Censorship in China
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Censorship in the People's Republic of China (PRC) is implemented or mandated by the PRC's ruling party, the Communist Party of China (CPC). The government censors content for mainly political reasons, but also to maintain its control over the populace. The Chinese government asserts that it has the legal right to control the internet's content within their territory, and their censorship rules do not infringe on the citizen's right to free speech.
Censored media include essentially all capable of reaching a wide audience including television, print media, radio, film, theater, text messaging, instant messaging, video games, literature and the Internet. Chinese officials have access to uncensored information via an internal document system.
Reporters Without Borders ranks China's press situation as "very serious", the worst ranking on their five-point scale. In August 2012 the OpenNet Initiative classified Internet censorship in China as "pervasive" in the political and conflict/security areas and "substantial" in the social and Internet tools areas, the two most extensive classifications of the five they use. U.S.-government funded organization Freedom House ranks the press there as "not free", the worst ranking, saying that "state control over the news media in China is achieved through a complex combination of party monitoring of news content, legal restrictions on journalists, and financial incentives for self-censorship," and an increasing practice of "cyber-disappearance" of material written by or about activist bloggers.
Other views suggest that local Chinese businesses such as Baidu, Tencent and Alibaba, some of the world's largest internet enterprises, benefited from the way China has blocked international rivals from the market, encouraging domestic competition.
- 1 Subject matter and agenda
- 2 Media, communication and education controls
- 3 Censorship during China's Great Cultural Revolution
- 4 Responses from society
- 5 See also
- 6 References
Subject matter and agenda
Censorship in the PRC encompasses a wide range of subject matter. The agendas behind such censorship are varied; some are stated outright by the Chinese government itself and some are surmised by observers inside and out of the country.
According to the South China Morning Post, the Chinese government issues orders on a regular basis to 'guide' coverage of individual sensitive issues. Media organisations thus submit to self-censorship, or run the risk of being closed down.
The Council on Foreign Relations says unwelcome views may be censored by authorities exploiting the vagueness in laws over the publication of state secrets. Major media outlets receive guidance from the Chinese Department of Propaganda on what content is politically acceptable. The PRC bans certain content about independence movements in Tibet and Taiwan, the religious movement Falun Gong, democracy, the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, Maoism, corruption, police brutality, anarchism, gossip, disparity of wealth, and food safety scandals.
In the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics, the government allegedly issued guidelines to the local media for reporting during the Games: political issues not directly related to the games were to be downplayed; topics such as Pro-Tibetan independence and East Turkestan movements and food safety issues such as "cancer-causing mineral water" were not to be reported on. The government says that such a list does not exist. As the 2008 Chinese milk scandal broke in September, the Chinese government denied that their desire for a perfect game had been a factor contributing towards the allegedly delayed recall of contaminated infant formula that caused deaths and kidney damage in infants, as speculated by some western media outlets.
On 13 February 2009, Li Dongdong, a deputy chief of the General Administration of Press and Publication, announced the introduction of a series of rules and regulations to strengthen oversight and administration of news professionals and reporting activities. The regulations would include a "full database of people who engage in unhealthy professional conduct" who would be excluded from engaging in news reporting and editing work. Although the controls were ostensibly to "resolutely halt fake news", it was criticized by Li Datong, editor at the China Youth Daily who was dismissed for criticizing state censorship. Li Datong said "There really is a problem with fake reporting and reporters, but there are already plenty of ways to deal with that." Reuters said that although Communist Party's Propaganda Department micro-manages what newspapers and other media do and do not report, the government remains concerned about unrest amid the economic slowdown and the 20th anniversary of the pro-democracy protests in 1989.
In January 2011, Boxun revealed that Politburo member responsible for the Propaganda Department, Li Changchun, issued instructions for the Chinese media to downplay social tensions on issues such as land prices, political reform and major disasters or incidents, and to ensure reporting does not show the Communist party negatively. The Party warned that media must "ensure that the party and government do not become the targets or focus of criticism", and any mention of political reforms must reflect the government in a favourable light.
The government defended some forms of censorship as a way of upholding proper morals. Those forms of censorship include limitations on pornography, particularly extreme pornography, and violence in films.
The PRC (People's Republic of China) has historically sought to use censorship to 'protect the country's culture,' and is seen as the cultural authority of China. During the Cultural Revolution of the 1970s, foreign literature and art forms, religious works and symbols, and even artifacts of ancient Chinese culture were deemed "reactionary" and became targets for destruction by Red Guards teams. Although much greater cultural freedom exists in China today, continuing crackdowns on banning foreign cartoons from Chinese prime time TV, and limits on screening for foreign films could be seen as a continuation of cultural-minded censorship.
A number of religious texts, publications, and materials are banned or have their distributions artificially limited in the PRC. Foreign citizens are also prohibited from proselytizing in China, and information concerning the treatment of some religious groups is also tightly controlled.
The Falun Gong spiritual movement is subject to suppression in China, and virtually all religious texts, publications, and websites relating to the group have been banned, along with information on the imprisonment or torture of followers.
Christian Bibles are allowed to be printed in China but only in limited numbers and through a single press.
China banned a book titled "Xing Fengsu" ("Sexual Customs") which insulted Islam and placed its authors under arrest in 1989 after protests in Lanzhou and Beijing by Chinese Hui Muslims, during which the Chinese police provided protection to the Hui Muslim protestors, and the Chinese government organized public burnings of the book. The Chinese government assisted them and gave into their demands because Hui do not have a separatist movement, unlike the Uyghurs, Hui Muslim protestors who violently rioted by vandalizing property during the protests against the book were let off by the Chinese government and went unpunished while Uyghur protestors were imprisoned.
In 2007, anticipating the coming "Year of the Pig" in the Chinese calendar, depictions of pigs were banned from CCTV "to avoid conflicts with ethnic minorities". This is believed to refer to China's population of 20 million Muslims (to whom pigs are considered "unclean").
In response to the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting Chinese state-run media attacked Charlie Hebdo for publishing the cartoons insulting Muhammad, with the state-run Xinhua advocated limiting freedom of speech, while another state-run newspaper Global Times said the attack was "payback" for what it characterised as Western colonialism and accusing Charlie Hebdo of trying to incite a clash of civilizations.
In recent years, censorship in China has been accused of being used not only for political protectionism but also for economic protectionism. Tsinghua University professor Patrick Chovanec has speculated that the Chinese ban on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube may have been done in part to grant a business advantage to the websites' Chinese competitors. Similarly, China has been accused of using a double standard in attacking Google for "obscene" content that is also present on Chinese competitor Baidu. The 2D version of the blockbuster film Avatar was also pulled from screens in the country; reportedly for taking in too much money and seizing market share from domestic films. Furthermore, the official ban on most foreign films hardly affect Chinese citizens; such films can easily be acquired in copyright-infringing formats, allowing Chinese to view such films to be financially accessible while keeping their money within the domestic economy.
In February 2007, the website of the French organization Observatoire International des Crises was banned in the PRC after it posted an article on the risks of trading with China. "How do you assess an investment opportunity if no reliable information about social tension, corruption or local trade unions is available? This case of censorship, affecting a very specialised site with solely French-language content, shows the [Chinese] government attaches as much importance to the censorship of economic data as political content," the organization was quoted as saying. In 2016, after a series of policy mishaps in the backdrop of severe economic downturn in the country, regulators, censors and government officials have increased censorship. Officials, regulators and censors acting to stem the flow of money abroad by creating an environment of "zhengnengliang" (positive energy), have warned to commentators whose remarks or projections on the economy contradict optimistic official statements.
Another justification for censorship is that the material could cause military harm. This type of censorship is intended to keep military intelligence secret from enemies or perceived enemies.
Media, communication and education controls
In 2013 the American Political Science Review published an article by Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret E. Roberts. The authors conducted an in-depth experiment that analyzed the censorship program in China. The article explains the construction and process of their experiment and the overall findings, which are documented and graphed. The experiment involved using computers from around the world to post comments to social media sites in China, and then seeing which ones got delayed or deleted by the censors. The authors conclude: "Our central theoretical finding is that, contrary to much research and commentary, the purpose of the censorship program is not to suppress criticism of the state or the Communist Party. Indeed, despite widespread censorship of social media, we find that when the Chinese people write scathing criticisms of their government and its leaders, the probability that their post will be censored does not increase. Instead, we find that the purpose of the censorship program is to reduce the probability of collective action by clipping social ties whenever any collective movements are in evidence or expected."
Further experiments conducted by Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret E. Roberts show much about the mechanisms of censorship of social media. The authors explain that they "offer rigorous support for the recent hypothesis that criticisms of the state, its leaders, and their policies are published, whereas posts about real-world events with collective action potential are censored." They found out that Chinese software companies are competing in order to offer better censor tools and systems, as demand for their services is rising. This is because the Chinese state holds the companies that run the social media sites responsible for doing some of the censoring. This means, ironically enough, that market mechanisms are supporting censorship in China.
On the twentieth anniversary of the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, the mainland media came under tremendous pressure from authorities. Ming Pao reported on the Publicity Department's "hitherto unimaginable extent" of pressure to screen out any related content. The journal reported two incidents in 2008 which caused official concern, but which could not be proven to be deliberate challenges: Beijing News published an image of an injured person being taken to the hospital on 4 June and Southern Metropolis Daily reported on unusual weather in Guangdong province with the headline of "4 storms in June," which both journals insisted were due to carelessness. Some newspapers have therefore instructed their editors to refrain from using the numbers '6' and '4' in their reports during this sensitive period. Furthermore, the numbers cannot be used in the headlines lest the Publicity Department disapprove.
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Foreign and Hong Kong news broadcasts in mainland China from TVB, CNN International, BBC World Service, and Bloomberg Television are occasionally censored by being "blacked out" during controversial segments. It is reported that CNN has made an arrangement that allowed their signal to pass through a Chinese-controlled satellite. Chinese authorities have been able to censor CNN segments at any time in this way. CNN's broadcasts are not widely available throughout China, but rather only in certain diplomatic compounds, hotels, and apartment blocks.
Numerous content which have been blacked out has included references to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, the Dalai Lama, the death of Zhao Ziyang, the 2008 Tibetan unrest, the 2008 Chinese milk scandal and negative developments about the Beijing Olympics.
During the Summer Olympics in Beijing all Chinese TV stations were ordered to delay live broadcasts by 10 seconds, a policy that was designed to give censors time to react in case free-Tibet demonstrators or others staged political protests. In January 2009, during a television report of the inauguration of U.S. President Barack Obama, the state-run China Central Television abruptly cut away from its coverage of Obama's address when he spoke of how "earlier generations faced down fascism and communism.". Foreign animation is also banned from prime-time viewing hours (5 to 8 pm) to help with domestic animation production.
Like Internet censorship, enforcement in television censorship is increasingly ineffective and difficult because of satellite signal hacking systems which give direct access to channels and programs on any satellite that services the Asian Pacific region.
China has a large diversity of different foreign films broadcast through the media and sold in markets. China has no motion picture rating system, and films must therefore be deemed suitable by Chinese censors for all audiences to be allowed to screen.
For foreign-made films, this sometimes means controversial footage must be cut before such films can play in Chinese cinemas. Examples include the removal of a reference to the Cold War in Casino Royale, and the omission of footage containing Chow Yun-fat that "vilifies and humiliates the Chinese" in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. Prior to the 2008 Summer Olympics, the PRC administration announced that "wronged spirits and violent ghosts, monsters, demons, and other inhuman portrayals" were banned from audio visual content.
Access to the 12,000 movie screens in China is a powerful incentive for film makers, especially those producing material such as Kung Fu Panda 3 to consult and cooperate with Chinese censors. Taking a Chinese partner, as was done in the case of Kung Fu Panda 3, can bypass the quota. Despite this, almost all internationally released foreign films are freely available in Chinese- and English-language versions through the counterfeit trade in DVDs.
All audio visual works dealing with "serious topics" such as the Cultural Revolution must be registered before distribution on the mainland. For example, The Departed was not given permission to screen because it suggested that the government intends to use nuclear weapons on Taiwan. Films with sexually explicit themes have also been banned, including Farewell My Concubine, Brokeback Mountain and Memoirs of a Geisha. Warner Brothers never submitted The Dark Knight for censors, citing "Cultural sensitivities in some elements of the film" due to the appearance by a Hong Kong singer whose sexually explicit photographs leaked onto the internet. Films by PRC nationals cannot be submitted to foreign film festivals without government approval.
On 16 December 2012, the film V for Vendetta was aired unedited on CCTV-6, which raised hopes that China is loosening censorship. However, in August 2014 government officials caused the shutdown of the Beijing Independent Film Festival, an annual event for independent Chinese filmmakers to showcases their latest works. It was understood by the organizers the government was concerned the festival would be used as a forum to criticize the government.
China's state-run General Administration of Press and Publication (新闻出版总署) screens all Chinese literature that is intended to be sold on the open market. The GAPP has the legal authority to screen, censor, and ban any print, electronic, or Internet publication in China. Because all publishers in China are required to be licensed by the GAPP, that agency also has the power to deny people the right to publish, and completely shut down any publisher who fails to follow its dictates. Resultingly, the ratio of official-to-unlicensed books is said to be 40:60. According to a report in ZonaEuropa, there are more than 4,000 underground publishing factories around China. The Chinese government continues to hold public book burnings on unapproved yet popular "spiritual pollution" literature, though critics claim this spotlight on individual titles only helps fuel booksales. Publishing in Hong Kong remains uncensored. Publishers such as New Century Press freely publish books, including lurid fictional accounts, about Chinese officials and forbidden episodes of Chinese history. Banned material including imported material such as that published by Mirror Books of New York City are sold in bookshops such as "People's Commune bookstore" patronized by shoppers from the mainland.
The album Chinese Democracy by American rock band Guns N' Roses is banned in China, reportedly due to supposed criticism in its title track of the government and a reference to the anti-government Falun Gong movement. The government said through a state controlled newspaper that it "turns its spear point on China". Also banned is the track "Communist China" by British punk rock group Japan.
The album X by Australian pop singer Kylie Minogue was released as a 10-track edition of the album by EMI Records. The album got three tracks banned due to strict censorship in the People's Republic of China. The tracks that were omitted were "Nu-di-ty", "Speakerphone" and "Like a Drug".
China has historically issued bans to music acts who proclaim support of Tibetan independence or otherwise interact with the Dalai Lama, such as Oasis—which had concerts cancelled after lead singer Noel Gallagher had performed in a concert to benefit the movement, Maroon 5—which had concerts cancelled after a band member made a Twitter post celebrating his 80th birthday, and Lady Gaga—who became the subject of a ban issued by the Publicity Department after having posted an online video of her meeting with him.
China's Internet censorship is regarded by many as the most pervasive and sophisticated in the world. The system for blocking sites and articles is referred to as "The Great Firewall of China". According to a Harvard study conducted in 2002, at least 18,000 websites were blocked from within the country, and the number is believed to have been growing constantly. Banned sites include YouTube (from March 2009), Facebook (from July 2009), Google services (including Search, Google+, Maps, Docs, Drive, Sites, and Picasa), Twitter, Dropbox, Foursquare, and Flickr. Certain search engine terms are blocked as well. All versions of YouTube have been completely unavailable in China since April 2009.
On the Internet, people use proxy websites that allow anonymous access to otherwise restricted websites, services, and information. Falun Gong and others have been working in the field of anti-censorship software development.
Reporters in the western media have also suggested that China's Internet censorship of foreign websites may also be a means of forcing mainland Chinese users to rely on China's own e-commerce industry, thus self-insulating their economy. In 2011 although China-based users of many Google services such as Google+ did not always find the services entirely blocked, they were nonetheless throttled such that users could be expected to become frustrated with the frequent timeouts and switch to the faster, more reliable services of Chinese competitors. According to BBC, local Chinese businesses such as Baidu, Tencent and Alibaba, some of the world's largest internet enterprises, benefited from the way China has blocked international rivals from the market, encouraging domestic competition.
Short Message Service
According to Reporters without Borders, China has over 2,800 Short message service (text messaging) surveillance centers. As of early 2010, cell phone users in Shanghai and Beijing risk having their text messaging service cut off if they are found to have sent "illegal or unhealthy" content.
In 2003, during the severe-acute-respiratory-syndrome (SARS) outbreak, a dozen Chinese were reportedly arrested for sending text messages about SARS. Skype reported that it was required to filter messages passing through its service for words like "Falun Gong" and "Dalai Lama" before being allowed to operate in China.
In 2004, the Ministry of Culture set up a committee to screen imported online video games before they entered the Chinese market. It was stated that games with any of the following violations would be banned from importation:
- Violating basic principles of the Constitution
- Threatening national unity, sovereignty, and territorial integrity
- Divulging state secrets
- Threatening state security
- Damaging the nation's glory
- Disturbing social order
- Infringing on others' legitimate rights
The State General Administration of Press and Publication and anti-porn and illegal publication offices have also played a role in screening games.
Examples of banned games have included:
- Hearts of Iron (for "distorting history and damaging China's sovereignty and territorial integrity")
- I.G.I.-2: Covert Strike (for "intentionally blackening China and the Chinese army's image")
- Command & Conquer: Generals – Zero Hour (for "smearing the image of China and the Chinese army")
The historic ban of major video game consoles in the country was lifted in 2014 as part of the establishment of the Shanghai Free-Trade Zone. Consoles had been banned under a rule enacted in 2000 to combat the perceived corrupting influence of video games on young people.
Educational institutions within China have been accused of whitewashing PRC history by downplaying or avoiding mention of controversial historical events such as the Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution, and the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.
In 2005, customs officials in China seized a shipment of textbooks intended for a Japanese school because maps in the books depicted mainland China and Taiwan using different colors.
In a January 2006 issue of Freezing Point, a weekly supplement to the China Youth Daily, Zhongshan University professor Yuan Weishi published an article entitled "Modernization and History Textbooks" in which he criticized several middle school textbooks used in mainland China. In particular, he felt that depictions in the books of the Second Opium War avoided mention of Chinese diplomatic failures leading up to the war and that depictions of the Boxer Rebellion glossed over atrocities committed by the Boxer rebels. As a result of Yuan's article, Freezing Point was temporarily shut down and its editors were fired.
New Threads, a website for reporting academic misconduct in China such as plagiarism or fabrication of data, is banned in China.
In a FRONTLINE segment, four students from Peking University are seemingly unable to identify the context of the infamous Tank Man photo from the 1989 unrest sparked by Peking University students, though possibly, the students were feigning ignorance so as not to upset the party official who was monitoring the interview with clipboard in hand. The segment implied that the subject is not addressed in Chinese schools.
On 4 June 2007, a person was able to place a small ad in a newspaper in southwest China to commemorate the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests reading "Paying tribute to the strong(-willed) mothers of 4 June victims". The accepting clerk claimed that he was ignorant of the event and believed that 4 June was the date of a mining disaster.
A confidential internal directive widely circulated within the Communist Party of China, Concerning the Situation in the Ideological Sphere (關於當前意識形態領域情況的通報), prohibiting discussion of seven topics was issued in May 2013. Included on the list of prohibited topics were: western constitutional democracy, universal values of human rights, western conceptions of media independence and civil society, pro-market neo-liberalism, and "Nihilist” criticisms of past errors of the party.
Censorship during China's Great Cultural Revolution
The goal of the Cultural Revolution was to get rid of "the four olds". If newspapers touched on sensitive topics like these, the journalists were subject to arrests and sometimes violence. Libraries in which there were books containing "offensive literature" would often be burned down. Television was regulated by the government and its goal was to encourage the efforts of chairman Mao Zedong and the Communist Party. Radio was the same way, and played songs such as, "The Great Cultural Revolution is Indeed Good".
Responses from society
Although being independent from the mainland's legal system and hence censorship laws, some Hong Kong media have been accused of practicing self-censorship in order to exchange for permission to expand their media business into the mainland market and for greater journalistic access in the mainland too.
At the launch of a joint report published by the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) and "ARTICLE 19" in July 2001, the Chairman of the HKJA said: "More and more newspapers self-censor themselves because they are controlled by either a businessman with close ties to Beijing, or part of a large enterprise, which has financial interests over the border." For example, Robert Kuok, who has business interests all over Asia, has been criticized over the departures of several China desk staff in rapid succession since he acquired the South China Morning Post, namely the editorial pages editor Danny Gittings, Beijing correspondent Jasper Becker, and China pages editor Willy Lam. Lam, in particular departed after his reporting had been publicly criticized by Robert Kuok.
International corporations such as Google, Microsoft, MySpace, and Yahoo! voluntarily censor their content for Chinese markets in order to be allowed to do business in the country. In October 2008, Canadian research group Citizen Lab released a new report saying TOM's Chinese-language Skype software filtered sensitive words and then logged these, with users' information to a file on computer servers which were insecure. In September 2007, activists in China had already warned about the possibility that TOM's versions have or will have more trojan capability. Skype president Josh Silverman said it was "common knowledge" that Tom Online had "established procedures to meet local laws and regulations ... to monitor and block instant messages containing certain words deemed offensive by the Chinese authorities."
Publishers and other media in the Western world have sometimes used the "Banned in China" label to market cultural works, with the hope that censored products are seen as more valuable or attractive. The label was also used by Penguin Books to sell Mo Yan's novel The Garlic Ballads, which had been pulled from bookshelves because of its themes (anti-government riots) being published so close to a period of actual riots. However, the book was allowed to be sold in China in a few years. Political scientist Richard Curt Kraus criticized Penguin for falsely portraying Mo Yan as a dissident in order to increase his marketability, as well as the underlying assumption that if the United States bans some work, that it must be genuinely obscene, but that if the Chinese government does the same, it is acting on purely political grounds.
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