Chinese censorship: the gathering storm

gathering storm.jpg

Has anyone noticed that the groundswell of condemnation of China’s censorship machine appears to be reaching critical mass? There were so many articles today about the rising discontent within China – not just among bleeding heart Western bloggers – that I felt overwhelmed. On all fronts, new articles and blog posts on the topic are bomabarding us. Rebecca MacKinnon is doing a remarkable job live-blogging the congressional hearings into US Internet companies doing business in China. The CCP actually held a media briefing to defend its policies earlier this week. A media briefing!

For the first time, the American blogosphere seems to have picked up this issue with a passion hereto unseen. Where, if anywhere, tnis might lead remains to be seen; maybe it’ll all just fizzle out. But I’ve certainly never seen anything quite like it.

Just now the London Times has added to the noise, likening the phenomenon to the Cultural Revolution.

CHINA IS IN the grip of a new “cultural revolution”. This revolution differs from Mao Zedong’s calculated mobilisation of Red Guards against the hierarchy in two vitally important respects. It is welling up from below as a culture of outspokenness takes hold; and, although the spread of this revolution, in chat rooms, text messages, mass e-mails and as many as 13.3 million blogs, can be slowed by thousands of cyberplods sent in hot pursuit, it cannot be stopped. After months of smouldering arguments within the Communist Party about how best to handle it, the volcano of discord at the top has begun to erupt in full view. These arguments about how much freedom to allow — or indeed, whether the floods opened by technology can be dammed — go to the heart of the debate about China’s future direction. The leadership’s dilemma is acute, and harder and harder to hide.

As the article notes, China’s leaders are concerned, knowing how “small sparks cause big fires.” (Believe me, they wouldn’t hold a media briefing if they weren’t scared to death.) There’s no doubt, Google was the catalyst behind this firestorm. Where it will end is anyone’s guess, but I’d have to say we haven’t seen this kind of universal criticism of the CCP since the SARS scandal of 2002-3, and the other big scandal before that (sometime back in 1989). Quite amazing.

The Discussion: 31 Comments

Rather warming that Google is being grilled and the West is remembering some of the old values and priniples it was willing to die for, but having read the nonsense the CCP uttered at its exculsive media event where it said its censorship is no different from the West, it shows no matter how scared you claim the party is, it’s not too scared to stick two fingers up at us. To think we’re so stupid as to not know the BBC is banned from the internet or that it actually bans ionformation is deeply offensive to me.

February 16, 2006 @ 3:15 pm | Comment

Asiapundit raises an interesting question of how the bills being introduced for the Online Freedom Act could be worse for Chinese companies like Baidu and Sina than American companies if passed into law,

February 16, 2006 @ 5:08 pm | Comment

On the contrary, the Chinese blogger “Beijing or Bust” claims that all the angst about censorship in China is an exclusively western preoccupation. As he says, most Chinese just don’t care that much about it. His latest post makes a very interesting counterpoint to the increasing hysteria about Google etc:

The “critical mass” seems to be building up outside of China, not within. And he makes the good point: why not leave the Chinese to sort it out themselves?

February 16, 2006 @ 5:21 pm | Comment


How can the Chinese “sort it out themselves”? If you challenge the State even indirectly, you can be arrested within a flash. This is a silly argument. It’s like saying “why don’t you let the Sudanese sort Darfur out themselves?”

Or perhaps the US should have stayed out of the Sino-Japanese War and let China get completely taken over…..

February 16, 2006 @ 5:50 pm | Comment

An end to censorship and the introductoin of freedom of expression are my “pet causes” here in China. China will instantly become a much better place when there is greater freedom to express oneself and one’s grievances. There are quite a few Chinese who hope that their country would develop in this direction, it’s just that they’re: a) in exile, b) in prison, c) probably not willing to discuss it in public.
I know quite a few professors and retired officials who are in agreement with me that this is exactly what China needs.
Meanwhile, the only people I really see arguing for a laissez-faire approach to current censorship practices are: a) fenqing who are obsessed with “china-ness,” b) foreigners whose chinese girlfriends tell them a bunch of BS according to the Party line and who swallow it up.
Only those who have something to hide are interested in suppressing freedom of information. And only someone who looks down on the Chinese people can argue for restrictions on speech.

February 16, 2006 @ 6:54 pm | Comment

On the contrary, the Chinese blogger “Beijing or Bust” claims that all the angst about censorship in China is an exclusively western preoccupation. As he says, most Chinese just don’t care that much about it.

If you read just about every post here about google, you’ll see my perspective is that the Chinese don’t care about the censorship and will probably benefit from the service. However, this article and others in the past week tell of specific challenges to China’s censorship by Chinese intellectuals and former leaders, something we relatively rarely see. The “gathering storm” alludes to the rather sudden awakening of the global community to this situation, as well as a seemingly intensifying awareness within China. As i said, it may mean nothing; but the decibel level at the moment has reached record highs, which is extraordinary.

February 16, 2006 @ 8:37 pm | Comment

Take a look at ESWN’s translation of a statement by Michael Zhao Jing, AKA Michael Anti. As he’s at or near the epicenter of this maelstrom, his opinion, I dare say, counts for something.

February 16, 2006 @ 9:06 pm | Comment

Kaiser, thanks for the wonderful link. I fully agree with Anti’s first point, that the congressional hearings are “an internal American affair.” So true. ESWN in other posts keeps repeating the line that the technologies in question benefit China and don’t hurt it. Also true, but that isn’t sayig enough. As Anti says, this issue is about America, not China, and how far American companies should go when working with the CCP or other tyrannies. The Chinese, as Anti so eloquently says, will have to discover freedom of expression for themselves, it won’t come from America. As for his tough stance on Yahoo, I’m still not convinced he’s correct; the more I try to figure it out, the murkier the Yahoo story seems to get. For now, I lean toward agreeing with ESWN that Yahoo did nothing wrong.

February 16, 2006 @ 9:15 pm | Comment

Oh, and in earlier posts I’ve dismissed these hearings as a farce, and a rather hypocritical attempt to make China look bad. At least they appear to be raising awareness of censorship in China and stimulating some lively debate among the blogs. Otherwise, I see them as self-serving and misdirected.

February 16, 2006 @ 9:18 pm | Comment

There’s a difference between constructive criticism and politically-motivated criticism.

There does not lack in-depth analysis and criticisms of government policies in the Chinese websphere, issues such as tax reform, strategies for building domestic industries, banking reform, , etc are openly, discussed in China. Even People Daily’s Strong Nation Forum, arguably the most censored forum in China, regularly selects threads that bumps them to the top. And many of those threads are strong criticisms of gov’t policy. If you don’t believe me, just go visit the site.

Taken from Wikipedia’s entry on China’s Strong Nation Forum:

“The purpose of the forum is for discussion on how to make China a stronger nation. The forum is somewhat remarkable being sponsored by an organ of the Communist Party of China yet having a relatively open amount of uninhibited discussion including sometimes extremely strong criticism of the People’s Republic of China government.

With politically sensitive issues such as the July 1, 2003 demonstrations in Hong Kong against Basic Law Article 23, the amount of coverage and analysis within the forum is often more extensive than with the paper itself.”

February 16, 2006 @ 10:21 pm | Comment

Raj, if anything is going to change it will have to be the Chinese who sort it out for themselves. We have different traditions and expectations and we can’t impose our own ideas of freedom of speech on other cultures. If the Chinese want to work out “freedom of speech with Chinese characteristics” they can and will do it themselves by pushing bit by bit. It’s not always a case of instant arrest if you do something “wrong” – there are millions of Chinese nibbling away every day at the controls and norms on freedom of speech. As Beijing or Bust says:

“Change has to happen. But the Chinese have to figure it out themselves. The foreign media can continue to go ga-ga over this. Will all the media attention serve much purpose beyond acting as the fad of the day though? I wonder.”

February 16, 2006 @ 10:22 pm | Comment

Yeah, the Strong Nation Forum is so open that anything I have ever written on it is deleted within 5 minutes.

February 16, 2006 @ 10:55 pm | Comment

And as for the comment about “impos(ing) our own ideas of freedom of speech on other cultures,” I would just like to say that the Party is not the one to decide what Chinese culture means. Yet, blocks on speech are in fact an imposition of Party culture onto the entire nation. No one can impose free speech. It is, in essence, free and natural.

February 16, 2006 @ 10:58 pm | Comment

Yeah, the Strong Nation Forum is so open that anything I have ever written on it is deleted within 5 minutes.

Then I got to say the forum moderators are expert at telling the motivations behind the posts. They can spot a B.S. post from a mile away. And given the way you write here, I’m not surprised that your trash was being cleaned.

February 16, 2006 @ 11:24 pm | Comment

Yes indeed, when I want a fresh break from BS, i choose the People’s Daily Forum. It’s like a fresh batch of potpourri…
Maybe people fall for your BS there, china_hand, but we’re not in a closed forum, and I can tell you that your comment about the “openness” of the Strong Nation Forum is utter deception.

February 16, 2006 @ 11:43 pm | Comment

CH, a minute ago in the open thread you were urging us not to attack other people. Now, listen to yourself over here:

They can spot a B.S. post from a mile away. And given the way you write here, I’m not surprised that your trash was being cleaned.

Hate to tell you, but Kevin is one of the best writers here. Funny, to hear you defend Math’s inane, incoherent gobbledygook but call Kevin’s writing “trash.” You are such a gentleman.

February 16, 2006 @ 11:46 pm | Comment

Thanks richard, the contradiction in China_hand’s comments just crossed my mind and I was about to come point it out. You got there before me! Thanks for saving me some time and effort

February 16, 2006 @ 11:49 pm | Comment

Michael, I agree with Beijing of Bust’s point. But here’s the one thing they just don’t seem to be getting: The hearings are NOT about giving people in China more free speech. They are about what lengths US companies should go to comply with local laws that go against American principles. That said, i still think the hearings are mostly silly and hypocritical, but it’s innacurate to position them as efforts to impose Western-style fredoms on the Chinese. They’re about having American companies conform to American values. Whether that’s a bad idea or not is another conversation.

February 16, 2006 @ 11:50 pm | Comment

Don’t normally comment, but regularly read, I love the links on this site. I have top say this whole thing is getting ridiculous. I’ve just read that awful Times opinion piece, and the impression I got was that the whole of China was engulfed in some sort of e-uproar, a seething mass of discontent, only pausing from their plans for total destruction of the system to post comments on their millions of blogs. I would venture that about 99.9% of blogs by Chinese people contain nothing more politically sensitive than a debate on which shop is better: Baleno or Metersbonwe. Sure, some people are pissed off, but its the same people all the time, a drop in the ocean. I understand for the blogging community this must feel like a moment of history, propelling China to the brink of a new era of free speech and democracy. But, for those who don’t spend all day trawling around the internet reading other people’s ramblings then commenting on them, it seems totally OTT. Sure, blogs are an important new medium of expression, but what they cannot give, unedited as they are, is perspective: I think we could all do with a bit of that right now.

February 17, 2006 @ 12:45 am | Comment

Angus, I don’t disagree with you. Freedom of speech is a topic you won’t hear many people in China talking or worrying about, with notable exceptions like Anti, cited above. But there is a phenomenal “buzz” around this topic at the moment, much of it based in ignorance with little or no perspective. What’s new this week is the increase of protests from within China. Whether these will gain any traction is dubious. But watching this issue take shape, and watching it take on a life of its own has been startling. As I said a few times in this thread, it’s not so much what’s happening in China, but the fact that suddenly the world is taking notice that’s especially intriguing.

February 17, 2006 @ 12:56 am | Comment

Censorship and restriction of information is a huge insult. Those who carry it out are saying you are stupid, you are not able to digest the information and draw rational, logical conclusions based on free will.

So it seems, the CCP regards the Chinese people as being stupid.

February 17, 2006 @ 2:41 am | Comment

I second what Richard said about Kevin’s writing. You know, I (and I assume many others here) tend to skip through comments casually and only devote special attention to a few, and Kevin is one of them. Kevin is one of the guys who actually teaches me something new, sometimes.

China Hand is another one whose comments I read carefully, but more for the purpose of cleaning up all of the lies and the mental trash he throws around. I’ll reprise the metaphor I’ve used before, about China Hand – he’s not stupid (but neither was Hitler) – he’s like a raccoon who throws trash around in chaotic ways, and then others have to clean up after him. At any rate he’s a Master of Logical Fallacies.

February 17, 2006 @ 3:03 am | Comment

China Hand: Raccoon, without rabies

HongXing: Rat, with rabies

Math: Subordinate Bonobo Monkey who has been buggered by the Alpha Apes too many times and now mutters to himself in the corner of the cage

February 17, 2006 @ 3:09 am | Comment


Ok, next time Chinese people ever ask for external moral or diplomatic support, we’ll turn our back on you and let you get beaten to a bloody pulp.

February 17, 2006 @ 3:28 am | Comment

Since when did the Chinese ask us for our diplomatic and moral support? It’s the westerners who are talking about boycotting Google while Chinese are all happily using Baidu. And the only diplomatic support most Chinese want is a student visa (and no cruise missiles in our diplomatic compounds) thanks very much. China can manage very well on its own, why do so many westerners need to think they can “save” or “improve” China?

February 17, 2006 @ 4:02 am | Comment

If you read the Times piece, you’ll see it’s Chinese who are complaining, as well. Not many, but certainly some.

February 17, 2006 @ 7:26 am | Comment

i’m breaking my abstinence from the internet on the weekends to make a comment. thaks for your kind comments, ivan and richard. i can’t say i have much to share that is very intelligent or engaging (just check my non-existent blog posts for the past 2 months, sorry i have been busy), but when you put me next someone who describes the people’s daily’s strong country forum as open and providing strong criticisms, then i feel like i am f***ing einstein.
again, restrictions on speech is not a natural state of affairs for any society. while anyone can come up with a reason to say “restrictions on speech are right for society,” isn’t it obvious by this point that those who speak out are those who eventually win? there’s nothing charming about stifling other peoples’ ability to express themselves. while i am sure that the current hearings on the internet are clouded by all types of team america BS, i feel like at least it is bringing attention to a topic that has been ignored far too much due to “one billion customers,” and hope that it will start a debate on this topic. it’s time for those who can’t be put in jail to push harder for freedom of speech here.

February 17, 2006 @ 10:04 am | Comment


We have a right to complain and we have a right to give support to those Chinese that want change. Obviously we can’t change anything directly, but we can put pressure on companies to not help the Chinese State, make Chinese consider the implications of the status quo by posting our views, etc.

You ask why people think they can “save” China. Well why do people think they can “save” Africa? Why not just leave it up to them? Same answer – the best way change can happen is if we have a united front that points out what needs to be done. Simply ignoring what happens in a country gives support to their leaders and encourages them to maintain the status quo.

February 18, 2006 @ 6:48 am | Comment

Absolutely correct. International pressure helped end Apartheid and many other evils.

February 18, 2006 @ 7:16 am | Comment

Cross-posted in the open thread:

More proof that the Chinese don’t give a damn about free speech.

The controversy over news media censorship in China continued Friday as two editors who had been removed from a feisty weekly journal, Freezing Point, issued a public letter lashing out at propaganda officials and calling for free speech.

Meanwhile on Friday, a group of prominent scholars and lawyers who had contributed articles to the journal wrote an open letter to President Hu Jintao, denouncing the crackdown against Freezing Point as a violation of the Chinese Constitution and of the promise made by top leaders for a consistent rule of law.

The two broadsides came as intellectuals and some former party officials have sharply criticized the recent increase in censorship of the news media. Propaganda officials, who shut down Freezing Point last month, announced this week that the publication would restart March 1, but without the top two editors.

In their public letter, which was released in Beijing, the two editors, Li Datong and Lu Yuegang, defended their stewardship of Freezing Point and made an ardent plea for freedom of expression, saying it was the role of the news media to investigate “unfairness in the world.”

“What do the people want?” they wrote. “The freedom of publication and expression granted by the Constitution.”

February 18, 2006 @ 7:39 am | Comment

“It’s the westerners who are talking about boycotting Google while Chinese are all happily using Baidu…China can manage very well on its own, why do so many westerners need to think they can “save” or “improve” China?”

As much as this is about forcing Google et al to uphold American ideals, this is also an ideological battle. What China has and is proving, is how profitable authoritarianism can be.

As Western companies spend more time and money in China, this environment, wouldn’t it be natural for them to begin reconsidering their morals regarding profit back home and in other countries as well?

Is America a country where freedom of speech, freedom from surveillance and the guarantee of human rights are entrenched in stone?

If all American companies in China (why stop with internet companies) were forced to leave tomorrow, would it slow down the CPC’s exporting of its current free market authoritarianism ideology?

February 19, 2006 @ 9:47 am | Comment

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