The New York Times takes on China’s censors

Well, that didn’t take long. Just days after The New York Times’ soft launch of its Chinese-language edition and accompanying microblog accounts, Berkeley-based China Digital Times website reports that the @nytchinese Sina Weibo feed is no longer accessible in China, along with two accounts hosted by Netease and Sohu. We couldn’t pull them up this morning from New York, either.

The timing is discouraging. With the Chinese edition barely off the ground, there has been no contentious content for censors to block (such as Bloomberg’s revelations last week about Vice President Xi Jinping and his extended family’s massive assets, which were widely censored). Instead, the shutdown is apparently a reaction to the Times’ intentions.

Announcing the site, the news outlet was clear that it would not pander to censors. “China operates a very vigorous firewall. We have no control over that. We hope and expect that Chinese officials will welcome what we’re doing,” Foreign Editor Joseph Kahn said in a blog post about the new operation. That mildly-expressed mission is seemingly enough justification for Sina and others to disable the account.

“We are seeking to clarify the situation with those accounts,” Craig Smith, the paper’s China managing director, told The Associated Press.

Whether microblog managers took this step out of caution (they are held responsible for banned content posted by users) or on orders from above is unclear, as is how long the disruption will last. The Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal operate flourishing Chinese websites, with corresponding Weibo accounts.

It’s always interesting to watch Weibo experiments to learn what triggers the censors. Nicolas Kristof tried it in his Times column last year, and CPJ just published an analysis of recent academic studies on the topic. But there’s another reason to follow the Times’ progress.

Both the Journal and the Financial Times Chinese sites, like their English counterparts, cover a broad range of issues, but cater to a business readership. The lead story on the Journal’s Chinese site, at time of writing, was China’s stockpile of rare-earth minerals, while the Financial Times led with economic stimulus measures.

Since Chinese business interests are so often connected with political power, business news is sensitive and prone to censorship, yet also protected by a corporate community that needs financial information for commercial success. Bloomberg’s report was a case in point: For highlighting Xi Jinping’s wealthy associates it was censored for the average Web reader, yet Bloomberg’s Professional service, which provides real-time news and stock quotes, remained accessible. The risk of offending investors who rely on that service outweighed the risk they would protest against Xi’s family allegedly exploiting political ties for advantages in business.

Some commentators believe overseas news outlets must emphasize these commercial benefits while tempering sensitive content in order to reach their audience. The Journal declined to comment on a story last week that alleged it censors content in China, according to the Foreign Policy magazine website. The same article said the Financial Times is more likely to publish political stories, but at the expense of its domestic readership when the articles are locally blocked.

Will the Chinese New York Times compromise its content, or its reach? With top stories today on the closure of the iPad trademark dispute, and on Malaysian smog that recalls China’s recent spat with the U.S. embassy in Beijing over air pollution ratings, it’s hard to say. But a number of people will be watching to see–the censors included.