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.
How China Censors Mass Media in Your World
The Chinese government also has been accused of censoring at universities in 120 countries. The government’s Ministry of Education created a “non-profit public educational organization” called the Confucius Institute, which has 1,100 local organizations within universities, colleges and secondary schools around the world. They fund various courses and activities, and provide teachers as well as educational materials.
The organization has even been accused of tearing whole pages out of handouts at the European Association for Chinese Studies at a meeting in Portugal.
The American Association of University Professors said that Confucius Institutes “threaten academic freedom” and urged U.S. colleges to “reconsider their partnerships with Chinese language and culture centers financed by the People’s Republic of China.”
By allowing the organizations, they wrote, “North American universities permit Confucius Institutes to advance a state agenda in the recruitment and control of academic staff, in the choice of curriculum, and in the restriction of debate.”
Confucius Institutes have even been accused of industrial espionage, especially at Silicon Valley’s Stanford University.
Confucius Institutes also are spreading fast in American elementary schools and high schools.
Confucius Institutes are just one instrument of censoring ideas and information worldwide. They use their control of Chinese borders to affect press coverage outside of China.
China maintains a “blacklist” that bans foreign critics from entering the country or that expels journalists from covering some Chinese events for foreign media outlets. Some other governments enforce China’s blacklist.
About a year ago, two pro-Democracy advocates from Hong Kong were denied entry into Malaysia by Malaysian authorities because they were going to speak about the Tiananmen crackdown. American historians who have written about Tiananmen are routinely denied entry into China. And a reporter writing for a French magazine was expelled from China for reporting on Xinjiang and Tibet.
Another controversy may have shown intent by the Chinese government to block the assignment of domain names by a U.S.-based domain registry.
Late last year, the domain registry xyz.com submitted a proposal to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to automatically censor new domain names based on the Chinese government list of banned words.
For example, the proposal would reject requests for domain names using words and phrases like “democracy,” “human rights,” and others, no matter where in the world the applicant resided. The company controls top-level domains ending in .xyz, .college, .rent, .theatre, .protection and .security.
After being slammed by the media, xyz.com denied that they intended to actually implement their proposal.
One of the most disturbing tactics for censoring worldwide is China’s so-called “Great Cannon“—the use of Distributed Denial of Service attacks to shut down sites the Chinese government doesn’t like.
A security expert has persuasively demonstrated that the Chinese government is responsible for DDOS attacks against both the anti-censorship site Great Fire and the U.S.-based Git repository hosting service, GitHub.
In the case of GitHub, the site offers a wide range of open source projects and is heavily supported by companies like Google. A tiny minority of the projects on GitHub were objectionable to the Chinese government, but their “Great Cannon” temporarily censored content the entire site.
One of the most insidious forms of censorship is self-censorship—preemptively silencing speech and content assumed to be banned or a least objectionable to the Chinese government.
When Sony Pictures Entertainment was hacked in September of 2014, and their internal documents leaked, we learned of widespread self-censorship of American movies on behalf of, but not ordered by, the Chinese government.
A recent example comes from the Adam Sandler movie, “Pixels,” where Sony deleted a scene where the Great Wall of China is destroyed. However, scenes depicting the destruction of other World Heritage sites, such as the Taj Mahal, were allowed. The screenplay for the 2012 remake of the film “Red Dawn” depicted America being invaded by China, but Sony changed the invaders to North Koreans.
The Chinese film market is huge. And in order to be approved for Chinese distribution, American movie studios routinely and preemptively censor them to appease the Chinese Communist Party.
We know about Sony’s self-censorship only because of the hack. We don’t know how widespread self-censorship is among U.S. film and TV studios or for that matter among book publishers or other mass media producers.
The size of the Chinese market, combined with an expectation of bans on certain types of content, means that Hollywood and other content creators maintain a general bias in factor of the Chinese Communist Party censorship.
The big picture is that Chinese censorship is not just a problem for citizens of China. China censors worldwide and it affects what we see, read, hear and know.