China’s Peachy Pink Foreign Journalism

Right before I left Beijing (to join Teach for China, then China Education Initiative, in Yunnan) I was offered a job as an editor/reporter at Women of China magazine, which was funded by the All China Women’s Federation, and had offices in their imposing gate-guarded government headquarters at Dongdan.The magazine content was paltry and style was on par with some of the charming stuff churned out by my later grad students (that was 2010; it’s quite a bit glossier now).  The chief editor said they had a Canadian reviewing all the pieces, but I doubt that person was more than glancing over the articles, secure knowing that few would discover the residual errors pre-publication.  The magazine was mostly distributed to foreign embassies and consulates abroad, a sort of diplomatic mission highlighting the strength, smarts and success of Chinese women. I’m not sure anyone read it. It had potential, and sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had stayed in Beijing and eventually pursued journalism instead of grad school.  Probably few of my experiences would have strayed from the narrative outlined in the article below:

My Life as a Communist Stooge: Working in China’s Ministry of Truth

February 25, 2015

by Alex Hill

Every morning, my workday begins with a selection of stories. “Human Rights Advancing in China” is a typical headline. “Building Prosperity in Tibet” or “A Step Up for Chinese Democracy” are other possibilities. There is usually at least one blistering denunciation of Japan, along with a few promising economic forecasts.

I am a journalist, and not for the Onion. The magazine I work for is one of several foreign-language rags published under the eminent leadership of the Communist Party of China. Along with dozens of other “foreign experts” at the Death Star—as an English colleague nicknamed the gray block of concrete cubes on the west side of Beijing where we work—our job is ostensibly to introduce the realities of China and its socialist democracy to the rest of the world.

The Death Star is just a small patch in a constellation of foreign-language propaganda outlets. The Communist Party controls newspapers, magazines, book publishers, websites, wire services, and television and radio stations. Some are explicitly state-owned; others are nominally independent but rely on government funding. Together they employ hundreds of foreigners as writers, editors, performers, and news anchors. All of them share the patriotic duty of broadcasting the truth about New China.

My career in the propaganda machine began during the annual scramble for a work permit. I had already drunk my way through a few years in the Chinese ESL-industrial complex when I chanced across an ad for a job in the media. The pay wasn’t great, but at least I wouldn’t have to supervise children. After wowing the managers with my journalistic credentials (two articles in a high school newspaper) and a very perfunctory interview, I was duly furnished with a work visa, desk, computer, and stack of business cards that identified me as a “Copy Editor/Reporter.”

Reporter, I thought. Damn right.   

Click here for the full article on Vice

I haven’t been back to China since I lived in Urumqi, Xinjiang.  The last few months of my stay there were ripples of rumors of disturbances, and sometimes the whole city would empty at dusk.  For us then, one thing mentioned in the article rang especially true:

“I usually read a piece once and then I look it up on Google to find out what really happened”

Or in the case of Xinjiang (spring 2013), Southern China Morning Post, which bristles against government constraints and often calls them out outright in snapping sentences.  This article is a marvelous example of their satire of the party line: “Xinjiang Minorities Too Busy Dancing to Make Trouble, Says Chinese Official”

And, for a little insight on what “positive reconstruction of inter-ethnic cooperation” looks like, I translated passages from a book on the history of ethnic harmony in Xinjiang here.


One thought on “China’s Peachy Pink Foreign Journalism

  1. By including the above text, I don’t want to suggest that publications in readership are all propaganda; nor are readers un-critical. Peter Hessler has written a wonderful (albeit quite lengthy) essay on the nuances of censorship and the changing reading perceptions of the Chinese public here:
    The official party line is still often so stretched to be incredulous – especially in extremes or areas of tension, like Xinjiang. But not everyone is biting, and there is a growing movement of everyday citizens dissecting and discussing real opinions under the propaganda.


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