A serious look at online censorship in China from an unlikely source

Among the circles that Imagethief runs in it is relatively fashionable to be completely disdainful of the Chinese English-language media. This is not entirely unfair. Chinese English-language news sources have their uses, but by comparison with most international news sources they can often seem amateurish and sloppy and they have a strange tendency to combine the most banal possible reporting with oddly titillating and lightweight fringe material. It’s no surprise that “Skinhua” is a common nickname for the Xinhua state news service, your reliable source of political pronouncements and photo-essays on bikini girls (the term coined, as far as I know, by Danwei).

Speaking of photo-essays on bikini girls, Imagethief was surprised to find a very interesting article on online censorship in China in the English edition of the Global Times. I mention bikini girls here (for the third time, you’ll notice) not just to boost my search returns, although that will be a side benefit, but because at the foot of every page of this article was a link to a photo feature on “Sexy and Hot Philippine Beauties” provided by, yes, Xinhua. QED. The spread is here, if you must. Too much makeup for my taste, but, hey, to each their own.

If you’ve had your moment with the…alright, a fourth insertion would be gratuitous…the Global Times article is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, the source. The Chinese version of the Global Times is a fiery and thoroughly patriotic tabloid companion to the correct but turgid People’s Daily. The English version, launched last year, is among the slickest of the English language newspapers in China, and is a bit less flag waving than its Chinese companion. But it’s still a Party publication. The second surprise is the unexpected depth of the story and the conspicuous absence of the official point of view, which is heavy on the primacy of maintaining social harmony and purifying the Internet. The focus of the article is on the costs of censorship to regular net users and entrepreneurs.

The Global Times hedges its bets a bit, with the entire first page focusing on the censorship applied by popular forum Douban, but dig a bit deeper into the story and it gets to the heart of how the Chinese government censors websites. It is not, as many people think, primarily technological, but rather a complex system of rules that are so vague and inconsistently applied that Chinese websites self-censor ruthlessly rather than risk joining the growing list of sites shut down as object lessons:

What’s worse [than waiting for the call from the autorities, said website operator Zoe Wang] was the complete absence of clear-cut rules for deciding whether or not to delete an online post.

“The criterion of sensitivity depends on many aspects such as the political environment, the website’s background, size and location, as well as the different understandings of Web masters.”

Douban was extraordinarily cautious about its content as it had no background or ties to government, according to a source close to an editor at the site.

“Once you’re shut down, nobody can save you,” the source said.

No editor from Douban would go on the record when the Global Times contacted them.

“Douban recalls clearly the fate of Fanfou, Yeeyan and Blogbus,” Fang said.

They were three of the most well-known mainland websites closed down last year, according to the Southern Metropolis Weekly. The latter two were recovered in January.

Fanfou founder Wang Xing was pondering how much to up censorship during the July 5 Xinjiang riot last year when he got his answer.

The Twitter-style microblogging service for 100,000 registered users was closed down almost immediately for “violating related rules”, according to the China Business News Weekly.

Wang hasn’t given up hope of bringing Fanfou back some day. Seven months on, Wang still refused to comment.

It’s well worth reading the whole thing, and, considering the source, a welcome compliment to the western media’s tendency to focus on the (admittedly important) technological aspects of Internet censorship in China, and the heavily mythologized 30,000 Internet police.  As secret police forces through the years have known, uncertainty and paranoia are very powerful and very simple tools for keeping people in line.

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One Response to A serious look at online censorship in China from an unlikely source

  1. Pingback: There’s more to the Great Firewall than technology « Imagethief