Category Archives: censorship

“The Communist Party goes Kodachrome”

Evan Osnos with a good one on what we see in the Party Congress, and what we don’t see:

For a week, Beijing is flirting with memories of the pre-Internet age. By ramping up the electronic network of censors, dead ends, and other roadblocks, the government has succeeded in making the Internet, at times, as balky and circumscribed as at any moment since the Web arrived in China nearly a decade ago. It would be easy to forget that China now has nearly six hundred million people online, because the Chinese-language microblogs and forums have been scrubbed of the humiliating double entendre and mockery that citizens now pour forth on the Party and its leaders. At times, Google and Gmail disappear entirely. The outside world’s most nettlesome newspaper, the Times, has been blacked out. Likewise, it’s easy to think we’re back in the days before Bloomberg was anything but a person, because that site is blacked out, too, for publishing details on the fortunes of senior Party oligarchs, a subject the government considers an appalling breach of decorum.

For a week, all is quiet on China’s Western front, as far as the Party is concerned. It would be easy to miss the fact that six Tibetan protesters set themselves on fire in the course of two days last week, to protest the Chinese occupation of Tibet, because the only Tibetan participants you’re likely to meet in the Great Hall of the People this week are the kinds of Tibetans who call each other “comrade,” speak Mandarin, and point out, as the delegation did on Thursday, that the Tibetan capital has been voted the happiest city in China four times in the last five years. To make sure that the present doesn’t intrude on that memory, teams of guards are stationed outside the Great Hall with fire extinguishers in case anyone tries to burn themselves.

For a week, the Party is unified, tolerant of debate, and clear in its mission. To ensure that today’s complexities do not encroach on that, the State Council Information Office, which helps tell the Chinese media what it can report, advised all Chinese news publications that they are “forbidden from reporting on, commenting on or publishing Hu Deping‘s online article ‘Reform Cannot be Wasted.’” Hu, the scion of the late leader Hu Yaobang, is a frequent critic of the Party’s reluctance to reform, but there’s no reason for newspaper readers to be burdened with those ins and outs. It was just one of scores of advisories given to the Chinese media this week to maintain what filmmakers call continuity. It is the authoritarian equivalent of ensuring that the extras in the shot aren’t wearing digital watches.

Like all parties, the Party’s party will come to an end, eventually: Thursday, to be precise, when the next generation of leaders will be revealed to the world. It will be up to those men to face the reality of the Party’s future, if the present is not unnerving enough.

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Filed under 2012 power transfer, censorship, Communist Party

Wen Jiabao: As Corrupt As His Peers

NYT writer David Barboza tipped off a firestorm this week when he published a piece detailing the enormous sums the Wen family has accumulated recently:

The mother of China’s prime minister was a schoolteacher in northern China. His father was ordered to tend pigs in one of Mao’s political campaigns. And during childhood, “my family was extremely poor,” the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, said in a speech last year.

But now 90, the prime minister’s mother, Yang Zhiyun, not only left poverty behind — she became outright rich, at least on paper, according to corporate and regulatory records. Just one investment in her name, in a large Chinese financial services company, had a value of $120 million five years ago, the records show.

The details of how Ms. Yang, a widow, accumulated such wealth are not known, or even if she was aware of the holdings in her name. But it happened after her son was elevated to China’s ruling elite, first in 1998 as vice prime minister and then five years later as prime minister.

Many relatives of Wen Jiabao, including his son, daughter, younger brother and brother-in-law, have become extraordinarily wealthy during his leadership, an investigation by The New York Times shows. A review of corporate and regulatory records indicates that the prime minister’s relatives, some of whom have a knack for aggressive deal-making, including his wife, have controlled assets worth at least $2.7 billion.

The article is long but worth a read, as Barboza details how a Chinese politician known for his down-to-earth touch has become the center of a massive corruption vortex. None of this is surprising, as such, but the details have never been laid out so clearly and investigated so thoroughly before.

The blowback has been impressive, as the Times’ Chinese-language site was blocked in China within hours:

The episode is an extreme example of an enduring newspaper-world fact: journalism and business interests don’t always go hand in hand.

The Times did exactly what one would hope and expect: It published a great story without undue regard for the short-term business consequences.

Mr. Sulzberger said the publication of the article was preceded by “conversations with the Chinese government to discuss it.”

“They wanted to air their concerns – which I listened to, as I should,” Mr. Sulzberger said. “And eventually, we made a decision to publish.”

Joseph Kahn, the foreign editor, told me that he knew when the reporting on this story began – about a year ago – that it would be a “threshold issue” for the Chinese government.

“I expected it to test the limits of what they would tolerate from the foreign media,” he said. (In speaking with me, he emphasized that Mr. Barboza’s direct editor on the story was Dean Murphy, a deputy business editor.)

Mr. Kahn said that as recently as Wednesday, Mr. Sulzberger and the executive editor, Jill Abramson, met with Chinese government representatives at The Times. But the focus of that conversation was not about the journalism – it was about political and cultural differences.

In short, Chinese officials were making the case that The Times not publish the article.

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Filed under censorship, Communist Party, corruption, journalism

“Ai Weiwei bemoans block on his ‘Gangnam’ parody”

I’m not really sure what to make of this one. A few days ago Ai Weiwei released a video of himself and his friends jumping and dancing to the tune of Gangnam Style, with clips from the original video spliced in with footage from Ai’s studio. Honestly, it seemed pretty low-effort by Ai’s standards, and was almost disappointing given the possibilities of what Ai could do with that song and idea if he put some time in.

On the other hand, Reuters is now reporting that China went on a censorship spree to take the video down and delete all references to it from the Chinese net. I feel like that almost redeems the video- if the most bland, inoffensive statement ever made gets pulled down, and of a song and video that are all over the airwaves already in China at that, then the censors have come out looking unusually ridiculous, even for them.

Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei criticized the government on Thursday for removing from Chinese websites his parody of Korean pop sensation Psy’s Gangnam Style video.

Ai, a world-renowned artist and China’s most prominent dissident, and staff of his company performed Psy’s famous horse dance in his Beijing studio and posted the video late on Wednesday to Chinese sites such as “Tudou”, the equivalent of the blocked YouTube site.

Ai, 55, called the video “Caonima”. “Caonima” means “grass mud horse” but the word, which sounds like a very crude insult, has also been taken on by Chinese Internet users, and by Ai himself, and featured in postings mocking the government’s online controls.

“We only filmed for a bit over 10 minutes but we used a whole day to edit, and eventually put it online at midnight,” Ai told Reuters.

“After we had uploaded it, a few hours later … we found that a lot of people, tens of thousands, had already watched it. Now, in China, it has already been totally removed, deleted entirely, and you can’t see it in China,” Ai said.

“Overall, we feel that every person has the right to express themselves, and this right of expression is fundamentally linked to our happiness and even our existence,” Ai said.

“When a society constantly demands that everyone should abandon this right, then the society becomes a society without creativity. It can never become a happy society.”

On the one hand, there wasn’t much creativity being exercised in Ai’s video… but on the other hand, it still got deleted, so Ai was proven right in spite of himself almost.

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Filed under art, censorship, internet

“Me and My Censor”

Eveline Chao, one of my favorite Twitterers, has a great piece in FP about the realities of censorship in China. You should really read the whole thing.

My first day of work in Beijing, my boss asked if I knew the “Three Ts.”

I did not. It was February 2007, and I was a wide-eyed 26 year-old fresh off the plane from New York, struggling to absorb the deluge of strange information that had hit me since arriving.

The Three Ts, he informed me, were the three most taboo topics to avoid in Chinese media — Taiwan, Tibet, and Tiananmen. My boss was Taiwanese himself, and delivered this information with a wry tone of bemusement. He had been doing business here for nearly 30 years, he had said, since China first began opening its economy to the outside world, and had witnessed a lot.

“You’ll hear more about it from our censor,” he said, and then, having inserted that tantalizing fragment into my head, sent me off to begin my new job.

Like any editor in the United States, I tweaked articles, butted heads with the sales department, and tried to extract interesting quotes out of boring people. Unlike my American counterparts, however, I was offered red envelopes stuffed with cash at press junkets, sometimes discovered footprints on the toilet seats at work, and had to explain to the Chinese assistants more than once that they could not turn in articles copied word for word from existing pieces they found online. I also liaised with our government censor.

Our censor, an employee of MOFCOMM, was a nervous, flighty woman in her forties with long, frizzy hair and a high, childlike voice, whose name was Snow. (Snow requested I only use her English name for this article.) In late September of this year, I learned that Snow left the magazine, enabling me to finally write this story without fear that it would affect her job.

Snow’s name made for much late-night comedy in my office, along the lines of: “God, that article totally got snowplowed,” or “Uh-oh, I predict heavy snowfall for this one.” I met Snow for the first time during our inaugural editorial meeting at the office: the top two floors of a six-story, spottily heated building with a pool hall in the basement and what appeared to be fourteen-year-old security guards at the door, in central Beijing. Here, just as my boss had promised, Snow elaborated on the Three Ts, relaying an anecdote about a journalist friend of hers. A photo enthusiast, he once ran a picture he’d taken in Taiwan alongside an article, but had failed to notice a small Taiwanese flag in the background. As a result, the entire staff of his newspaper had been immediately fired and the office shut down.

In the beginning, most of Snow’s edits were minor enough that we didn’t feel compromised. We couldn’t say that a businessperson came back to China from the United States after “Tiananmen,” but we could say “June 1989,” knowing that our readers knew the significance of the month. We couldn’t say “the Cultural Revolution” but could write “the late 1960s and early 1970s,” to allude to then Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong launching his disastrous campaign that sent millions of intellectuals to the countryside. Writing that a company planned to expand into “foreign markets like Taiwan and Korea” was forbidden because it suggested that Taiwan was a separate country from China, but we could say “overseas markets,” since, according to Snow, Taiwan literally is over a body of water from the mainland.

Go read it!

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Filed under censorship, China, journalism

“Writer Mo Yan in Delicate Nobel Dance With Chinese Authorities”

A new take on Mo Yan and the Nobel prize by Josh Chin of China Realtime Report:

A day after winning the Nobel Prize for literature, Chinese novelist Mo Yan said he hoped China’s other Nobel winner, jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo, can “achieve his freedom” soon.

The writer’s willingness to speak publicly about Mr. Liu flies in the face of criticisms leveled by some other writers and human rights activists in China that the novelist, once celebrated for his sly subversiveness, had recently grown too close to the authorities. It also means Chinese authorities will likely need to step carefully in trying to exploit the soft power potential of the writer’s award, human rights advocates say.

“Mo Yan certainly has a mind of his own. He’s not a government puppet. His novels make very clear that he’s not a cheerleader for the state of Chinese society today,” said Nicholas Bequelin, senior Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. The novelist’s willingness to talk about Mr. Liu, he added, “will make it a little more difficult for China to conceal that they’re holding a Nobel Peace Prize winner in prison.”

Dissident artist Ai Weiwei, who on Thursday slammed Mo Yan as unworthy of the prize, did an about-face upon hearing the writer had expressed sympathy for Mr. Liu. “I want to welcome Mo Yan back into the arms of the people,” he said. “If this sort of courage is the result, I hope more Chinese writers will be given Nobel prizes.”

“It does put the government in a bind because it doesn’t look good, but I don’t think that it’s likely to affect the government’s position on Liu Xiaobo at this time,” Mr. Bequelin said, adding: “From the government’s perspective it’s a small price to pay compared to the benefit of being able to say China has a Nobel literature prize winner.”

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Filed under censorship, culture, Liu Xiaobo

“The Artist Who Can’t Leave China”

TIME has an interview with Ai Weiwei, whose Hirshhorn exhibition opened in DC last weekend:

If you were given your passport and allowed to travel, do you worry about being able to return?

There are so many cases of people being blocked from returning. I always prepare for the worst, but I also try to act according to what is possible. I always think: why should [the government] do that? It is not good for them; it is not good for anybody. I think maybe they would change. Every decision I make I always try to say the [government] has the possibility to change. Otherwise why would you still fight? So that would bring me into many, many difficult circumstance. Because I’m always willing to test and to say: what could happen? Or say: just because it happened last time does that means it will happen again? So I can’t say what will or will not happen.

There are many cases where there are things that you fought for and that your side ended up having a victory of sorts. There was the Green Dam censorship software that the government wanted to install on Chinese computers; and the research into the names of students who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Green Dam was blocked and, eventually, the government was forced to release a total of the student deaths. Looking at that do you see any potential for, if not exactly change in the system, at least movement or response by the government to the interests of the public?

I think so. Gradually, under pressure from not just me but from different points. I think the pressure is getting stronger, you can see it every day. I always jump to the other side, to think about it from the view of the government. You can see the Internet discussion. So far it is the strongest force to deliver the pressure to the government and make people’s voice be heard. It happens everywhere. Sometimes it doesn’t have an immediate effect. Like the Beijing flood this summer, to name those names [of the dead], it was quite difficult, but they had to do it. If they didn’t do it, people will start to research on their own. That will cause the government much more problems.

The Government [knows] … many issues need to be faced and answered. And they know the sooner they answer, the less cost and less damage. But who is going to do it? I think the pressure still need to come from the civil movement. After 63 years [the government] cut out all the possible interests groups or different kind of discussions. They don’t exist. The whole nation becomes very simple. The master gives the order ruthlessly. The civilians just have to obey it. There’s no space for discussion, no structure, etcetera. No way to even to evaluate the damage. There is no true communication.

You lived in U.S. for 12 years before returning in 1993. How did the U.S. change you and how did it affect your art?

It is very strange. When I was there, I desperately trying just to survive and of course I experienced and learned so much through art on the Lower East Side or demonstrations or even the Iran Contra scandal. All those things I watched. I never [thought] there was an influence… until I was in detention and the police asked me the same question. Because they had have to find out why this man relentlessly criticized the government. He’s psycho, why is he doing this? What is the fundamental change? …At the beginning, when I talked with them they said, ‘Ha ha, you must watch too many Hollywood movies.’ I said, ‘Yes, I love Hollywood movies.’ I still can be touched if I watch movies. I started to realize I have changed. The American experience quite influenced my understanding of individuality, about basic human rights, about the rights of freedom of expression and the rights and responsibility of citizens.

Then later I learned everything from the Internet. I learned to discuss, to communicate, to make a point through modern technology. So maybe there are three parts in my life – earlier background living in exile in Xinjiang in a very political circumstance, then later the United States from 24 to 36 years old. I was quite equipped with liberal thinking. Then the Internet. If there is no Internet of course I cannot really exercise my opinion or my ideas.

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Filed under art, censorship

“How China’s “Reincarnation Party” Takes Aim at Online Censors”

Liz Carter from Tea Leaf Nation on ‘reincarnated’ online accounts in China, which seem to be becoming something of a badge of honor:

Account deletion is one of the harshest forms of censorship on Sina Weibo, as it not only silences expression but severs genuine connections between users who have dedicated a large portion of their free time to sharing and storing the details of their lives online. This threat, in turn, brings about a degree of self-censorship that is impossible to quantify, but also inspires unique and creative ways to comment on controversial issues.

In the event of Weibo account deletion, however, netizens still have a solution: re-registration. The process is known in Chinese as “reincarnating,” or joining the “Reincarnation Party.”

So persistent and pervasive is the Reincarnation Party that it has its own entry in Baidu Baike, Baidu’s answer to Wikipedia, which defines the group as “those users who register new IDs after having their accounts deleted or posting privileges revoked for long periods of time. They add a number to indicate how many times they have reincarnated, such as ‘Life2‘[二世] or ‘Life3’[三世], after their original names to protest [the censorship].”

The phenomenon of the Reincarnation Party may not defeat online censorship all by itself, but it provides one window into the way ordinary netizens are pushing back creatively against the silencing of expression.

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Filed under censorship, internet