China’s diverse censors

Attempts to rein in microblogs like Sina Weibo are a huge part of China’s sophisticated information control strategy these days. However, news reports last week serve as a reminder that propaganda authorities also rely on methods that are more old school. 

Censors recently cut the China section from The Economist magazine, online magazine Tea Leaf Nation, which specializes in Chinese social media, reports. Not from the web, but from the copies on sale in Shanghai airport. With scissors. Nor is that an isolated incident. In 2009 we reported on copies of the National Geographic sold with pages of a China feature glued shut. Tea Leaf Nation shares other anecdotes gathered on social media: “I subscribe to the Asia edition of Time. Articles on China are torn out and issues with covers about China are just not distributed,” one says, according to Tea Leaf Nation’s translation.

In other offline censorship news, CCTV News last week broadcast a story on Michelangelo’s David, but pixelated the statue’s genitals to shield viewers from “a negative [emotional] impact,” according to Beijing-based media blog Danwei.

Finally, China’s State Administration of Radio Film and Television, or SARFT, is stepping up regulations on “micro films,” China’s audio-visual equivalent of microblogs, according to Hong Kong University-based China Media Project. The regulations state that all online programming will be subject to pre-approval before broadcast, although it is not clear how that would be enforced, the project said. The media project describes the films as “features and documentaries filmed on mobile phones and distributed to potentially mass audiences through social media.” As one online commenter pointed out, in the project’s translation: “SARFT still wants to approve [films] one at a time. Apparently, they’re not afraid of dying of exhaustion.”

These apparently disparate incidents have more in common with highly technical censorship than you might think. Take The Economist: “The issues I see in our provincial library and local library all have the China section,” one online commentator wrote, according to Tea Leaf Nation’s translation. In other words, just as Sina is held responsible for user content, distributors of print media interpret censorship guidelines for themselves, with widely different results. CCTV producers make their own decisions regarding what’s appropriate to broadcast. And the new micro film regulations “explicitly hold distributors of online video programming responsible for violations of propaganda discipline,” the China Media Project reports.

Responses from China in these articles reveal another common thread: No one takes them too seriously. Fair enough–censors wielding glue sticks in a digital age are more comical than terrifying. But there is an important takeaway, nonetheless.

China’s censors are not one, uniform entity. Their diversity is one of the keys to China’s continuing control of information, despite highly engaged communities of online activists and journalists. It’s easy to think of the Great Firewall as monolithic. The reality–a network of government employees, companies, and individual citizens tasked with managing news and information sharing–is more permeable, but ultimately more successful.