Posts Tagged ‘censorship’

If you’re a reader of this blog, hopefully you already have an eye on the still unfolding events surrounding Southern Weekend. As I write this, the paper’s staff is reportedly still in negotiations with propaganda officials over what will happen next. Meanwhile, droves of students, celebrities and other media outlets have expressed their support for the paper online while a demonstration involving hundreds has taken hold outside its Guangzhou offices.

Zhongnanhai blog has done a good post saying that China watchers and correspondents have a tendency to over-interpret events like this. The author predicts it will be “a great story for a while until it fizzles out and becomes nothing more than an infrequently-viewed Wikipedia page.”

For the most part, I agree. But there are some aspects I think are pretty significant in the long term. So let’s iron out what this incident is and what it’s not.

What It’s Not
1) A bold stand by Southern Weekend against government censorship
The heart of this issue is that Guangdong’s propaganda head Tuo Zhen allegedly doctored Southern Weekend’s New Year’s editorial and sent it to press without the paper’s editors being informed. This is a highly irregular slap in the face to the paper. It’s one thing to tell editors they can’t print something. It’s very different though to put (highly embarrassing and inaccurate) words in their mouths that they only learn about when they pick up the paper. Southern Weekend is standing up against this disrespect and circumvention of the status quo. It’s not rejecting the idea of government censorship.

2) The first domino toward a mass free speech movement or a Tiananmen-like showdown.
The Telegraph ran a piece saying this “is arguably the most open and widespread display of dissent since the Tiananmen Square protests almost a quarter of a century ago.”

Maybe that’s technically true, but it oversells the significance of where we’re at now. When Wukan residents expelled their local government in late 2011, it was considered a huge deal and people (including myself) were wondering if it was a preview of things to come – either of further uprisings or a model for peaceful government accommodation.

It was neither.

There’s about a 90% chance the Southern Weekend standoff will fizzle out one way or another with a mild one-off solution. Protestors have been tacitly allowed to demonstrate so far, suggesting the government still isn’t entirely sure what to do. Guangdong’s new party secretary Hu Chunhua, as of now, is the favorite to replace Xi Jinping as China’s president in 2022. If he gets blood on his hands or gives an obvious victory to free speech agitators, his hopes could get dashed pretty quickly. It’s very unlikely there will be a violent crackdown or an agreement to ease media controls, but more likely some minor private concession (or effective threat) to the paper that only applies to present circumstances.

Simply firing Tuo Zhen would placate Southern Weekend and end the situation, but the government’s propaganda directives have suggested this isn’t going to happen. It would set an undesirable precedent (though not a disastrous one– as some have suggested. I think it still remains a last resort if the paper refuses to back down or protests strengthen). If and when this event fizzles out with some kind of uninspiring resolution, everyone will go home unsatisfied – but not furious. Then we’ll move on to other issues.

However, that doesn’t mean there won’t be significant takeaways.

What It Is
1) A surprising signal that many of China’s youth are primed to push for change
A few months ago when I was at the massive anti-Japan protests, I looked around and wondered if I’d ever see the day when Chinese would make similar emotional cries in public for something not on the government’s agenda. Seeing how firmly that angst was focused on Japan, I thought it would be at least several years. If you’d told me on that day that within four months, a sizeable crowd would gather to call for press freedom in China, I’d have said no way.

Southern Weekend staff may not be pushing for an outright end to censorship, but their supporters certainly seem to be. You can bet

Via Tea Leaf Nation: "One woman looked fear in the eye, and said, 'cheese'"

Via Tea Leaf Nation: “One woman looked fear in the eye, and said, ‘cheese'”

that more than a few parents across the country have been warning their kids to stay the hell away from any hint of subversive activity. Getting involved with something deemed “anti-government” can blot a permanent record and ruin career prospects. Yet, students across the country are voicing support to Southern Weekend online WITH THEIR FACES SHOWN. And even more unbelievably, hundreds showed up to protest IN PERSON against media censorship – one of the most unshakeable government priorities.

This is much different than your routine “mass incidents” over things like land grabs and pollution. These people in Guangzhou have no immediate stake in protesting censorship. They have very little to gain personally and a lot to lose. That indeed takes cojones that have rarely been seen since 1989. These protestors may be a very small, unrepresentative sample of China’s youth, but it’s a sample I didn’t realize existed yet.

But perhaps I should have realized it. When I got to China five years ago and spoke with young educated people about media censorship, some would say they opposed it, but more would voice support. They’d say things like “If the truth were revealed, China would collapse” or “Poor people must support the leaders if we’re to keep developing. They wouldn’t if the media could criticize the leaders.”

These days I hear fewer and fewer people say things like that. Thanks to Weibo, people are realizing that much of the things swept up in the censorship system aren’t just abstract embarrassments. They’re concrete things like poisonous food, pollution, land grabs, railway accidents and flood deaths – things that have a real impact on public safety and well-being; things that could be avoided if publicized.

2) Another sign of “de-facto democratization”
Weibo also probably means a more democratic resolution to the standoff then there would have been a few years ago. In 2003, Southern Metropolis Daily (also from the Southern Media Group), embarrassed Guangdong officials with reports on detention camps and SARS. This ended in a clampdown that saw two editors slapped with lengthy prison sentences on trumped up charges.

This is the traditional way of dealing with such brazen newspapers. But this has become prohibitively risky (perhaps for the first time with the unfolding events). It’s not impossible that a Southern Weekend reporter will end up in jail, but with as many sympathetic eyes as there are on the story, it’s not a realistic possibility. And the fact that the propaganda department is deigning to negotiate with the paper is a sign that it no longer feels able to just unilaterally bring down the hammer.

If the hammer does come down eventually and the paper is shut down or editors are fired, then the government will find itself at an all time credibility low and will meet strong public backlash. I don’t at all rule out this possibility. As stupid and self-defeating as that would be, the government has time and again stubbornly clung to repressive tactics that are 20 years out of date. Doing so here wouldn’t bring the masses to the streets, but it would bring them one step closer to ultimately dropping faith in the system entirely.

So no, this event in all likelihood won’t be a watershed for those hoping to see quick political reform. But it does represent a shift, however slight it may be, in the public’s consciousness and what it’s willing to tolerate. Even if the government is unwilling to engage in meaningful political reform, it’s already being pushed on an irreversible course of de-facto reform.

China is currently in a push to build international popularity and respect through “soft power” mechanisms like media and the arts. One prominent medium in this push has been film. But failed attempts like Flowers of War have shown a reluctance to move past black and white nationalistic angles. Chinese films, under the direction of chief censor State Administration of Radio, Film & Television (SARFT), dissect and remove anything that’s vulgar, politically unpalatable, sends the wrong social message or portrays the Chinese people as anything but heroic and exceptional.

Not coincidentally, when you ask someone in China what their favorite movie is, they probably won’t name a Chinese film. In fact, most of the time they’ll name one of two movies: Forrest Gump or Shawshank Redemption. The movies depict military defeat, racism, corruption and perversion of justice – some of the darker aspects of 20th century America. Yet the final products show nuance and complex characters that inspire and win international acclaim. In other words, they’re soft power victories.

But what if the US had had its own SARFT with similar social and political objectives?

I don’t believe Shawshank Redemption could have been made. An innocent man being sent to a prison with officials dabbling in corruption and murder would simply be untenable. However, I do think Forrest Gump could have been made…with some major revisions. So based on leaked censorship instructions and years of watching Chinese movies, here’s hypothetical American SARFT’s verdict on the film:

1. In the beginning it’s revealed that  Forrest is named after Nathan Bedford Forrest – former leader of the illegal terrorist “Ku Klux Klan” organization. This is utterly contrary to the theme of the film.

2. The doctor tells Forrest that his back “is as crooked as a politician.” Remove this statement.

3. When bullies throw rocks and chase Forrest there’s no indication that they were caught and punished for their actions.

4. The bullies’ truck has a Confederate flag license plate. This is an illegal secessionist symbol and must be removed.

5. Forrest is denied from entering a normal school because his IQ is too low, which his mother refuses to accept. This distorts reality. America’s education system wouldn’t allow any student to be placed where they don’t belong. Furthermore, Forrest’s mother sleeps with the principal in order to secure Forrest’s admission. This is vulgar and unrealistic.

6. When African-American students enter the University of Alabama, some white students make remarks like “coon” and “nigger.” This gravely harms America’s image and may have negative social effects.

7. Regarding the scene in Jenny’s dormitory where she places Forrest’s hand on her breast, the effect of the length, imagery and sounds of this bed scene are strong, and bring about strong harmful sensual stimulation to people.

8. When Forrest meets President Kennedy he says that he “has to pee.” This is very offensive and disrespectful toward an American leader. Furthermore, Forrest discovers a picture of Marilyn Monroe in Kennedy’s bathroom. This alludes to false rumors and gravely distorts history.

9. When Bubba is describing his family’s history of serving white people, it alludes to slavery.  This may gravely hurt the feelings of the American people.

10. “Playboy” is an illegal pornographic publication that shows a naked woman. It must be removed from the film.

11. When Forrest arrives to Vietnam, American soldiers are shown drinking beer and barbequing, not taking their duties seriously. This gravely violates history and harms the image of the American military.

12. Forrest exposes his buttocks to President Johnson. This is disrespectful and absurd.

13. The Washington DC anti-government “peace rally” suggests American involvement in the Vietnam War was unjust. The theme and tone of the rally must be revised so that it doesn’t oppose the government. It also depicts convicted criminal Abbie Hoffman. It must be adjusted so that he’s portrayed in a more negative fashion and not wearing an American flag shirt.

14. The “Black Panther Party” is an illegal organization. Its depiction may stir up animosity among ethnic groups and have negative social consequences.

15. The scene after Forrest meets President Nixon alludes to the “Watergate Scandal.” Remove.

16. Filthy words appear repeatedly in the film and should be deleted.

17. The Jenny character is overly-complex and sends mixed messages. On one hand she appears kind and elicits sympathy, but on the other hand she does illegal drugs and has loose virtues. Good and evil must be clearly distinguished.

 

For those expats in China distressed by the recent anti-foreign atmosphere online and in the media, you now something to be thankful for: You don’t live in South Korea.

Recently Korea’s MBC ran a program called “The Shocking Reality About Relationships With Foreigners” (Link has the full 5-minute segment with subtitles). The piece presents itself as an exposé on how foreign expats easily seduce Korean women, only to taint, abuse, rob them and leave them with AIDS. It completely forgoes any sense of journalistic integrity by using hidden cameras and adding wholly unsubstantiated commentary. At one point, a Korean girl is cold-called by the producer and asked if she was “a victim of a foreigner.” When the girl replies that she doesn’t know what the producer is talking about, the narrator jumps in to say, “Most victims avoid telling the truth.”

For all the times the Chinese media has hyped the non-newsworthy transgressions of foreigners in China, I’ve never heard of any newscast being this despicably ignorant and unprofessional. As much as it pains me to say it, we probably have China’s censorship apparatus to thank for that.

The Chinese government (and ergo the state media) needs a healthy dose of nationalism, but the key is moderation. In 2010, when anti-Japanese sentiment flared up over a Chinese fisherman being detained in disputed waters, I saw a first-hand manifestation of how the government tries to channel nationalism. At the Japanese embassy in Beijing, protestors were allowed to congregate – but only at a distance from the entrance. Periodically, police would let a handful of the most vocal protestors go right up to the gate and media were allowed to film it. But when the crowd gained a certain mass, it was broken up and told to leave – only to re-form again slowly with tacit police approval.

This push and pull-back of nationalism has become the rule after some past debacles. Some 2005 anti-Japanese demonstrations were gleefully allowed by the government…until they turned violent and Japanese businesses (many of which were Chinese owned) were destroyed. Back further in 1988, anti-Africans protests  broke out in Nanjing, which unexpectedly shifted to calls for the Chinese government to reform. The incident was one of the preludes to the Tiananmen uprising. Today, nationalism is still crucial and encouraged, but only to the point that it doesn’t affect stability and support for the authoritarian government.

Korea and China have similar histories of being subjugated by foreigners, and Korean leaders have likewise relied on nationalism in the past to achieve political goals. The difference now is that Korea has some lingering xenophobia combined with a free media wholly dependent on ratings for revenue. The result is this highly sensational and populist program targeting foreigners. If China’s (state subsidized) media wasn’t on its current leash, we’d probably see much more of the same here.

This is far far FAR from an endorsement of China’s media restrictions. The harm is much more compelling than any redeeming factors. But for this very narrow issue, expats can probably begrudgingly thank China’s censors.

I recently came across two great websites for anyone interested in the scope of internet censorship in China. The first, called greatfire.org, tracks what searches and sites are being blocked behind China’s “Great Firewall.” The second, called Blocked on Weibo, is run by a graduate student who systematically tests terms on Weibo (China’s Twitter-like microblog) to see what stops a tweet from going through.

The banned Weibo list includes many expected political and sexual terms, along with several surprises like “The Exorcist.” Much of the list was compiled last December so yesterday I logged on to see what’s still blocked. I tried posting terms one at a time and, to my surprise, most are now allowed. To be more efficient, I started combining them into phrases like “Warlord Li Peng[1] and dissident Wu Bangguo[2] blow flute political prisoner sex party.”

It passed.

To the bemusement, I’m sure, of my five Weibo followers, I got progressively more twisted until a post was finally stopped (“Tokyo hot Liu Xiaobo incest at Tiananmen with exhibitionist Xi Jinping” was the one that did it).

Since I’ve already complied with Weibo’s real name registration requirement, I deleted the posts after they passed (mostly out of embarrassment). But if I’d left them up it’s possible they would have been manually deleted by a human censor eventually. Still, I couldn’t believe what was being let through. Jason Q. Ng, the curator of the Blocked on Weibo site, told me that indeed most of the blocked terms from December were unblocked by late-January.

Over the past few weeks some interesting unblockings have been noted in the Great Firewall. When the Wang Lijun saga was unfolding, discussion was sporadically blocked and unblocked online. Then a few weeks later, the Baidu Baike (similar to Wikipedia) entry was opened for Zhao Ziyang, the Tiananmen-sympathizing party secretary that died under house arrest.

Internet censorship in China is hardly controlled by some central figure at a Beijing supercomputer. It’s much more complicated and elastic. There are sensitive terms like “Falun Gong” that you’ll probably never see unblocked, but surprise blockings/unblockings like what my childish trials found can happen for a number of reasons. Here’s a few:

Factional infighting

This is most likely what explains the Wang Lijun and Zhao Ziyang openings. In the run-up to the leadership transition later this year, factions within the party are still jockeying for power. Free discussion of these figures might give a slight boost to the liberal wing by embarrassing conservatives. The back-and-forth on Wang Lijun suggests the different factions may have been trying to outmuscle one another for control over censorship.

Social stability

Whenever sensitive events (ie. Wukan) are unfolding, relevant terms are blocked in order to maintain social stability (AKA – the party’s hold on power). Sometimes it goes the other way though. Pornography is usually so banned that people are paid for snitching on online pornographers. But for a period in 2010, many porn sites mysteriously became accessible.  After a spate of school yard stabbings carried out by frustrated older men, it was theorized that porn could be a kind of emergency release valve.

Censorship for hire

After the Sanlu milk scandal broke out in 2008, Baidu, China’s largest search engine, was accused of accepting 3 million yuan ($474,000) from Sanlu early on to bury damning reports about the company. Baidu denied the charge, but a leaked US embassy cable suggests the practice of corporate payment for censorship is widespread in China.

[Update 3/13] Here’s a new report on the many companies who arrange censorship for a fee.

Good ole’ guanxi

Again, the important thing to remember is that there’s no central decision maker with his finger on a censoring button. It’s thousands of people across scores of government agencies, private search engines, microblogs, web forums, news sites, etc. Even if an entire institution isn’t censoring  a certain term, one of the many cogs in the machine can – for pay or as a personal favor.

A Chinese academic affiliated with the propaganda department once told me about when he found his colleague was being unfairly ostracized on Weibo. He just picked up the phone and called some of his friends at Sina. Problem erased.

And these are just the things we know about. The government and private companies who engage in censorship aren’t about to advertise their rationale to the public. Three months ago, apparently Weibo wouldn’t let you type a single term from the phrase “Muslim Yujie[3] and plug-in Zhou Yongkang[4] protest adultery and cannibalism at the liaison office.” Now, as I confirmed, you can type the phrase in its entirety. We’ll probably never really know why.


[1] Li Peng was the Politburo leader that ordered the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square

[2] Wu Bangguo is currently number 2 on the Politburo Standing Committee, behind Hu Jintao

[3] Yu Jie is an author very critical of the Chinese government. He’s been beaten, arrested and now resides in the US

[4] Zhou Yongkang is currently number 9 on the Politburo Standing Committee

As more of the world’s sensitive activities and information travel through the wires of the internet, vulnerability to distant hackers is unavoidable. China can’t be blamed for feeling especially susceptible as an emerging power with the world’s highest internet population. But over the past few years, an interesting countermeasure has been discussed from time to time in the Middle Kingdom: Building an independent Chinese internet.

A June 21st Global Times article said, “90 percent of people believe China should strengthen its cyber defenses and build its own internet system.”  This was based on a phone/online survey by the Global Poll Center affiliated with Global Times.

Wording and/or sampling bias probably played a role in that unusually high 90 percent figure, but we’ll assume that a significant number of Chinese do think an independent internet is a good idea. Iljitsch van Beijnum, research assistant at Institute IMDEA Networks who’s written two books about protocols underlying the internet, helped explain some of the implications of this idea.

He said there are basically two kinds of cyber attacks: those that depend on a volume of hackers and those that can be done individually. An independent internet would do little to stop the latter. “Simply using a CIA operative in a Beijing internet café” would do the trick according to Beijnum. “Or of course by paying someone in China to inject a worm.”

Large volume cyber attacks are a different story though. One famous international example was in 2007 when the nation of Estonia removed a Soviet war memorial, which enraged Russians. A wave of cyber attacks subsequently hit Estonia disabling the websites of government ministries and a number of other industries. Recently, similar hacks between China and Vietnam have seen nationalistic images and phrases posted on government websites of both sides because of the South China Sea territorial dispute.

These attacks could indeed be prevented with independent internets. So in this sense, it is a viable solution for cyber warfare. But it would basically be killing cockroaches with dynamite.

Setting up the network infrastructure of an independent internet would be easy enough technically because, in a nutshell, it would only require leaving out the international connections. But this would immediately cause some practical problems.

There will always be systems that need to connect to both the independent network and the global internet. The Domain Name System (DNS), which translates IP addresses into domain names, needs to have a foot in the international web to function in its present form. Some kind of a bridge linking the systems should be possible, but even if that was worked out, there would be bigger problems.

“What about all these factories that need to talk to their foreign customers?” Beijnum said. “Universities that want to publish papers? What about Hong Kong? Would it also be cut off? Or would Hong Kong connect to both the independent and the open networks? What about Chinese people abroad? Will there be a way for them to talk to family and friends?”

If Chinese internet users had foreign software like Windows, they couldn’t receive updates on it. Anything outside China’s borders would become inaccessible which would have serious economic and communication consequences, effectively killing the internet as China knows it.

Similar proposals have been made in Iran and Russia, but they face the same practical problems, which is probably why they haven’t gotten off the ground. While cyber security may be a legitimate concern, if the Chinese people were to actually experience being cut off from the international internet, it wouldn’t take long for that 90 percent support to plummet.

Whether or not this is something the Chinese government is seriously considering is anyone’s guess. I contacted the reporter who wrote the Global Times article and she didn’t know why the survey was done or any other information beyond what she wrote. I was also assured by a different Chinese reporter friend that if this was indeed something under consideration, everyone involved on both the government and technical sides would be sworn to secrecy until some kind of an official announcement was made. But the fact that the poll was carried out shows some people are thinking about it, and it’s hard to imagine the government hasn’t entertained the idea.

Now, I’m sure this hasn’t even crossed their minds, and it may hardly be worth mentioning, but there is another implication of an independent internet.

“It would certainly make life for censors easier as they don’t have to block sites on a case-by-case basis now that everything is blocked,” Beijnum said.

But using national security concerns as a cover for enhancing censorship capabilities in this way would be a desperate act by a paranoid regime, and downright dishonest. Fortunately, that would never happen in China.