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.
The Rise of China, I thought. Blenders.
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.
Had anything been said? What he meant was, was there anything controversial?
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.
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