Sanitized For My Protection: Imagethief’s Self-Censorship Policy Explained

In a recent comment, an old friend of mine posed a very interesting question:

Do you think much about where the “line in the sand” is for you personally? Just how far can you take criticism of China in your Blog before you potentially attract unwanted attention? While I doubt you would be subject to arrest, being a Caucasian American citizen and thus capable of evoking American political and media attention if such were to happen, you could theoretically be “invited” to leave the country and not return. Do you already impose limits on your rhetoric and subject matter as you write?

Well, first, let’s not over-estimate the amount of righteous fury that would be provoked by the incarceration of one loudmouthed PR flack. Nevertheless, despite recent post topics, I like to think that my criticism of China is leavened by wonder, appreciation and affection as well. No one is forcing me to stay here, and I wouldn’t be in China if I wasn’t enjoying it. But dewy sentimentality won’t jerk any tears from the apparatchiks down at the Ministry of Information. So, the short answer is, yes, I do impose limits on my rhetoric and on the subject matters that I broach, although perhaps less than I should.

I don’t worry about being thrown in jail (when that happens it’ll be because the apocalypse has come and all spin-doctors are being put against the wall). I certainly worry about having my website blocked, which is probably the most likely result of transgression. The worst-case would probably be finding my residency and employment permits cancelled. I have not heard of anyone being expelled for blogging. If anyone is aware of confirmed cases, please comment.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I am going to explain my self-censorship policy. There are three reasons why I self-censor:

First, I don’t blog anonymously. Maybe this is a mistake. Many people do blog anonymously, including many of the China bloggers that I follow. And some of them aren’t even in China. (For those who want to know how to blog anonymously, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has a guide here.) But as long as I’ve had a website (twelve years now) my name has been on it. And I’ve always felt I ought to be willing to take responsibility for what I wrote. Perhaps I’ll regret that someday.

Second, China is a good place for a little paranoia. It seems like arrogance to think anyone official would care what I write in this space. But, as I wrote recently, I’ve met journalists here who have been hassled by the authorities. Other bloggers have simply decided that its too dangerous to have an opinion here, and have thrown in the towel. One blogger believes (with some cause) that the Ministry of Information has been lurking about his site. The foreign journalists I know take it as a matter of course that they are under surveillance. And I am a foreigner who deals regularly with both the Chinese and foreign media in the course of my work. That is probably grounds for some caution. On the other hand,searching Technorati for “China” yields 411,780 posts, so what is the chance that I am attracting particular attention? If it is true that China has 30,000 Internet content weasels, I guess the chance is measurable. (The post cited for that widely disputed number is an excellent precis on China’s Internet policies.)

Third, speaking of my work, it is an issue as well. Since I am not blogging anonymously, I have to consider what will happen if someone from my company stumbles across my blog. Sooner or later, it will happen (if it hasn’t already). This is fraught for a variety of reasons, especially considering my line of work. As one of the company experts on blogging and online media, I wouldn’t have much credibility if I wasn’t blogging myself. But I won’t write anything about my company’s clients unless it is in the most general terms. If I puff them, I destroy my own credibility. If I denigrate them, I betray my obligations as their consultant. It also, to an extent, limits what I can say about PR in China in general. This is a shame, because there are some things that beg to be written about. The only  post I have ever written to completion and then decided against publishing was not a China government or policy post. It was a China PR post.

I’ve always self-censored to some degree, usually for purely pragmatic reasons. Back in my angry youth, in 1995/6,  I wrote some inflammatory things in the Report from Singapore, my proto-blog on the rise and fall of Games Online. In tiny Singapore, where everybody in a given business knows everyone else and you bump into the same people throughout your career, this could have really haunted me. You never know when someone you scorch will have the influence to ensure that your permanent residency or employment pass doesn’t get renewed. Or simply be interviewing you for your next job. When I republished Report from Singapore on my website, in 1999, I scrubbed the most incendiary material, removed a few real names and softened some ill-considered rhetoric written in the heat of emotional trauma.

In China, the issue is less one of scorching individuals and more one of irritating the State. So where is my line in the sand? (Or dust, as it is in Beijing.)

Well, like many blogs, most of mine is either my own opinion or my opinion combined with information freely available on websites not blocked in China (since I can see them). I don’t usually re-publish stuff blocked in China, although there have been occasional exceptions, such as Reporters Sans Frontieres’ statement on Ching Cheong.

I don’t spend much time on arch-taboo subjects. I don’t generally talk about Tiananmen Square in the 1989 context both because that is a lightning-rod issue and because there are people much better able to comment on it than I am. I don’t talk about certain quasi-religious movements that China has banned (and, as you can see, I have not even mentioned them by name). Sometimes I wish I could, but that seems like a fast road to exile behind the Great Firewall.

When I first got to China, I published the same assortment of expat-blogger, hayseed abroad “gawrsh!” stories written by every other foreigner who has come to China. (Written, I hope, in my own inimitable style.) That was fine in its time, but the longer I live here, the less of that there is likely to be. Instead I now find myself writing more of the kind of posts you would expect from someone who has been a media professional for nearly fifteen years. I didn’t plan it that way. My interests simply shifted, as did what was happening around me. That has put me pretty squarely on sensitive territory, and I try to respect that. But, as a media pro, how can you ignore the role of propaganda in the recent wave of anti-Japanese nationalism? How can you ignore the arrest of Ching Cheong? How can you ignore the way China represents itself to the world, or to its own people? How can you ignore any of it?

Unless you are in a coma, to live in China is to wonder, why are things this way? What to the Chinese want? Where is it all going? What are the forces driving it? What the hell am I doing here? I don’t know about you, but I process what I see around me every day by talking about and, especially, by writing about it. If I stopped, I would have to wind iron bands around my head or my skull would explode.

So will keep posting. And when I feel paranoid, I will remind myself that there are things being written in un-blocked mainstream media that are far more influential and powerful than anything I will lay before my tiny handful of readers. But I will also be mindful that I and my wife live in a society that doesn’t work the same as the USA does. There is no right to freedom of speech here. There is no right to freely access what much of the rest of the world takes for granted. There are taboos. Like a game of digital hopscotch, I must be mindful of how I step around the lines that have been drawn.

I suspect many of us here do the same.

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