The ironies of China’s Web censorship

The irony is that for all the time and energy and resources China throws into censoring its Internet, the more creative, ingenious and brilliant those striving to subvert the system become. And the more brilliant and ingenious they are, the more attention they get, and the attempts to censor information blow up in the censors’ faces.

This is an absolutely marvelous article, a look at how the wit and humor of irreverent, mischievous bloggers, microbloggers and online artists is confounding China’s fleet of Web censors and doing achieving exactly what the censors are fighting: the delivery of mocking, critical messages revealing the injustices of the Chinese government.

No government in the world pours more resources into patrolling the Web than China’s, tracking down unwanted content and supposed miscreants among the online population of 500 million with an army of more than 50,000 censors and vast networks of advanced filtering software. Yet despite these restrictions — or precisely because of them — the Internet is flourishing as the wittiest space in China. “Censorship warps us in many ways, but it is also the mother of creativity,” says Hu Yong, an Internet expert and associate professor at Peking University. “It forces people to invent indirect ways to get their meaning across, and humor works as a natural form of encryption.”

To slip past censors, Chinese bloggers have become masters of comic subterfuge, cloaking their messages in protective layers of irony and satire. This is not a new concept, but it has erupted so powerfully that it now defines the ethos of the Internet in China. Coded language has become part of mainstream culture, with the most contagious memes tapping into widely shared feelings about issues that cannot be openly discussed, from corruption and economic inequality to censorship itself. “Beyond its comic value, this humor shows where netizens are pushing against the boundaries of the state,” says Xiao Qiang, an adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley, whose Web site, China Digital Times, maintains an entertaining lexicon of coded Internet terms. “Nothing else gives us a clearer view of the pressure points in Chinese society.”

I have posted before about the CCP’s total lack of a sense of humor. Every year in America the president of the United States gets roasted at the White House Correspondents dinner. No government figure here or in most free countries is spared from being laughed at. But can anyone actually imagine the CCP laughing at itself? How surprising, that it’s authoritarian and totalitarian regimes that are utterly devoid of humor. Anything that challenges such governments’ monolithic image of paternalism and benevolence is a threat: jokes unveil weaknesses in the rulers, they reveal vulnerabilities, and if they’re really funny they spread like wildfire. Small wonder that those making the jokes are considered lethal enemies.

Satire is sometimes a safety valve that government might grudgingly permit. Better a virtual laugh, after all, than a real protest. But being laughed at, as Orwell found during his stint as a colonial police officer in Burma, can also be a ruler’s greatest fear. And the Chinese government, which last year sentenced a woman to a year of hard labor for a sarcastic three-word tweet, appears to suffer from an acute case of humor deficiency. “Jokes that mock the abuse of power do more than let off steam; they mobilize people’s emotions,” says Wen Yunchao, an outspoken blogger who often mounts sardonic Internet campaigns in defense of free speech. “Every time a joke takes off,” Wen says, “it chips away at the so-called authority of an authoritarian regime.”

This exhaustive article reads like a thriller and is a good reminder of why we need professional journalists. While it’s largely about humor, and while some of the examples are pretty hilarious (be sure to read the one about Mao), it is anything but funny. The political reality is utterly grim. The use of humor is a last resort, a desperate attempt to enlighten and inform the masses, and a dangerous game. These are acts of incredible courage, and there’s no way China can wipe them out unless it turns the entire Internet off, and cell phones, too. These are real freedom fighters (or “freedom-of-speech fighters”).

Update: Relatedly, you’ll want to read this. These censors must be very busy men.

And then there’s this. What’s going on tonight?

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 20 Comments

Next-generation Chinese leaders are probably less concerned about what people say normally than by the ability to throttle dissent at moments of unrest. In that regard, building up (or tolerating) normally-satirical artists and authors while retaining iron strings over them is a much better strategy than straight censorship. No one who supports the government 100% in China is credible anymore, but in order to maintain executive direction over the populace it is necessary to have credible channels of communication.

When times are tense, you can easily implement soft and harder touches to nudge popular voices in the right direction. It’s not that hard in America and it must be even easier in the Chinese system.

October 27, 2011 @ 12:33 pm | Comment

Taking bets on just how many comments get posted on this thread before someone pops up to say “Yeah, but I can think of one example of where the US government may kinda-sorta have engaged in censorship,so anything and everything the CCP does is just gravy”. My money’s on three, including this one.

October 27, 2011 @ 1:32 pm | Comment

“Industry insiders say the principal weibo (pronounced way-bwah)”</blockquote?

Man, there are few things that annoy me more than when people try to explain Chinese pronunciation in this fashion, because they almost always totally fail. "Bwah", to me, looks like it should be pronounced "Ber-Wa", and I cannot for the life of me think why anyone would use it. If someone put a gun to my head and forced me to pick the nearest English-language homophone to "bo", I'd go with "bore".

The NYT continues to live down to my expectations, with all except one of their sources (a CCP rent-a-quote) being eith official docs, "some blogs we read", or "people who will not identify themselves".

The Guardian

did a far better job in their piece by interviewing David Bandurski, who at least is an expert of some standing:

“This [communique] is what we have been waiting for; there have been signs for weeks now,” said David Bandurski, of Hong Kong University’s China Media Project. “It is important, but it does not tell us exactly what’s going to happen. It sends the signal: ‘Everyone watch out’.

“Usually [these kind of directives] are followed by some more concrete actions, but it’s often very difficult to draw a line between a government policy flare like this and a particular action because control is a constant in China.”

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/oct/26/china-social-media-censorship

October 27, 2011 @ 2:01 pm | Comment

FOARP, you just made yourself lose your own bet.

October 27, 2011 @ 2:33 pm | Comment

Timely. Equally, the CMP’s recent article where David Bandurski scratched his head about the directions of this new cultural campaign.

And now we find that Supergirl and similar programs get it in the craw during the Golden Hour; now being limited to (if recalling exactly) 22 shows of that type across the length and breadth of the PRC.

The original Supergirl just prior to the Games also required serious Peng Liyuan guidance.

Throw in the OWS possibilities – this is a virus which really worries Beijing – and hey, its going to be fun times ahead.

Sorting out trash culture on the one hand, plus watching/worrying about this Wall Street stuff.

October 27, 2011 @ 5:01 pm | Comment

Oh well, maybe someday the CCP will get harmonized somehow. Couldn’t happen to a nicer or more deserving bunch of people.

October 28, 2011 @ 2:53 am | Comment

Here’s a decent read from Fang Lizhi:
http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/nov/10/real-deng/?pagination=false

October 28, 2011 @ 3:45 am | Comment

Facebook is good, but I feel Renren and Xiaonei are better. Better interface, more feature rich, better mobile API’s. I feel it’s an improvement over facebook.

And if Facebook’s founder is smart, he would make a deal with the Chinese gov’t and offer a censored version of it. Getting 1.3 billion users is no joke. Their IPO’s valuations would skyrocket.

I hope he’s not one of those idealist who thinks he’s the savior of the world and refuse to “compromise” to the CCP. Those are really the stupidest people in the world.

October 28, 2011 @ 8:58 am | Comment

The introduction of the internet to China by the CCP (ill-advised but necessary for economic growth) doomed their ability to rule with an iron fist. Now, the people truly have the power to retaliate…minimally, spread the word of stories about ill-treatment. When intrepid individuals risk physical harm to get out activism messages, and others devise ingenious ways to come to the defense of the offenders, the CCP has a very big problem on its hands.

The bureaucracy has legitimate reason for concern. Loss of power will be slow, and not without human sacrifice, however, I truly believe the CCP will be replaced – someday. Some bloody day. But, be careful what you wish for…democracy?

October 28, 2011 @ 9:17 am | Comment

@StephenKing
Why? When you already have most of the world covered, billions using your product, why should you try China? Google did – didn’t work out. Yahoo isn’t the biggest name in China either. 1.3 billion is a number bandied about but would you get 1.3 billion people when the deck will be stacked against you and your competitors using the same platform (copied illegally, maybe?) will get what most say is an unfair advantage.
I dunno but to me the stupidest people in the world are those that would willingly lose everything chasing that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

October 28, 2011 @ 10:14 am | Comment

It may be something more than just that end of the rainbow, Mike, but I believe that there are data protection issues anyway, when it comes to Google and Facebook. Knowing that they are – at the same time – “compromising to the CCP would damage them in the free world, without unknown potential in places like China.

To compromise to the CCP is actually a very stupid thing to do. It’s understandable that there are companies which believe they can’t “afford” to miss opportunities in China, but with a long-term strategy, most companies’ engagement in China would probably be much smaller than what it is these days.

For a company that advocates “openness”, compromising to the CCP would be in obvious conflict with their policy. In Google’s case, their conclusion to cooperate with the censors was obviously right.

October 28, 2011 @ 12:44 pm | Comment

… to terminate cooperation with the censors, that is.

October 28, 2011 @ 7:11 pm | Comment

Thanks for the link to a fascinating article. The only thing I found that did not harmonize with my experience was the writer’s claim that “ridiculing Mao is unthinkable these days.” One of the philosophical discussion groups with Chinese undergraduates chronicled in Socrates in Sichuan nvolved humor, and students were invited to tell jokes. Someone told the following Mao joke. Mao’s lieutenants knew of his many romantic liaisons and would routinely view them from a nearby window. At one point, Mao was informed of this and burst into the room where the lieutenants were doing their viewing. Mao lamented that all his loyalists had betrayed him, except for Deng Xiaoping, when someone remarked that Deng, who was extremely short, was out getting a chair. It got a laugh from the entire group. This same group has a very different reaction to the next joke. A Russian nuclear plant was being endangered by a particularly sneaky rabbit who was chewing away at various wirings that kept the cooling system running. Unable to stop the rabbit, the Russians offered a reward to any country that could get the rabbit. Every country failed until the Chinese arrived. By the next day, the Chinese said they had solved the problem and at a news conference a bloody and badly beaten bear confessed that yes, indeed, he was a rabbit. No one laughed and it got quite tense. My take was that the historical joke was ok but the one that involved contemporary tactics hit too close to home.

October 28, 2011 @ 11:05 pm | Comment

To Peter,
both jokes sound pretty funny to me.

October 29, 2011 @ 12:51 am | Comment

It is admittedly a small point but resting an argument for humor/open criticism using this example: “Every year in America the president of the United States gets roasted at the White House Correspondents dinner.” Perhaps should be considered. The meaninglessness, essentially “pigs in suits” grunting and fawning, essential corruptness of the White House Press which is on display in this charade of purporting to hold the powerful accountable and yet have a gigglingly good time was demonstrated when George the Worst-President-Ever Bush, mockingly looked for weapons of mass destruction while the servile insider stenographer press laughed. Since 2001, these aren’t your father’s journalists. They are stenographers and they are unserious except about being sure to be invited. But as usual Colbert does criticism better than I ever could/can/will: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Colbert_at_the_2006_White_House_Correspondents'_Association_Dinner.
The differences in the United States and China, in terms of holding the truly powerful accountable, are vanishingly slight and in some instances [executing corrupt financialists and corrupt officeholders and politicos] is stronger in China. There is no reason for Bernie Madoff to be alive after the wreckage he caused. The Peoples Republic would have put him against the wall which is where he [and others such as Milliken, Boesky, the list is long] belong.

October 31, 2011 @ 6:59 am | Comment

I agree with most of what you wrote but my point was much simpler, and didn’t have to do with holding the government accountable for their sins: our government is secure enough to occasionally laugh at itself. Thus we have Obama going on Jay Leno last week and making fun of himself, as Hillary Clinton and others very high up have done. Presidential candidates and officials go on The Colbert Report and the Daily Show and subject themselves to mockery (gentle, yes, but they’re still getting roasted) Our system of government is unjust and deeply flawed, but this is simply a distinction I was drawing: Obama can get up in front of an audience and mock his own middle name like he did at the last correspondents’ dinner. You will never see Hu Jintao (or any other authoritarian leader) getting up and making self-deprecating remarks. That’s it.

October 31, 2011 @ 8:27 am | Comment

I agree with you on the general point that humor, especially self-deprecating humor, comes from mental security and confidence. These days, leaders in China are humorless, because they are have no real deep-rooted confidence in their power and their rule. Hu Jintao never took the seat of power by his own efforts but was rather appointed by Deng.

However, it’s not true that all dictatorships had no humor. Truly confident dictators also were able to laugh at themselves. Mao or Deng, for example, often made fun of themselves, even in front of “foreigners”.

Mao fricking said to Kissinger, “Sometimes you guys need to criticize us, for domestic consumption, that’s fine. You could say “communism is evil!”. We’ll also say “Capitalism is evil!. We all need to say this kind of stuff for domestic consumption and propaganda, no problem, you won’t hurt my feelings”. He said that in front of Kissinger, Nixon, all of his aides, everyone.

He also said to Nixon “Chinese people are very xenophobia. You Americans can accept so many different ethnicities – you guys got 600,000 Chinese living there. I am not even sure we have 60 Americans living in China. I don’t know why we are so xenophobic, maybe you can shed some light?”

Many such politically incorrect and “out of boundary” remarks were frequently made by Mao and Deng, AND printed in newspapers or on TV back then. Why? Cause that generation of leadership and its associated organs were more comfortable with their rule, as they were “paramount” leaders and were not uptight like bureaucratic Robot Hu Jintao.

Speaking of Hu Jintao, you never know if that guy is smiling or crying, is he constipated?

October 31, 2011 @ 10:48 am | Comment

Times have sure changed. I can’t imagine Hu or any other Chinese leaders laughing at themselves in public, the way Obama and all US pols do, in front of their own people, on national TV. Or Kim Jong-Il, or the late Muammar Qaddafi. Or Ahmadinejad, et. al. Every year during the presidential campaign here the candidates submit themselves to a roast as well. I think Americans (Westerners?) believe that you aren’t authentic or complete without the ability to laugh at yourself. I think in today’s China, the very idea of self-mockery by the highest party members is unthinkable.

October 31, 2011 @ 11:12 am | Comment

I agree with King here. The capacity to tolerate humour at one’s own expense bespeaks confidence in one’s own position. And such confidence doesn’t make a distinction with respect to the type of governance in play. I would say though that it does seem more common for democratic leaders than for dictatorial leaders to tolerate, let alone participate in, self-deprecating humour. Maybe it reflects some insecurity about one’s own legitimacy in that position.

October 31, 2011 @ 12:28 pm | Comment

True. Boesky worked on his tan and tennis at a club fed, while Milliken is now involved in some sort of venture capital education scam. And the Madoff family and cronies made off like robbers dogs.

October 31, 2011 @ 4:39 pm | Comment

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