In China, censorship is the country's best-kept secret. According to Wikipedia, Internet repression in China is considered more advanced than in any other country in the world, cited, chiefly, as a way to guard against the threat of social organizing and the spread of discordant political ideology. Certainly before I came to China, it was a concern that weighed heavily on my mind. I envisioned a bleak 1984-esque state where Big Brother, re-imagined as the Chinese government, spied on my every dissenting move up until my eventual “disappearance.” Of the news that reaches America from across the Pacific, interest in Chinese censorship a la the so-called “Great Firewall of China” is only eclipsed by the paralyzing fear that China's economy will overtake ours in the next ten to twenty years.
None has been a more recent reminder of this than the news that broke a month ago of jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo receiving this year's Nobel Peace Prize. For those who are unfamiliar with him, allow me to give a brief recap. Liu has spent more than two decades advocating peaceful political change in the face of relentless hostility on the part of the ruling CCP, beginning with a hunger strike during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. His most recent arrest came at the hands of a manifesto he helped pen called Charter '08 demanding democratic reform that would end the CCP's monopoly on power. But headlines of his remarkable achievement were nowhere to be found in Chinese state media—people were unable to send text messages containing the characters of his name, and international news junkets like CNN were blacked out mid-way through transmission.
Protesters outside the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Hong Kong on Friday, demanding the release of Liu Xiaobo (photo courtesy of the New York Times).
Living in America and only hearing about the vague concept of censorship and actually experiencing it first-hand are two very different things. It's amazing how many of the websites that most Americans use everyday—including Google, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, WordPress, and (until recently) Wikipedia—are censored here in China. To its credit, however, China has done an amazing job of drumming up enormous user support for its own government-monitored imitations of the same websites in response. I would guess that there are literally thousands of sites that are blocked in China, with more being added to the blacklist every day.
But despite what would seem like an enormous loss of personal freedom, I understand too how people here have come to accept it. If you only ever heard one news source, you wouldn't know any better than to accept it as the truth. It's as if a padded cell has been built around you, full of all the information you need to feel sated. In the days of TV, radio, and newspapers, the Chinese government was able to exercise nearly 100% control over what got published, but it is truly the advent of the Internet that is changing the game. If China knew how to control the Internet like it does more traditional media, there is little question that it would.
At the hands of unavoidable international fire, China unprecedentedly issued its own statement about Liu Xiaobo, calling him, the “West’s tool” who seeks to “destroy the progress of Chinese society and the welfare of the Chinese people.” While most Chinese will never question that assessment, many, including the younger generation, are increasingly leery of the government and are continuing to find creative outlets—as we are—to elude censorship restrictions and uncover the truth. Especially after hearing outrage from some of my own students over these sentiments, it doesn't seem long before China must confront its most ineffable skeleton in the closet.