During the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, I worked as a speed typist for the Chinese Ministry of Propaganda. It was my job to type, in English, everything that was said during an endless blur of press conferences where the Middle Kingdom celebrated its logistical triumphs. For the six months leading up to the closing ceremonies, I took my place at the back of cushy hotel ballrooms and chilly glass conference halls. I sat at tables covered with peach linens and drank from glasses of water provided by gloved attendants. I slogged through conferences on stadium construction, on feeding the athletes, on the zigzag path of the Olympic torch. The reporters slouched; the officials droned; the translators whirred. Subjects varied, but the theme never wavered: I was transcribing traces of China’s Rise, delivering ascendance-evidence to an awestruck world. Some might have considered it ethically fraught to shill for an organization best known for driving tanks over students. I thought it was wonderful. I felt like I was at the center of the world, the spot where all eyes were turning. Though a humble conduit for bureaucratic cant, I embraced what seemed like proximity to power. A sentence I typed could end up in a Sorbonne journal, a Thai weekly, the New York Times. There was a cluster of video cameras at the back of every room. Once, a reporter friend nudged me. “Look,” he said. “We’re on TV in Russia.”
My transcripts were destined for china.org.cn, a site run by the Propaganda Ministry’s internet wing—the China Internet Information Center. For all its Orwellian potential, china.org.cn pursued a mandate similar to that of a North American chamber of commerce. No success went unheralded: the launch of a broadcast satellite, a donation made by Jackie Chan, the creation of a baseball league for the children of migrant workers. My transcripts provided easy copy for the 10,000 journalists who swanned into the country, hungry for quotes from government sources that might help clinch a story on what everyone agreed was a breath-taking Rise.
While I didn’t experience censorship as it’s shown in the movies—the black sharpie, the page torn from the record—I did experience a casual tyranny strong enough to keep my name off this piece. Deviating from official narratives only sometimes triggered retribution, though this irregularity didn’t make the prospect of punishment any less frightening. Instead of a brutal and consistent disciplinarian, the Chinese government reminded me of a cantankerous uncle, who in his attempt to seem youthful would let most of my rebellions slide before he pounced: forbidding me to borrow his car, drink his scotch, live in his house.
I had gotten the job as I had gotten every job I’d ever had: over the internet. I was living in an apartment that cost $300 dollars a month–cheap for an expat’s rent, but a lot compared to what the neighbors were probably paying. Unfortunately, I was spending as much on daily Chinese lessons as I made as a freelance journalist, so I needed a day job. A friend who was an editor at the expat weekly the Beijinger forwarded me an inquiry he’d gotten, seeking something referred to as a “Realtime Reporter.” It sounded promising: the job was part-time and its only requirement was that applicants type at least 90 words per minute. I googled an online typing test and pressed start. A randomly generated story about a dog lost in a big city popped up. As I typed, a fluffy white puppy ran across the bottom of the screen. My final score was 88 words per minute. Close enough.
I emailed the address in the ad, claiming in a brief English cover letter that I had cleared 92 words per minute. Minutes later, I got an email from someone named Chang Chao at an address ending in @china.org: “Could you come in on Monday?” The response must have jarred me; I didn’t respond quickly, especially for a person who could type 92 words a minute, and he wrote a follow-up. I replied and apologized for my sluggishness. “Cool! That’s no problem:),” he wrote, sounding like some tween blogger, like some Michael Scott.
On Monday I made my way to the China Internet Information Center offices. When I looked up the address, I was surprised. The offices were located in Beijing’s uncouth West—a grimy area, convenient only to the central train station, where migrant workers sleep on their packs. I had been under the impression that every Chinese government building was a cold, stone fortress with recessed lighting located somewhere in the vicinity of Tiananmen Square. Chao’s office was on the sixth floor above a giant electronics store. The reception area looked like an airline ticketing counter, with a back wall carpeted in blue shag, studded with English and Chinese chrome lettering. A water cooler bubbled. Employees, marooned in their separate cubicles, drummed their keyboards. The place felt dead in the way all offices feel, reminding me of why I had fled America in the first place.
The interview was informal. Chang Chao thundered into the reception, sweating into a professorial tweed sport coat, and led me to a small conference room where he glanced over my resume—an intern at Time in Hong Kong, a college magazine editor, an honors student. I had excised my summer internship at the Washington Post and my stint as a Hurricane Katrina clean-up volunteer. It was a gut-level decision: they seemed less like the credentials of a devoted civil servant and more like the activities of a liberal, human rights advocate who would write about him later for a Brooklyn periodical.
He asked when I could start. There was a press conference in two days, he explained, herding me out toward the elevator, where he pressed the bright moon of the down button and I whooshed back out to the street—where glum couples pushed shopping carts loaded with flat-screen TVs, laptop computers, blenders. The Rise of China, I thought. Blenders.
When a press conference was called, I would get an email or a text the day before from Chang Chao, who continued to include smileys in his messages. “This one is about Tibet,” he wrote me about the announcement of the route for the Olympic Torch Relay. “So pay attention ; ).” I would show up at the Media Center fifteen minutes early—usually in the afternoon, around 1:45—in the starchy skirts and blouses of a middle manager, swiping in with a laminated badge. The badge was yellow, for staff, with a picture of my face that my roommate had taken at 3 AM against the apricot back wall of our living room. Outside the press conferences I would pick up a black translation headset, a piece of technological baggage, which, even more definitively than my white skin and Caucasian features, tarred me as an outsider. When I turned it to channel 2, for English, my ear buzzed with simultaneous translation.
The reporters would file in a few minutes late, would chat in little clumps, would whisk their press badges over their backs, as though to make a show of how little they cared to display them. When they grabbed their translation headsets, they pretended not to—holding them idly in dropped hands. They wanted you to know that they understood the Mandarin well enough without them.
Ling and I would laugh at them—at the Australian photographer who wore the sunhat indoors, at the serious English lady who showed up in a flouncy pink sweater. Ling was my supervisor, one rung below Chang Chao—an online producer who edited my transcriptions as I typed them. She sat just at my right shoulder, engrossed in a monitor whose screen showed the same text that was on mine. A chirpy, gawky Chinese woman who wore red cat eyeglasses, she wanted to know about America, and even more what her country looked like to an American, if I really liked ping-pong, Chinese food. Her English wasn’t great but it was good enough for the job she had to do, and anyway she didn’t take it very seriously. Like Chao, she would send me text messages full of smileys and LOLs (“The conference on Olympic Beer will be best ever! LOL”). She would laugh at my observations of the American reporters and together we would laugh at the officials – sallow, pork-faced men in crisp white shirts, black jackets. They sat in a row behind a table fitted in ruched, royal blue cloth and tapped at their microphones, speaking among themselves like talk show celebrities during a commercial break. They pretended not to notice the pretty young attendants who poured them tea. They were Official. I remember Ling laughing hysterically during a press conference on the weather. “To some extent,” said an official, “we can control the weather.” When she edited my transcript, she sighed as she tweaked his words to make him sound a little less dumb.
The first conference I attended concerned the logistics of the Olympic Village. I typed the sentence, “The overall mission of the Olympic Village’s operation team is to offer adequate reception services and make the Olympic Village a safe, harmonious, comfortable and convenient home for all the athletes, officials and other local residents.” I sat through speeches titled “More About the Co-Host Cities” and “Reception Service for Tourists.” I accompanied the reporters on government-led tours of the field-hockey grounds and farming greenhouses, and I peeked into a wrestling training facility where two judo sparring partners were locked in an embrace, looking like teenage lovers frozen in a petrifaction of sexuality. At one tour—as we were led through training facilities to “introduce reporters to China’s athletes,” the brick pathways between the facilities were being literally built (bricks put on top of mud) as we walked through.
In July, a few weeks before the games, when many thousands of reporters started showing up, we moved from the Media Center’s staid corporate offices to the Gehua New Century Hotel, a flamboyantly-proportioned structure directly north of the Bell Tower, where, at the start of the Olympics, a tourist had been stabbed.
Outside the hotel, a bank of security guards stationed beneath a fluttery white tent guarded the entrance for employees and press. Beyond, glass doors slid open with a puckering sound, revealing the hotel lobby: a garish space, all beige tile and dangling spires of crystal. Heels clacked along the marble halls. Waiters stacked porcelain, dropped spoons. In the elevator—a mirrored cube—maids in white smocks squeaked rags along brass rails. There were rose petals in a bowl in the ladies’ room. When I was thirsty, there was a tureen of ice water in which lemons floated. I loved it
Five minutes after a conference ended, Chao would sprint in sweating through his collar. After apologizing for being late, he would smile and ask, in timid English, how everything had gone. Had anything been said?
What he meant was, was there anything controversial?
No. Nothing had been said. There was never anything worth censoring save a line of awkward dialogue—which could be brushed up to make an official sound a little more dignified. Chao would read the transcript standing up, looking over Selena’s monitor as she scrolled through. “Uh huh,” he would say, “uh huh.” When the uh huhs stopped, I could go.
In my six months, I only saw one item really censored—stricken from the record for all time. It was at a press conference about the weather. On August 6th, four officials in different arms of different Meteorological bureaus cheerily reported that the pollution index showed that air quality had drastically improved. During the question and answer session, a reporter asked why the government had stopped monitoring a group of harmful chemicals—a decision fortuitously correlated with the moment when the index had started reporting better air quality.
Hearing the reporter ask the question, I felt embarrassed. He was a friend, a 26-year-old freelancer, and I wanted to scold him for doing something so outré. Did he not know what these conferences were for? No one here would ever say anything they hadn’t already said before! The official sidetracked. “The pollution index had evolved, slowly, to be the best monitor it could,” etc. Afterward, Selena cut out the question and the answer, as though they had never happened, giggling at the sheer absurdity of it. “Well, we’ll take this out for sure!” For a second, I felt guilty. Could I have stopped them from changing the record? Would it have changed China’s relationship with environmentalists?
No. It would not have changed anything. Nothing had really been questioned, rebuffed, OR challenged. Neither side had learned anything they didn’t already know.
Journalists weren’t punished for their negative stories. But once in a while we’d hear a story of some blogger who wrote an article about living in China and was then denied re-entry. Punishment was seemingly random. For every five hundred expats who snuck into stadiums, who worked in China on “travel” visas, or who wrote articles about the country’s unjust human rights policies—only a handful would be scolded. There was a rumor, perhaps fantastical, that if your name were google-able with “Tibet,” you would be denied. Non-white people like my Indian-American friend had a harder time getting long-stay visas than me, a white woman. But really there was no discernible logic.
Still, random repression could be effective: would I be the anomaly, the one who was caught? Punishment—usually in the form of kicking an expat out of the country or denying reentry—only really rattled those who lived in China because they loved it, those who could not bear to risk never returning.
Outside of the pressroom, things were happening. In May, a huge earthquake rippled through Sichuan—burying hundreds of children under shoddily built, government-constructed schoolhouses. Two friends, reporters, came back teary, unable to speak of what they had seen—the bodies in the street draped in matching windbreakers, the sobbing parents. Meanwhile, my roommate’s aunt had been arrested for participation in a Falun Gong branch. The family was fighting that she be sent to a work prison rather than one of the dreaded high-security prisons. We went to the concert in Shanghai where Bjork whispered “Tibet,” putting an end to the roster of politically untrustworthy Western artists that had been allowed to perform.
I was dating an expat who lived in new, glazed apartment towers that edged a neighborhood of alleys. On the way to the bus, I would walk past the houses—a warren of smoky kitchens and curtained rooms. Little dogs threaded through the walkways, yipping for food. And then suddenly the houses were gone—toppled but not taken away. I would look away as former owners or scrap men scampered over the fallen walls, looking for a glint of salvageable wiring. Months later, the dogs were still there—mangy but quiet, no longer asking for anything.
There was one truth outside of the hall, and one inside. On the way to the press conference where meteorological experts praised the city’s pollution-free skies, I wore sunglasses when I bicycled, as I always did, to keep the pollution out of my eyes. At the conference where officials presented the final route of the Olympic torch relay event, it was agreed that there was no problem bringing the torch through Xinjiang and Tibet. “As we all know, recently there have been incidents in Lhasa, Tibet,” said the pouch-faced Jiang Xiaoyu. “I want to say the situation has basically been stabilized and the relay will proceed as scheduled. Reporters rolled their eyes: to ensure a protest-free Lhasa, Beijing had put the capital under a police state.
In the media center, time stopped. China was its best version of itself, cheery and bright. Rising. And yet: no matter how bubbly and proud the officials were—say, of the new Olympic Village, with its intricate solar-powered showers—the reporters would find something to pick at. Journalists wrote up the story that in a few of the athletes’ apartments, bathrooms sported Chinese-style squat toilets. My expat friends and I laughed: some of the athletes are Chinese! No matter what was actually said, some reporters would find a way to write it into “The China Story.”
All Beijing expats make fun of this—the purportedly-insightful “glimpse” into the country’s culture that fits the mold of a digestible newsbyte and somehow gratifies foreign anxieties: That China is big, different; that it will crush you; that its people are street-spitting barbarians. These stories would shock their readers and net page views with reports on how the Chinese spend $582,000 on specially-bred dogs and over-the-top weddings; how the country had built the largest mall and the largest auto dealer; how its people ate scorpions on sticks and used the penises of deer for medicine. When I would hear of some anomaly that fit the mold, my skin would crawl. This, I feared, will make the Times.
I think of the press conferences now and I think only of the translators—those wan, anxious women holed up in glass booths. They spoke so quickly it was as if they didn’t remember what they had just said, gasping for air.
I would bike home through the gray Beijing air and relish the silence, thinking in no language at all. Outside of the conference halls—with their clacking heels, their chatty reporters, their sodden officials lecturing from podiums—the world was quiet. The sky was white. Bike wheels whizzed. Busses wheezed. In the courtyard of the compound where I lived, old men played badminton—the birdie landing in the scrub grass at the feet of the women watching them from lawn chairs. They didn’t say anything to me, just looked. After the chatter, I would rather have silence than say nothing at all. The Rise was napping.