The note arrived in a nearly empty box sent to TIME’s Beijing Bureau. All copies of TIME Magazine’s May 14, 2012 issue with a cover entitled The People’s Republic of Scandal had been “safeguarded by customs.” Apparently, some customs officer had been entrusted with counting each confiscated copy ; there were, the receipt noted, 62 seized magazines. At the bottom of the customs document, there were five categories (with boxes to be ticked next to them) that described the possible fate of the seized magazines: 1. To be returned to sender 2. To be taxed 3. To be inspected 4. To be declared 5. To be dealt with. Our 62 magazines fell into the last category. They were being “dealt with.”
Like other foreign news publications available in limited quantities in China, TIME is subject to the occasional banishment from the newsstand. Our issue the previous week on disgraced Communist Party official Bo Xilai had been barred from distribution at hotels and other select purveyors, although subscribers living in China received their copies without a hitch. An essay on the plight of legal activist Chen Guangcheng that appeared the week after the People’s Republic of Scandal cover was ripped out of each issue before the magazine was allowed in. Such censorship has been happening more in recent months, part of what appears to be a growing campaign to control and even intimidate foreign media in China. Earlier this month, a highly respected journalist for al-Jazeera English was kicked out for violating unnamed rules and regulations. Around a dozen Beijing-based journalists were recently called in by local public-security officials and warned that if they tried to visit the hospital where legal activist Chen was isolated for nearly three weeks before departing for the U.S., they would have their visas revoked.
But back to the 62 missing copies of TIME. By whom had they been “dealt with?” And given that the customs receipt said we could contact the capital customs’ office within three months to retrieve the magazines, perhaps we could even get them back?
From that point ensued a surreal—and utterly common—exercise in Chinese bureaucratic futility. My colleague Jessie Jiang began working the phones. She first called the number on the receipt for the Beijing customs office. After many failed attempts to get someone to address TIME’s concerns, a customs official explained to Jessie that the magazines had probably been confiscated because of the “sensitive” nature of the issue. “As you know, China is very strict when it comes to ideology,” the customs officer told Jessie.
Beijing customs said they had no authority to allow the release of the magazines without a letter from the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Press and Publication. But several representatives of that bureau said there were no employees there who dealt with such matters—and that they had never written a letter reversing a confiscation decision before. One of the officials told Jessie: “This is China. We don’t allow foreign magazines to be distributed.” (Which, given the number of foreign publications available at upmarket newsstands in Beijing, is obviously untrue.)
So Jessie went up the chain of command and tried calling the national-level General Administration of Press and Publication. For several days, no one answered the phone. Then on May 17, someone finally took her call. A woman said that she had no authority and that her colleague who did have powers over such matters was “in a meeting.” The woman told Jessie that her colleague would call her back. Needless to say, Jessie never received a reply.
Days later, Jessie tried the national bureau one last time and reached a different official. This bureaucrat was full of admonition. If customs kept the 62 copies, “they had their reasons,” she snapped. If we really wanted our magazines, we would have to contact a state-owned import company that could liaise with her office and try to facilitate something. But, as we know, no state firm would dare risk itself for sensitive magazine from a foreign media company. We had essentially reached a dead end.
Extrapolating from one small incident can be perilous. But the case of the missing TIME Magazines feels like an apt metaphor for how China is run. Something spooks a nervous administration. Vague rules and regulations are trotted out to justify a crackdown. A thin sheet of paper, emblazoned with a red chop, is issued. Yet no one is willing to take full responsibility. Phones go unanswered. Defensive official statements are issued. Eventually, the flare-up dissipates—just as legal activist Chen ended up taking a flight to America nearly three weeks after he found himself locked in a Beijing hospital, despite promises that he was a free man. There always seems to be another flashpoint. Who knows what next week’s TIME magazine delivery will bring?
—with reporting by Jessie Jiang/Beijing