Category Archives: censorship

“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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“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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“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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“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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“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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“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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