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

“Why China Lacks Gangnam Style”

Evan Osnos with a good explanation for why China just can’t seem to put together any kind of cultural power for export:

In China, the Gangnam phenomenon carries a special pique. It has left people asking, Why couldn’t we come up with that? China, after all, dwarfs Korea in political clout, money, and market power, and it cranks out more singers and dancers in a single city than Korea does nationwide. Chinese political leaders are constantly talking about the need for “soft power”—they have dotted the globe with Confucius Institutes to rival the Alliance Française, and they have expanded radio and television stations in smaller countries that might be tired of American-dominated news.

In Chinese cultural circles there is a name for this: the “ ‘Kung Fu Panda’ problem,” named for the 2008 DreamWorks movie. It refers to the fact that the most successful film about two of China’s national symbols—Kung Fu and pandas—could only be made by a foreigner because Chinese filmmakers would never try to play with such solemn subjects. The director Lu Chuan, for example, once agreed to produce an animated film for the Beijing Olympics, but after he embarked on the project, he discovered he was not supposed to let his mind run wild. “I kept receiving directions and orders from related parties on how the movie should be like. An important part of the instructions was that the animation should promote Chinese culture,” he wrote later. “We were given very specific rules on how to promote it. And some were not flexible about ‘promoting the Olympic spirit,’ ‘promoting Chinese culture’ or ‘rich in Chinese elements.’ ” He went on, “Under such pressure, my co-workers and I really felt stifled. The fun and joy from doing something interesting left us, together with our imagination and creativity. The planned animation was never produced.”

For now, China’s Gangnam moment seems far off. “In China, culture and the arts develop under the watchful eye of the government, and anything too hip or interesting gets either shut down or bought up. In Korea, by contrast, artists and entertainers thrive in a space that is highly commercialized but also pretty much free of the heavy hand of the state,” Delury told me, adding, “I kid government officials that the moment they understand why K-pop is so successful and try to replicate it, they will destroy it.”

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Filed under censorship, culture

“Mural draws fire from China”

Watch and marvel as the mayor of Corvallis displays more courage in defense of freedom of expression than plenty of national-level executives from around the world:

Citing “strong resentment from the local Chinese community,” the Chinese government has asked the city of Corvallis to force a Taiwanese-American businessman to remove a mural advocating independence for Taiwan and Tibet from his downtown building.

But city leaders say the mural violates no laws and its political message is protected under the U.S. Constitution.

In vivid colors, the painting depicts riot police beating Tibetan demonstrators, Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule and images of Taiwan as a bulwark of freedom.

In a letter dated Aug. 8, the Chinese Consulate General in San Francisco formally complained to Corvallis Mayor Julie Manning about the mural’s content and asked for her help in having it removed.

“There is only one China in the world,” the letter reads in part, “and both Tibet and Taiwan are parts of China.”

In a response dated Aug. 20, Manning expressed regret that the mural had caused concern but noted that local government has no authority to regulate art.

“As you are aware,” Manning’s letter reads, ‘the First Amendment of the United States’ Constitution guarantees freedom of speech in this country, and this includes freedom of artistic expression.”

Two Chinese officials, Vice Consul Zhang Hao and Deputy Consul General Song Ruan, flew to Oregon this week to make their case in person. The two men met Tuesday in Corvallis with Manning and City Manager Jim Patterson.

“They expressed their concern and the concern of the Chinese government about the mural on Mr. Lin’s building,” Patterson said. “They viewed the message as political propaganda.”

Patterson said he and Manning agreed to convey those concerns to Lin but made it clear to the consular officials that the city could not and would not order the painting’s removal.

“We also had a conversation with them about the U.S. Constitution,” Patterson added.

President Obama avoided the Dalai Lama the first time he visited Washington during the Obama administration, and gave him a low-key meet the second time. Mayor Manning politely listened to Chinese complaints, then explained the US Constitution and sent the Chinese consuls packing. Wow.

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Filed under art, censorship, Chinese foreign policy

“China State Media at Odds Over Myanmar Censorship Move”

If there’s anything I like more than seeing the propaganda machine trip itself up, I can’t think of it right now (via WSJ):

News on Monday that Myanmar had decided to end press censorship has prompted different takes from Chinese media outlets, as well as doubts from the online community that China will its own tight restrictions anytime soon.

The website of the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece newspaper, covered the news in a fairly evenhanded way on Monday, going so far as to quote a local journalist in Rangoon saying, “this is a great day for all Myanmar journalists.”

The People’s Daily post marked the latest instance over the past two weeks in which the paper – which is often criticized online – met with public praise. It won accolades last week with a commentary that offered public support to the mother of a rape victim who was sent to a labor camp after pushing tougher punishment for the men who allegedly attacked her daughter.

The Global Times, a nationalist-leaning tabloid published by the People’s Daily, was less supportive. In an editorial on Tuesday, it said China should never follow Myanmar’s model.

“China’s reform process has been baptized and tested thousands of times, while Myanmar’s reform is just about to bud,” read the editorial. “We would be naïve and childish if we doubt ourselves because we, a well-grown tree, look different from a flower bud.”

“China has been on the track of liberalizing the press for a long time, and will go further in the future,” it read. “We should proceed based on the national situation, instead of being panicked and making backwards countries like Myanmar and Vietnam our totem.”

Many online wondered whether China, with its tight media controls, would follow. “It seems that only North Korea and us are left now,” one Weibo user observed. “When will this great day come to China’s journalists?” asked another.

Others sounded more skeptical. “May I ask, does Myanmar delete Weibo posts?” wrote Pan Shiyi, a prominent real-estate developer, on his verified Sina Weibo’s account, referring to China’s censors deleting unfavorable online posts — a practice that has become increasingly frequent as use of social media grows in the country.

Also, good quotes from Bill Bishop in another article:

Bishop says Beijing’s current policy of blocking any online material it deems objectionable does seem unsustainable, partly because it is increasingly unpopular with the Chinese public.

“If you are a participant on Chinese social media, you know censorship is going on, and it is regularly mocked and criticized quite vociferously.” says Bishop, who points out that the Chinese Internet was buzzing with conversation on the Burma issue.

“People on Weibo [social media site] were making unfavorable comparisons between China, Burma, and North Korea, and joking that North Korea would open up their media before China. I think that’s a bit extreme, but it just shows that people do know what’s going on and I think that kind of knowledge becomes very corrosive,” said Bishop.

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Filed under censorship, media, Myanmar

“How Weibo Is Changing China”

Mary Kay Magistad of Yale Global on how Chinese Twitter is changing the rules of the game:

It was the last straw for Shanghai graduate student Wu Heng, when he heard that restaurants near him were using toxic chemicals to make pork taste like beef. He started a food-safety blog out of his dorm room in January. In April, he got 10,000 hits. In May, he got 5 million.

“Word spread on Weibo,” he says with a grin.

Food safety is but one of the hot-button issues that have raised a public outcry on Weibo, providing a new source of public pressure on the government. A similar outcry came last summer after a high-speed train crash killed 40 people, just days after the expensive and high-profile project was rushed into service. Weibo comments mocked official excuses and attempts to cover up bad management.

“This is unprecedented in Chinese history,” says Kaiser Kuo, the director of Corporate Communications at Baidu.com, the leading Chinese search engine. “There’s never been a time when there’s been a comparably large and impactful public sphere. It’s now driving, in many ways, the entire national dialogue.”

Wang Chen, who heads China’s State Internet Information Office, has said that Weibo and other microblogs should “serve society,” and not threaten public security.

Exactly what does threaten public security is open to interpretation, and Sina and other microblog providers are expected to interpret broadly as they exercise censorship on behalf of the government. Critical comments are wiped away; entire Weibo accounts are sometimes deleted. Popular blogger Isaac Mao had 30,000 followers when his account was closed in June. He’d written a comment criticizing China’s space program as a waste of money.

And lest ordinary citizens think they can get creative in their own political uses of Weibo – Anti has his doubts.

“You can’t use Weibo to organize a social movement,” he says. “Because as soon as you use the word ‘gather,’ the keyword would get picked up, and the warning would be sent to the local police station. So even before you gather at the restaurant, you’ll already have the police there. I call it Censorship 2.0.”

Still, Chinese Weibo users are using what Baidu’s Kaiser Kuo calls “delightful creativity” in using homonyms, puns and wordplay to get messages across. Those who want to post longer, edgier messages often post them as photos, to get around both censors and the word limit. Kuo says social media companies are left to balance between following the law and letting the virtual public square that’s their customer base thrive.

“Internet companies in China serve two masters,” he says. “They need to keep users happy, and none of them labor under the illusion that people prefer censored search results…. We are obliged to obey the law in China. And we are also compelled to explore the elasticity of our boundaries.”

Many a Chinese Weibo user is doing exactly that, transforming the relationship between Chinese citizens and their government.

“Before, it was very much one-way communication; the government disseminated information to the public” says environmentalist Ma Jun, whose Beijing-based Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs runs a popular website that maps, names and shames polluting factories around China. “But Weibo is different. It’s created, for the first time, a sort of equal two-way communication.”

That doesn’t mean democracy is about to break out. Ma says, for all the heady change Weibo has brought in its first three years, civil society in China is still in its infancy.

“For thousands of years, this country was ruled top down, and it doesn’t have a long tradition of transparency or public participation in decision making,” he says. “Now, it’s quite a critical moment, because the country is facing all these challenges. The environmental challenge is just one of them. There are many other social challenges. If we want to go through these smoothly, there’s an increasing understanding that the government alone cannot fully micromanage all these challenges. It needs the society to help.”

An increasingly vocal and growing Chinese middle-class is proving itself willing, even insistent, on playing that role – and a 3-year-old called Weibo is making it ever harder for the government to ignore those voices.

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Filed under censorship, internet

“Taking It to the Street in China”

This NYT piece was the best one I saw about the Qidong protests, which rocked a town near Shanghai last week:

On Saturday, thousands of angry residents of Qidong, a seaport town near Shanghai, decided they weren’t going to take it anymore. They took to the streets to protest the government’s plan to dump wastewater from a paper mill into their harbor, as my colleague Jane Perlez reported. They ransacked municipal offices, overturned cars and fought with the police. Striking photos of the unrest are here.

City officials quickly announced the waste-discharge plan would be canceled. Score one, maybe, for people power.

Although there are tens of thousands of civic protests every year in China, most are small-scale, ineffectual and officially smothered. But high profile demonstrations over environmental issues are occurring with more regularity, size, violence and political oomph — in Dalian (a petrochemical plant), in Zuotan (land grabs) and earlier this month in Shifang (a heavy-metals smelter). Deadly floods and a feeble government response in Beijing last week also led to a huge outcry online.

Elizabeth C. Economy, a senior fellow and director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that all over China now “citizens are making their voices heard on the Internet and their actions felt on the streets.”

In a piece on the council’s Asia Unbound blog, she said that Li Yuanchao, one of China’s most powerful leaders and a presumptive candidate for the Standing Committee of the Politburo, recently lectured Communist Party officials that they should “understand and comply with the will of the people.”

His message is one that has been often delivered by party bosses, “apparently to little effect,” Ms. Economy said.

As one microblogger said of the bloody Shifang protests this month: “The government has repeatedly squandered the people’s patience. It is time for us to be independent.” As we reported on Rendezvous at the time, the police warned that anyone using the Internet, cellphones or text messages to spread news about the protest would be “severely punished.”

A university student from Beijing, Yueran Zhang, says in a thoughtful essay published Sunday on Tea Leaf Nation that public skepticism and online rumor-swapping have become the new normal in China whenever government officials are confronted with crises.

Government response to a recent deadly shopping mall fire, for example, “exacerbated netizen rumors and doubts,” Mr. Zhang says. Government officers shunted journalists away from hospital interviews with the injured, and lawyers needed official permission before giving interviews.

“Those measures led to the inevitable online speculation,” Mr. Zhang says, “that government was concealing a terrible truth.”

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Filed under activism, censorship, environment, protests

“Ai Weiwei: to live your life in fear is worse than losing your freedom”

Ai Weiwei has written in to The Guardian, with a short letter to the editor here. By the way, fans of Teacher Ai should try to catch Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, a fantastic documentary on the man behind the art, political statements, and general cyclone of activity. He writes:

The 81 days of detention were a nightmare. I am not unique: this has happened to many people, and is still happening. It’s an experience no one should share. They were extreme conditions, created by a system that thinks it is above the law, and has become a kind of monstrous machine. Everybody who has been through it loses their original hope or has it changed somehow.

There are so many moments when you feel desperate and hopeless and you feel that’s the end of it. But still, the next morning, you wake up, you hear the birds singing and the wind blows. You have to ask yourself: can you afford to give up the fight for freedom of expression or human dignity? As an artist, this is an essential value that can never be given up.

They destroyed my studio, they put me in secret detention and they fabricated a crime that put a 15m yuan tax bill on me. We are now suing the Beijing tax authorities for abuse of powers and ignoring procedures. We are using this opportunity to make them realise what’s wrong and inform the public, even though we know the results won’t be positive. They refused to give us our papers back or let our manager and accountant be witnesses at the trial on Wednesday, or let me attend court. They even made my friend Liu Xiaoyuan, a lawyer, disappear before the hearing.

Friends of mine say: “Weiwei, my father has been questioned, my mother has been questioned, my sister has been questioned because of you.” I don’t know these people. Why does the system make them suffer? Because it can’t allow anybody to exercise their humanity and communicate or show support. But when your children are growing up and will never have a chance to have their voices heard, do you want to turn your face away and say OK, that’s not my problem?

Reflect on Bo Xilai’s case, Chen Guangcheng’s and mine. We are three very different examples: you can be a high party member or a humble fighter for rights or a recognised artist. The situations are completely different but we all have one thing in common: none of us have been dealt with through fair play, open trials and open discussion. China has not established the rule of law and if there is a power above the law there is no social justice. Everybody can be subjected to harm.

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“Banned in China on Tiananmen anniversary: 6, 4, 89 and today”

Mark MacKinnon on what the censors did to hide history today:

Each year, the Communist Party’s censors go to remarkable lengths to prevent Chinese citizens from accessing, or spreading, their memories of what happened on June 4, 1989, when an unknown number of people were killed during a military crackdown on pro-democracy protests in the centre of Beijing. Since Sunday night, even simple numbers like 6 (the month of June), 4 (the date) and 89 have been banned search terms on Chinese social-networking sites.

And so all day today users in China got bizarre replies from their search engines. “According to the relevant laws and policies, the results of your search ‘89’ cannot be displayed,” was the head-shaker I just read on my own screen. Typing “Tiananmen Square” – in English or Chinese – gets the same answer on the popular Sina Weibo site, which boasts over 300 million users. Pity the poor tourist just trying to find the plaza in the middle of the Chinese capital.

Eventually even “jintian” – the Chinese word for “today” – was a banned search term on such social networking sites, as the powers and weaknesses of those who rule China were simultaneously displayed.

Chinese Internet users are a wily bunch. Last year, they briefly evaded censors by referring to the date of the crackdown as “May 35th” rather than June 4th, a move that forced the conversation-killers to ban a non-existent date this year.

The censors subsequently decided that even some non-words pose a threat, disabling a function on Sina Weibo that allowed users to post a tiny drawing (or “emoticon”) of a candle.

And some things will always remain beyond the control of even China’s hard-working censors.

The weakening outlook for the global economy hit Asian markets hard Monday. The benchmark Shanghai Composite Index was among those that saw losses, falling precisely 64.89 in trading – a random reminder of the very anniversary Beijing was working so hard to help people forget.

Those who saw the data might have recognized the familiar numbers. But they would have had to be quick. Shortly after trading ended, the words “Shanghai Composite Index” temporarily joined China’s long list of banned terms.

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“Foreigners Under Fire”

The Diplomat has a piece from writer Tonio Andrade, who describes the changes requested by Chinese censors when he tried to publish a book in the PRC:

My new book, Lost Colony: the Untold Story of China’s First Great Victory over the West, won’t be published in mainland China. It might have found a strong readership there. Its main personage, Koxinga, is famous for driving the Dutch from Taiwan and bringing the island under Chinese rule. The story of his triumph is a gripping one, and I strove to tell it in a balanced way: no East versus West, just humans scrambling to do their best during hard times. As a member of the global history movement, this kind of balanced history is what I strive for. It’s the mission of my scholarly life.

But Chinese censors apparently don’t truck with balance. My erstwhile publisher asked whether I would acquiesce to omitting some “sensitive material” and changing some wording. It sounded like an innocuous request until I got to the details. Since Koxinga is considered a “positive figure in China,” my publisher informed me that the text would have to omit any discussion of torture by him and his soldiers. (Descriptions of Dutch atrocities were acceptable, though.) The book couldn’t refer to Koxinga as a “conqueror” or a “warlord,” and his “restoration of Taiwan” couldn’t be referred to as an invasion or an attack. Similarly, any mention of resistance by Taiwan’s aboriginal peoples (who, historical sources make clear, rose up and killed thousands of his soldiers), would also have to be excised, on the grounds that such episodes hint of “some sort of consciousness of Taiwanese independence.” The Chinese publisher said that if I refused to make such changes, the translation wouldn’t proceed. “Abridgement,” I was told, “is unavoidable.”

And so I set aside my dreams of renown and royalties and said no.

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“Rigid thinking beggars China’s soft power”

David Bandurski at CMP has another take on the high-profile collapse of the Chinese soft power push:

Like the last wave of populist anti-Western sentiment to hit China back in 2008 (remember the “Cafferty Affair” and the controversy over the Olympic torch relay?), these recent remarks — including a number of editorials in state media — stem from a foundational sense of victimization at the hands of the West. And Western media, once again, are bearing the brunt of the attack.

This root sense of victimization is enforced in China through education and propaganda, for Party leaders an important part of building and maintaining legitimacy.

Since Chinese President Hu Jintao defined “soft power” development as a key national strategy in his political report to the 17th Party Congress in 2007 — and outlined the media “going out” strategy more explicitly in his June 2008 speech at People’s Daily — China has spent billions of dollars expanding its global “transmission capacity.” The basic premise: China is in the midst of a zero-sum “global struggle for public opinion”, and in order to grab its share, it must beef up its soft power arsenal. Otherwise, it will continue to be “victimized” by Western media.

It’s a soft power push conceived in the hardest of terms. Which also means, of course, that it’s a hard sell.

China has expanded and re-outfitted Xinhua News Agency bureaus worldwide, launched multi-language editions of China Daily as well as an English-language edition of the Global Times, linked to the Party’s official People’s Daily. And this year it launched CCTV America, a 24-hour international news channel broadcasting from Washington.

And yet today, almost exactly four years on from Hu Jintao’s June 2008 speech that offered his boldest strategic response to China’s international media woes, it seems China has little “soft power” to show for its global media deployments.

In a recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, Harvard professor Joseph Nye, who introduced the idea of soft power to the world, said that China was “once again torpedoing its soft-power campaign” by failing to protect basic rights, and by strangling the emergence of a vital civil society that would otherwise showcase diverse, creative and attractive voices. “No amount of propaganda can hide the fact that blind human rights attorney Chen Guangcheng recently sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing,” Nye wrote.

Chinese strategizers have conceived of China’s soft power deficit as the country’s “third affliction,” the idea being that while China is now economically and militarily strong (having thrown those afflictions off) it is still demonized by a hateful West.

In fact, the narrative of victimization is itself one of the root maladies from which China’s soft power campaign suffers. The ideological conviction that Western media and culture must be the tools of Western political power blinds the pundits of Chinese soft power to the very mechanisms by which credibility and attractiveness are created.

The most salient symbol of China’s official failure to grasp the game rules of soft power and credibility is in fact Melissa Chan, the Al Jazeera correspondent China sent packing earlier this month.

By ejecting Chan and forcing the closure of Al Jazeera’s Beijing bureau, China has effectively admitted the impoverishment of its hopes of building a credible international news channel. Whatever its ambitions may be, it is determined to control the “voice” of China — as though it were not the product of the full complexity of China’s culture and ideas, but rather a megaphone to shout over the heads of international audiences.

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“On the Trail of Confiscated Copies of TIME in China”

Any fans of ridiculous bureaucracy battles should read this piece from the TIME magazine blog:

The note arrived in a nearly empty box sent to TIME’s Beijing Bureau. All copies of TIME Magazine’s May 14, 2012 issue with a cover entitled The People’s Republic of Scandal had been “safeguarded by customs.” Apparently, some customs officer had been entrusted with counting each confiscated copy ; there were, the receipt noted, 62 seized magazines. At the bottom of the customs document, there were five categories (with boxes to be ticked next to them) that described the possible fate of the seized magazines: 1. To be returned to sender 2. To be taxed 3. To be inspected 4. To be declared 5. To be dealt with. Our 62 magazines fell into the last category. They were being “dealt with.”

By whom had they been “dealt with?” And given that the customs receipt said we could contact the capital customs’ office within three months to retrieve the magazines, perhaps we could even get them back?

From that point ensued a surreal— and utterly common— exercise in Chinese bureaucratic futility. My colleague Jessie Jiang began working the phones. She first called the number on the receipt for the Beijing customs office. After many failed attempts to get someone to address TIME’s concerns, a customs official explained to Jessie that the magazines had probably been confiscated because of the “sensitive” nature of the issue. “As you know, China is very strict when it comes to ideology,” the customs officer told Jessie.

Beijing customs said they had no authority to allow the release of the magazines without a letter from the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Press and Publication. But several representatives of that bureau said there were no employees there who dealt with such matters—and that they had never written a letter reversing a confiscation decision before. One of the officials told Jessie: “This is China. We don’t allow foreign magazines to be distributed.” (Which, given the number of foreign publications available at upmarket newsstands in Beijing, is obviously untrue.)

The exciting conclusion is on their blog- check it out.

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More Melissa Chan Fallout

Two more reactions to her expulsion from China, first from Rectified.Name:

Some might see it as a badge of honor to be the first foreign journalist in 15 years to be kicked out of China – and I suppose on some level, like Dan Schorr being included on Nixon’s Enemies List – it is. But for those journalists who remain, and the world at large who depend upon them to make sense of the rapid changes in China today, the decision is a chilling reminder that the government knows its attempts at managing China’s international image are flailing badly. Since 2008, when new regulations were announced – if not always followed – allowing greater freedom for international organizations to report from China, the government and its representatives have been barely tolerant of coverage they deemed damaging to their own national self-interest and self-image. In several cases, especially those involving the thugocracy which passes for ‘local administration’ in many areas of China today, that tolerance has crumbled into threats and acts of violence and intimidation against foreign journalists and their employees.

One question nobody seems able to answer though is: Why Melissa?

Certainly the timing wasn’t great. The government has had to deal with a number of embarrassing incidents in the past few weeks. Never a good time to apply for a visa. Melissa was also one of the most active correspondents in the foreign press corps. Never content to report “Dateline: Jianguomen,” she spent a large amount of her time in the field, often tweeting about another narrow escape from the forces of Public Insecurity or of being rousted from hotels in the middle of nowhere as she bravely covered stories few others would. It is also one thing to cover a story with a notebook and pen, quite another to do so with cameras, lights, and sound equipment. Officials hate reporters with notebooks, but the sight of a camera in the hands of a professional journalist will generally cause even the sternest cadre into a sudden involuntary fecal event.

I remember an anecdote Melissa once told a group of my students. She said that when she first arrived, the Ministry folks were all smiles, figuring that any network which plays Osama bin Laden’s mix tapes must be alright. Six months later the same ministry folks complained to her that she was just as bad as CNN and the BBC. She replied, “Thank you?”

And from Chovanec:

Melissa is a friend of mine, who has interviewed me for several of her reports, most notably her pathbreaking report on the “ghost city” of Ordos, and her follow-up two years later. Although I know she’s disappointed to leave, I told her that being expelled was sort of like China’s version of the Pulitzer Prize — tangible recognition that the work she was doing was important and powerful enough to strike a very high-level nerve.

If you only have time to watch one video, check out Melissa’s recent report (in March 2012) on China’s secret “black jails.” It will give you an idea of the kind of courageous reporting she has been doing, and I suspect it was one of the things that got her kicked out of the country. I also suspect that her story, in January, interviewing farmers who knew Xi Jinping as a sent-down youth during the Cultural Revolution, was one more thing that helped wear out her welcome. While there was nothing really negative about it — in fact, it was quite complimentary — it trespassed over strict (and rather paranoid) rules barring anyone from discussing any aspect of the biography or personality of China’s next leader.

Just a guess, but somehow I’m pretty sure that kicking Chan out won’t help the tone of China coverage. Hopefully we’ll see a few other journalists going for China Pulitzers of their own in the days and years to come.

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“Where there’s freedom, there’s no need for firewalls”

Another great translated quote on Shanghaiist, this time from Chinese actor and director Sun Haiying:

“We have been attempting to block a whole load of Western things — Western values, hostile Western forces, Western hegemony, and the Western cultural invasion. Our firewall is the world’s most advanced. Strangely though, we’ve never heard of the West trying to block Oriental values, hostile Oriental forces, and the Oriental cultural invasion. Our CCTV4 has landed in the United States, and even The Founding of a Party is being shown on screens there. This illustrates a truth: Where there’s freedom, there’s no need for firewalls.”

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Melissa Chan Expelled From China

If you read this blog regularly you should recognize Melissa Chan, whose piece on the difficulty of reporting in China last year was one of the first things I posted here. The news that China has refused to renew her visa and effectively blocked her from returning to China almost feels personally insulting- she has consistently been one of the very best foreign reporters in China, and her pieces have been strong efforts to give voices to the voiceless. Plenty of reactions out there today, first from Custer at ChinaGeeks:

Al-Jazeera’s crimes include airing a documentary that China didn’t like — not one that was factually incorrect, mind you, just one they didn’t like — and violating unspecified rules and regulations. Neither of these are good reasons to expel anyone from any country, but the latter is particularly concerning because it seems to be an increasingly common tactic used by the Chinese government to attempt to bully foreign reporters and keep them from covering certain stories. In 2011, for example, some reporters who covered the “Jasmine Revolution” protests were told that they had broken the law by failing to obtain prior permission to report there. Journalists outside Chaoyang Hospital reporting on the Chen Guangcheng case were recently told the same thing.

In fact, China’s regulations on foreign reporters contain no such requirement as far as I can see (original Chinese version). To conduct an interview or reporting, foreign reporters must have the prior consent of anyone they’re interviewing — which is common sense — but there is no requirement that they must apply to anyone else for permission to cover anything.

Of course, the fact that Chinese authorities are apparently operating outside the framework of their own laws will not be news to anyone, least of all anyone who followed Chan’s excellent coverage of China during her five years here.

From Mark MacKinnon:

Melissa Chan, a courageous correspondent for al-Jazeera English who on Tuesday flew out of China after having her press credentials revoked, tested that assumption as much as – or more – than any of the foreign press corps in Beijing. By reporting on such sensitive topics as China’s secret “black jails,” and drawing such ire from the security services that she was today forced to leave, Melissa showed the world that China’s new openness is not real. The extra space reporters have been given since 2008 – and there is some – was always a gift from the Communist Party and its enforcers. A gift that could be taken away at any minute if you went beyond the invisible and shifting boundaries.

This false freedom given to reporters working in China is much more important than Melissa’s case or the careers of any of the foreign correspondents based in China. What’s at stake is not only the outside world’s (already poor) understanding of this rising but paranoid superpower, but also the future of journalism inside China. Chinese journalists have told me that they watch the foreign correspondents with envy, wishing they could report about their own country as freely as we do. Our fight to do our job is intertwined with their fight to do theirs.

Since Melissa is an American citizen, I hope to see her government put aside its enmity towards al-Jazeera and issue a strong statement regarding her expulsion.

MacKinnon hopes to see the US government have a serious go at China in defense of an al-Jazeera journalist in this day and age? Don’t hold your breath, pal. From Evan Osnos at The New Yorker:

China is moving backwards. In fifteen years of studying and writing about this place, I’ve rarely had reason to reach that conclusion without one qualifier or another dangling off the end of the sentence—qualifiers that leave room, for instance, for “halting progress” or “mixed signals.”

But this week the evidence is unambiguous: for the first time in thirteen years, China has kicked out a foreign correspondent. In doing so, it revives a Soviet-era strategy that will undermine its own efforts to project soft power and shows a spirit of self-delusion that does not bode well for China’s ability to address the problems that imperil its future.

What’s more, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club says that Chan’s case is part of a trend in which twenty-seven foreign reporters have been made to wait for more than four months for visa approvals in the past two years. In six cases, the club said, foreign reporters were told that their applications had been rejected or delayed “due to the content of the bureaux” or the applicant’s previous coverage of Chinese affairs.

Over that same two-year period, China’s Xinhua news agency has opened a state-of-the-art newsroom at the top of a skyscraper in Times Square, for CNC World, the agency’s twenty-four-hour news channel, which seeks to “present an international vision with a Chinese perspective.” That vision just got a lot harder to sell.

Apparently the foreign ministry briefing today turned into a bit of a circus, with Chan being the subject of the majority of questions. Hopefully other foreign journalists will take this as a call to be a bit more like Chan, and not to back down.

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