Thursday, January 17, 2013

China is opening up, slowly, by fits and starts

Some of you may have followed the news about protests against censorship at Southern Weekend, one of the more independent-minded Chinese publications. A New Year's Day editorial that called for political reform was rewritten to praise the current system.

Angry netizens took to the Chinese Twitter, called Weibo, to support the protest and express their displeasure with the censorship.

The New Yorker's Evan Osnos noted that among them was the actress Yao Chen, who has 31 million followers on Weibo. She included this quote: “One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world.”

Osnos said, "When a Chinese ingénue, beloved for her comedy, doe-eyed looks, and middle-class charm, is tweeting her fans the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, we may be seeing a new relationship between technology, politics, and Chinese prosperity."

The significance of the event, he said, is that members of the Chinese middle class "are not willing to play along with the idea that the President’s [Xi Jinping's] gestures of reform morally counterbalance the ham-fisted daily humiliation of censorship. They were supposed to go along quietly, but instead, they are posting photos like the one of a dozen men and women wearing Guy Fawkes masks and holding posters that said, 'Four courses and a soup are not real reform. Only press freedom is real reform'."

Government officials went on the offensive and ordered publications to print editorials critical of Southern Weekend. One of the publications that did so was The Beijing News, owned by the same group as Southern Weekend. Its publisher was forced to resign for following the government line.

Self-censorship and real censorship

As you can see, it's complicated. Edward Wong of the New York Times had a good overview piece on the controversy.

Most major media in China are state controlled. Privately controlled media that undertake investigative journalism -- such as Caixin and Economic Observer, two business publications, and Southern Weekend -- have to negotiate with local censors.

Jourrnalists don't always know what is considered acceptable and unacceptable. There are written rules, but they are interpreted and enforced arbitrarily. Publications that want to avoid problems with the government often resort to self-censorship.

Since last June, Bloomberg News and Bloomberg/Business Week have been blocked here in China for publishing an expose on the multimillion-dollar holdings of the family of Xi Jinping, who at that time was set to take over as China's No. 1 leader.

The New York Times has been blocked since it recently published a similar investigation of the multibillion-dollar holdings of friends and family of China's vice president Wen Jiabao. Lately I have been unable to get to The Wall Street Journal without using a virtual private network, a tool that can slip by the Great Firewall of censorship.

The power of microblogs

To me the significance of the protest and the government's response is the importance of Chinese microblogs such as Weibo (the equivalent of Twitter and Facebook) in affecting public policy. The number of participants on these microblogs is 350 million, greater than the population of the United States.

People turn to Weibo to find information that is not available in the mainstream media. So it is partly a cesspool of rumor, slander and inanity. It also is an important source of alternative news and revelations of public corruption.

A party official I know told me that the government allows Weibo commentary, up to a point, so that people can let off steam. Better that they comment on Weibo than take to the streets, he said. But it often happens that the government censors will decide enough is enough and shut down commentary on an issue, such as the disgraced Chongqing mayor Bo Xilai, whose wife has been convicted of the murder of a British businessman.


Microbloggers play a cat-and-mouse game to avoid censorship of their tweets. As The Wall Street Journal noted recently, Chinese netizens

must often voice their demands for greater freedom in coded language and metaphors that allow them to avoid outright censorship. Chinese cyberspace has given rise to a surprising number of new terms for exposing, criticizing and ridiculing the Communist Party. Largely invented by young gadflies, this lively discourse has begun to spread widely....
One of these is tianchao (heavenly dynasty), which, besides avoiding filters, delivers the mischievous suggestion that the government is hardly modern. In a nod to George Orwell, the Party's Department of Propaganda is referred to as the zhenlibu (Ministry of Truth).
Meanwhile, China's incoming leader, Xi Jinping, is speaking generally about the need for government to reform. He seems to have a lot of support among the netizens on Weibo.

Impressions of China
China's grandparents
A little tour of Tsinghua University campus
Chinese adults stay limber with hacky sack
Guangxi: Terraced rice paddies, sugarloaf mountains
Three days on the Yangtze River
Video: Chinese calligraphy in Xi'an
The madding crowd in the Forbidden City
Why the Chinese will never drop their written language
Deciphering China, ideograms to menus
Hike in hills has auspicious beginning
Beijing revisited, 23 years later
From the Economist: Daily chart: Choked

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