The Chinese Censorship – Foreigners Don’t see

August 14, 2008

Beijing’s Internet censorship hit global headlines recently, when foreign journalists in town to cover the Olympics discovered their access to well-known overseas Web sites was blocked. Yet while the government has now unblocked some of those sites, those journalists shouldn’t think the broader problem is solved. Censorship of ordinary Chinese people’s electronic communications within China has changed little. Visiting reporters just aren’t noticing because these forms of censorship relate to Chinese-language content they’re not familiar with, hosted on Web sites and services located on computer servers inside China, which foreigners generally don’t use.

The "Great Firewall," the common moniker for China’s filtering system that blocks various Internet addresses and keywords, really only pertains to Internet sites and services hosted on computer servers outside China. Inside China, companies that host Web sites, blogs and chat rooms are held responsible for objectionable content posted on their services. All of China’s blog-hosting services, YouTube-style video sharing sites and the like hire entire departments of people to flag and delete things that may get them in trouble with the government authorities who could revoke their business license.

This context is key to understanding the wide-ranging conversations, many of them political, that are now happening on Chinese blogs and chat rooms. There is indeed a vastly larger space for public discourse on matters of public concern than existed even a few years ago. But that space still has limits. Chinese Web users now experience a more targeted and subtle approach to censorship than before.

Examples abound. On Monday, I logged into a number of Chinese blog-hosting services and posted the first paragraph of a Chinese-language story, based on state media reports, about last week’s knife attack on American tourists atop Beijing’s Drum Tower. One of China’s most popular blogging platforms,, deleted my post after a few hours. But Sina’s news portal ran Chinese news agency reports about the attack. A blog-hosting service run by Baidu, one of China’s biggest Internet companies, wouldn’t even let me publish the post. Yet a Baidu news search on "drum tower" turned up several Chinese media reports about the incident.

The strategy seems clear: Give China’s professional journalists a longer leash to cover breaking news even if it’s not positive — since the news will come out anyway and unlike bloggers, the journalists are still on a leash. At the same time, clamp down on blogs, chat rooms and video-sharing sites that might allow too much unfettered discussion of the news. A similar thing happened in July after large riots took place in Weng’an, a town in Guizhou province, after a young girl died under suspicious circumstances. Many large Chinese Web portals deleted or prevented publication of any blog and chat room posts mentioning Weng’an. Instead the Web portals ran extensive coverage of events in Weng’an reported by China’s professional media.

Not even humor is safe from censorship. One evening last week, a Chinese blogger who writes under the name of "deerfang" was sharing a good laugh with a friend who knows some great political jokes — learned through mobile-phone text messages sent in May from other friends. The friend tried to forward one of the jokes about Chairman Mao and President Hu Jintao — still stored in his phone’s memory — to deerfang’s mobile. "My phone received the message but in blank saying ‘missing text,’" deerfang wrote on her blog. Her friend tried sending the message to other people’s phones in case it was a technical error. Same result. It seems that censorship on the China Mobile network has tightened since three months ago.

China’s censorship is far from perfect. Often what’s censored on one Web platform somehow slips through on another. Users can and do devise alternate wordings or euphemisms to avoid the notice of keyword trackers, or simply email the news around. In the long run censorship is bound to fail. But in the short run this variety works just well enough to help the Chinese Communist Party stay in power.

And foreigners need to understand that it’s happening, and how. As useful as the recent uproar over censorship in Beijing was for calling attention to the broader issue, the failure of outsiders to understand how censorship affects the Chinese Internet in practice is a source of frustration inside the country. Earlier this week, I heard from a blogger, Du Dongjin after he received an email from the Voice of America celebrating the unblocking of their Chinese website. "In my point of view," he complained, "it is quite a plain comment that VOA does not care if there is Internet censorship in China. It only cares its own interests."

By this he meant that, whatever the incremental benefits, unblocking VOA’s site — or any other one or several foreign sites — won’t change the more problematic aspects of Beijing’s web control. That’s something for foreign reporters to remember as they surf Amnesty International’s Web site during the Games.

Ms. MacKinnon is assistant professor at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre, University of Hong Kong and co-founder of Global Voices (

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