Chinese Censorship: More Complicated Than You Think

One Chinese subject that even those Dissent readers with no special interest in China know a good deal about is Beijing’s obsession with controlling information. Given the news coverage of the topic they’ve encountered over the years, few were likely to have been shocked to learn last spring that the government was circulating a list of “Seven Don’t Talks,” describing a set of topics, including past mistakes of the Chinese Communist Party, that Beijing didn’t want discussed on campuses. Similarly, I doubt many were taken aback to find out late last month that the so-called “complete transcripts” of disgraced official Bo Xilai’s trial that Beijing released turned out to be redacted documents, with some statements excised—or were surprised by the most recent headlines out of China relating to freedom of speech, which tell of harsh new penalties to be levied on those who use the web to disseminate “rumors,” a word that sometimes seems to mean any information that annoys the government.

By now, as I say, they think they know a good bit about Chinese censorship.

But the questions about limits on free speech in China that people ask me at public talks have convinced me that when even very well-informed Americans with no special concern with Chinese affairs consider the topic, what fills their minds is a mixture of solid pieces of information and notions that are, at best, only partly true. The subject is actually quite a bit more complicated—and more interesting—than many of them imagine.

For example, many know that Beijing uses a “Great Firewall” to try to keep the web free of things it dislikes. What fewer appreciate is how much energy the Chinese government puts into trying to flood the Internet with things it likes. People can earn small payments, on a post-by-post basis, for adding pro-government comments to sites. Bloggers mock this piece-rate system: those benefiting from it, they say, have joined the “Fifty-Cent Party” that props up the Communist Party.

Many also think that, because of the 1989 massacre, “Tiananmen Square” is now a forbidden term. But actually, the main Chinese term for the killings—which actually took place on streets near the plaza, rather than in Tiananmen Square itself—refers to a date, June 4, not any location. So, when in Beijing, go ahead and ask a local how to get to Tiananmen Square, which is after all still a major tourist site due to its monuments. Just don’t expect to see newspapers refer to the massive protests that took place on the square in April and May of 1989 or anything that happened anywhere in the capital that June 4.

A third issue that isn’t as simple as it seems concerns banned books. Many in the West assume that Chinese writers who create such works invariably end up in exile, imprisoned, or at least impoverished, unable to publish anymore. This certainly can happen, but it doesn’t always. Yu Hua, for instance, wrote a wonderful nonfiction collection, China in Ten Words, which cannot be distributed legally on the mainland because of its edgy political content, yet he still lives in Beijing, keeps publishing fiction locally, and belongs to the official writer’s association.

A final example of a commonly held belief that isn’t quite true is that, given Beijing’s line that the Dalai Lama is an evil separatist, biographies lauding him can’t be sold in any bookstores or displayed on any coffee tables in the People’s Republic of China. The more complicated reality can be summed up in the famous realtor mantra: location, location, location. On a recent trip to Hong Kong, which is a part of the People’s Republic of China, albeit one governed by special rules, I saw a biography celebrating the Dalai Lama prominently displayed in a bookstore, right by a similar one about Gandhi. No Shanghai bookstore would do this, but I know Han Chinese in that city who wouldn’t think twice about putting a copy of it on their coffee table if someone gave them one as a gift. Ethnic Tibetans in Shanghai would likely be at least a bit more cautious, on the other hand, and in Lhasa, where the official security apparatus is particularly intrusive and draconian, residents would know that simply possessing a hidden copy of the book could be very risky.

Want to know more about these kinds of phenomena? A month ago, I’d have said just Google “Danwei.com,” “China Digital Times,” “China Media Project,” or “Tea Leaf Nation,” as doing so will take you to websites that do a good job of tracking Chinese free speech issues. Or Google the names of either Rebecca MacKinnon, a former CNN Beijing bureau chief who has become a leading analyst of Internet freedom issues in China and elsewhere, or Yu Hua, who has done a series of excellent newspaper commentaries on censorship—strictly for publication abroad, of course—including one titled “The Spirit of May 35th,” which will introduce you to the imaginary date that clever Chinese bloggers sometimes refer to in an effort to circumvent the taboo on the term June 4.

I still think those suggestions are good ones, but now I can also recommend a book: Jason Q. Ng’s Blocked on Weibo: What Gets Suppressed on China’s Version of Twitter (and Why). It’s an engaging new volume chock full of illuminating, sometimes amusing entries on temporarily or permanently banned terms. You’ll find information there on “Fifty-Cent Party,” “May 35,” and some less expectedly verboten words and phrases.

One entry I like focuses on “Jiang Zemin,” the name of a former head of the Communist Party. “A number of leaders’ and politicians’ names are banned on Weibo, presumably to prevent insult,” Ng writes. “One can view these sorts of social media blocks as a kind of perk of the job, akin to a company car—get to a high enough position in the Communist Party and you get rewarded with an online shield against criticism.”

In June 2011, Ng notes, things got strange. Jiang’s absence from public events triggered rumors that he had died. Beijing was accused of hiding the death and responded by blocking searches for the senior figure’s surname. The problem was that “Jiang” is the most common Chinese word for “river.” Bloggers had “a field day” mocking this example of paranoia carried to absurd lengths. Thankfully, Ng ends the section in deadpan fashion; Jiang “appeared in public” that October—and “one could search for rivers again.”


Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at UC Irvine and author, most recently, of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, a new edition of which, updated in collaboration with fellow Dissent contributor Maura Elizabeth Cunningham, was published in July.