker’s Stadium. (China beat Iran in the semi-finals of the 2004 Asia Cup on penalty kicks, one of the weirdest endings I’ve ever seen, but that’s a story for another time.) And as you’ll see or already have, it’s written as if soccer were actually a religious exercise, which for most of the world is of course literally the case.
And the censor got nervous. He sent it on to the committee, and five of the six members thought it was fine, but Censor Number 6 (my editor recently told me that it’s always the same guy who gives them guff) said he was concerned that the column would be perceived as ‘weird and superstitious.’ (This is Chinese government censor code for “of or pertaining to Falun Gong,” which happens to be another forbidden fruit, given that they’re mainly currently lodged, courtesy of the government, in a semi-secret prison somewhere out near the Miyun reservoir.)
This kind of comment always carries the implicit threat of killing the story if it’s not edited to the committee’s full satisfaction; in classic passive-aggressive style, the threat is only spoken aloud at the moment it morphs from threat to assault, i.e. the moment a story is actually killed. My editor fought valiantly, pointing out that there was nothing at all weird or superstitious -- well, maybe weird, but definitely not superstitious -- about the column. At which point the committee member said, ‘Oh, no, obviously, I totally understood that. Totally. But the readers, see. The readers are going to think it’s superstitious.’ And my editor pointed out that there’s no way that any of That’s Beijing’s readers are that stupid. And the censor insisted, and so did my editor, and so on right up to deadline, at which point my editor called me to say that either we changed certain words and added a certain line or the column didn’t run.
Sensing a potentially interesting future story, and because I am a coward with no principles or integrity who needed money for cigarettes, I caved.
So what you have here in Hobart is the column as I wrote it originally. To see the, ahem, clarified version, skate on over to the That’s Beijing website and have a look at how clear the government thought it needed to be.
All of which is more than enough reality for me, thanks very much. I will now go back to writing exclusively about butterflies and rainbows who are only concerned with maintaining civic decency and public order, respectively.
P.S. Just had my second run-in with the censorship committee, this time over a side-bar I did for one of That’s Beijing’s many guidebooks. Apparently it’s against the rules to say that something happened, even when it did actually happen, if it sounds exaggerated to the censors. And also you can’t threaten to kill actual people. Who knew?