The History of Censorship in China

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Imagine this: a world without Google, Youtube, or Instagram. The horror. Such a scenario would be almost inconceivable to any internet user who regularly relies on search engines to have easy access to endless information, streaming services to procrastinate on work, and social media to share with the world cute animal memes and artsy vacation photos. Unless, of course, you live in China. Google, Youtube, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, BBC, and the New York Times are just some of the many websites blocked in China. Instead, chinese citizens have Baidu, Bilibili, Douyin, Taobao, Alibaba, and Weibo. At first glance, this may seem to just be a curious phenomenon but behind it is a serious issue: censorship. The web is heavily censored in China with what is called “The Great Firewall”, laws and technologies used by the government of China to regulate the internet domestically.

However, censorship does not end there. Media censorship is also rife in China; though the constitution promises freedom of speech and press, 47 journalists have been imprisoned as of 2018 and the news is strictly regulated by the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China, the unofficial propaganda department (McCarthy, 2018). Censorship in China is unlikely to stop anytime soon and what it means for the chinese people, as well as the international community, does not suggest the most optimistic of outcomes.

One of the best examples of mass censorship in the history of modern China may be observed during the Cultural Revolution led by Mao Zedong, chairman of the Communist Party of China. The Cultural Revolution was a social movement that took place from 1966 to 1976 with the main purpose of identifying and removing the bourgeoisie as well as “outdated” schools of thought. Mao campaigned to destroy the “Four Olds”: old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas. Massive student led paramilitary groups called the “Red Guards” destroyed ancient artifacts, closed down religious sites, burned old books, as well as tortured and publicly humiliated those considered “counterrevolutionaries.” Folk festivals, customs, sayings; religious practices; and traditional ways of dressing were violently repressed for being feudal and outdated (Durdin, 1971). In addition, more than 2,600 writers, film directors, artists, musicians, and intellectuals were persecuted for being “anti-Maoist”, often enduring public humiliation, being imprisoned, or being sent to be “re-educated” in labor camps (Hong, 2009). Traditional operas were banned while revolutionary opera that glorified Mao’s thoughts and the struggles of the common people against class and foreign enemies were the only approved form of opera. Similarly, film and music were strictly regulated, with only revolutionary-themed songs such as “The East is Red” and “The March of the Volunteers” being allowed to gain popularity. Propaganda posters depicting Mao with slogans encouraging labor and communist ideals were widely produced and it was during the Cultural Revolution that the “Little Red Book”, a book containing sayings and speeches of Mao, was published and distributed.

After the death of Mao, Deng Xiaoping, a former vice chairman of the party’s central committee, rose to power and took control of the government. Deng abandoned many of Mao’s policies, radically reformed China’s economy, and allowed more religious freedom as well as freedom of speech. The economy boomed and it was under Deng that the manufacturing industry became more organized and profitable. However, overly criticizing Mao was still not allowed because the party feared that it could cause the people to turn against them. To this day, public discussion about the cultural revolution is still extremely limited in China and though the party acknowledges Mao’s detrimental actions during the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong Thought, also called Maoism, is still revered and used by the party as their guiding ideology. Online discussions about it is strictly monitored, the news is censored of it, and academic research about it is prohibited.

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Xi Jinping, the current president of China, has brought with him tighter regulations in censorship and an increasing number of prohibited subjects. For example, any attempts to reference or commemorate the June 4th incident, a massacre of several thousand protestors calling for democracy in Tiananmen Square, is squashed by the government. In 1989, after the death of Hu Yaobang on April 15, hundreds of thousands of people protested in Tiananmen Square, overlooked by a Portrait of Mao, for greater social freedom and a democratic government. The protestors were mostly university students hopeful of pushing the government to accept a more liberal form of government together with the economic reform already taking place. However, a vote within the Party ultimately resulted in the decision to squash the protests and in the early morning of June 4th, troops opened fire on civilians and imprisoned protest leaders (Wescott, 2019). Tanks were also brought in to clear the square, leading to one of the most iconic photographs of the incident, an unknown man confronting and blocking a line of tanks as they were leaving Tiananmen Square. Today, the incident is wiped from history textbooks and pictures or articles mentioning it is banned in any media. In China, June 4th is nicknamed “Internet Maintenance Day” for the numerous social media sites and websites that suddenly have functions disabled, human censors, or even shut down completely for two days (Griffiths, 2019). Any posts containing keywords or mentioning the numbers 6 and 4 are also automatically hidden from blogging sites like Weibo. Other censored topics include independence for Tibet, persecution of Uighurs, HongKong protests, Religious speech and ideals, and criticism of the Communist Party (Liu, 2018).

There are two main media under censorship in China: the news and the internet. The traditional news media is monitored by the government to ensure that stories fit within the censorship guidelines before they are published. Both foreign and local journalists are watched closely and need to be issued a permit to be able to report on stories. In television only a selected few of foreign news channels like CNN and BBC are available in certain areas and they are required to run through Chinese satellites in order to be broadcasted. This allows the authorities to censor any segment that may be deemed controversial (Xu, 2017). The internet is guarded “The Great Firewall” with methods such as bandwidth throttling, keyword filtering, blocked sites, AI and human censors, and also “human flesh searches.” Bandwidth throttling and site blocking is often used to prevent access to certain sites while keyword filtering, and AI and human censors mostly focus on censoring social media and hiding controversial posts. What’s interesting is the rise of “human flesh searches” in recent years. It is when angry netizens publicly expose and shame those who may be unpatriotic, bad in character, or bourgeois. Though sometimes state media has encouraged the targeting of specific people, most of the work is still driven by angry masses (Li, 2019). The government’s crackdown on corruption, class resentment, as well as the rise of ultranationalism all contribute to the increasing drive for this type of censorship.

Due to the extreme censorship methods employed by the Chinese government, many of the younger generation, especially those who grew up with internet censorship already in place, are ignorant of the many significant historical and cultural events. Most young people are not even aware of incidents like Tiananmen in part because of parents not wanting to mention it, and also because of the government’s refusal to acknowledge it (Lau, 2019). The disconnection from foreign news media outlets also limits their range of awareness about current activities and anything the government doesn’t want them to know. According to the Independent, “many appear uninterested in knowing what has been censored online, allowing Beijing to build an alternative value system that competes with western liberal democracy.” Furthermore, Guo Yuhua, a Tsinghua University sociologist says that “many younger people nowadays are indifferent to politics and more focused on the pursuit of prosperity - in large part because of government censorship.” This indifference to censorship and ignorance caused by censorship can form a dangerous cycle.

Though Chinese citizens are the only ones primarily affected by their government’s heavy censorship right now, this may soon change - and not for the better. While liberal governments advocate for a free and open internet in order to better connect with the global community, China has highlighted control and sovereignty when it comes to the web. With the development of the Belt and Road initiative and China’s increasingly strong presence in African nations, China is now working to “export” its version of a controlled, monitored internet. Chinese companies have already exported surveillance and facial recognition technologies to “the United Arab Emirate, Zimbabwe,... Ethiopia,..., South Africa, Bolivia, Egypt, [and] Rwanda (Sherman, 2018).” Moreover, China has also hosted events like the World Internet Conference which aims to promote “internet sovereignty.” Some countries have also started to imitate China’s tight grip over the internet. For example, in January of 2019, after protests broke out over rising fuel prices in Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwean government ordered an internet blackout and worked on apprehending figures at the head of the protests. This is strikingly similar to the internet shutdowns of the Tibet and Xin Jiang regions in China, where protests and political riots have caused internet blackouts to be a regular occurence, used as a type of “political punishment (Lam, 2013).”

In conclusion, China’s history of censorship has not been curbed by the spread of the internet but may even have been made worse. Internet censorship has become a new method of keeping the people in check, allowing the government to collect more data than ever before about the Chinese people. Consumerism and nihilism seems to be the Zeitgeist of this emerging generation and when combined with nationalism, can strengthen the Communist Party’s control. In short, the indifference of the younger generation is a dangerous mindset that has been molded by years of censorship and lack of knowledge.

Additionally, as China expands its influence in the international community and works toward becoming a global power, its effect on developing countries and other authoritarian regimes must be acknowledged. China’s fixation on a controlled internet have already influenced other countries to look at its internet censorship policies as something to be emulated in order to increase their influence over their people and follow in China’s footsteps of rapid economic growth in exchange for personal freedom. A continuation of such harsh censorship policies may ultimately result in not only losing certain priceless aspects of Chinese culture and history but also the freedom of the global community as a whole.

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