The famous Great Firewall of China has been in effect for decades. But in recent months, China's current authoritarian leader, President Xi Jinping, has been taking domestic censorship to a new level.
Under Xi's leadership, Internet police officers have been embedded inside Chinese tech firms, depictions of extramarital affairs and homosexuality have been banned from TV and even news articles that complain about censorship are being censored.
Social media censorship inside China has been ramped up with real-time deletion of posts. Foreign sites like Facebook are banned. Foreign books are edited. And foreign companies, such as Apple, "self censor" so the Chinese government doesn't have to.
Most of these reports are met outside China with a shrug. Everybody is used to the idea that the Chinese Communist Party-controlled government censors every kind of content.
But it turns out that China increasingly censors outside of China.
Artist Joyce Yu-Jean Lee put together an art exhibition in New York City called "Firewall," which is a fake Internet cafe where visitors can experience Chinese censorship. People are invited to search the Web simultaneously on two computers—one showing what Americans see on Google and the other showing the censored version of the Web as seen in China on the Chinese search engine Baidu.
It was an effective demonstration. It showed how the Internet that Chinese people have access to is one without Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Gmail, Archive.org, Reporters Without Borders, the BBC and countless other sites. Also missing are references to politically sensitive topics such as Tibet, Tiananmen Square or the Falun Gong religious group.
Lee also organized an event to discuss how Chinese feminists might use the Internet, but when the Chinese government started threatening the employer of one of the speakers, the speaker backed out. Ultimately, Americans attended an event in New York that was censored by the Chinese government.
"Chinese censorship doesn't just exist on the Internet, it happens in real time, in person-to-person relationships and it extends onto American soil," Lee told The Washington Post this week.
Some external censorship is almost funny.
One of the fastest-growing smartphone brands is China's Xiaomi, which is rapidly spreading worldwide, and has a user agreement dictated by the Chinese government. By simply using any cloud-based services associated with a Xiaomi phone, you technically agree to not "harm" China's "national honor," promote "cults and superstitions," spread rumors, undermine Chinese "national unity" or disturb "social order" and "social stability." Some other Chinese companies, including Huawei, have similarly worded user agreements.
Another example of laughable external Chinese censorship took place at beauty pageants, such as the Miss Earth beauty pageant in Austria in 2015. The Chinese government doesn't recognize the independence of Taiwan.
So when Miss Taiwan refused to wear a "Chinese Taipei" sash (the one approved by the China) and insisted on wearing a "Taiwan ROC" sash, pageant organizers in Austria banned her from the competition. That's right—European citizens censored on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party.
Also last year, Anastasia Lin, a.k.a. Miss Canada, whose family moved from China to Canada and who has criticized the Chinese government, was denied entry into China where the Miss World pageant was taken place. By hosting the event, China makes sure no critic of the Chinese government can compete, not even a Canadian citizen.
One of the most incredible events in the world of Chinese soft censorship involved singer Taylor Swift. One of her recent albums is called "1989." The marketing for Swift's recent worldwide tour was branded with "T.S. 1989," which represent Swift's initials and the year of her birth.
Coincidentally, T.S. is also the initials for Tiananmen Square and 1989 was the year when the Chinese government killed pro-Democracy protestors at the national historical site. Any reference to the Tiananmen Square crackdown is banned in China. So Swift's people reportedly censored the branding and merchandise for the Chinese portion of the tour.
Beauty pageants and pop concerts are pretty unimportant, but other external censorship is deadly serious.
According to an extensive Reuters report, the Chinese government has quietly taken control of at least 33 radio stations in 14 countries—most of them in the United States, Australia and Europe—and censors any news reported on those stations critical of the Chinese government or mentioning any of China's taboo topics.
These stations' programming is "peppered with stories highlighting China's development, such as its space program, and its contribution to humanitarian causes..." One of those stations, WCRW, covers Washington, D.C. That means if members of Congress, White House staff and federal employees turn on WCRW to catch up on the news, they're listening to radio broadcasts censored by the Chinese government.