China's Global Times newspaper published a surprising piece in late July discussing online censorship. The article was removed from the site only a few days after it was published in print, a chilling reminder that talking about censorship in China is, itself, often censored–even when it comes from state-run papers.
But, rather than being struck down by the white-collar thugs of the propaganda department or the terrified editorial staff, the catalyst for censorship in this case came from the microblogger Kaifu Lee. A source close to the matter inside the Global Times tells The Diplomat, "After Kaifu Lee tweeted it on Weibo, it got too much attention and got on the authorities' radar." The same source also confirms that the propaganda department did play a role in taking it down.
Lee, the former head of Google China, has one of the most popular microblogs in the country, with over 50 million followers on Weibo. His attention to controversial articles sometimes, unintentionally, brings down the hammer.
The article itself—titled "Hackers, Bloggers and Professors Team Up to Tap into Blocked Microblog Content”— said, "It isn't always clear where the line is and in the event of a breaking incident, certain words or phrases that are otherwise normal might become sensitive for a period of time." The article was well-researched and candid, but it is now a reminder that even the government's lapdog press can get out of hand now and again.
The retrospectively "self-harmonized" article contained content on sites like Freeweibo.com and Greatfire.org that try to keep up with the rapidly-changing face of China's broadly blocked Internet. It was an attempt to understand where the line is drawn for online censorship.
The article also showed that, while social media can be blocked and coerced into compliance, it also has power over China's press: one microblog repost killed a story at one of China's largest newspapers. This news is a bit of schadenfreude for keen observers of China's propaganda sphere. But, retrograde censorship is not new for China's state run papers.
"They get kudos and attention from the foreign media and it's a mildly controversial story," says a different source at the Global Times. "Then they'll pull the piece down just to be on the safe side."
Back in 2010, when GT's English-language newspaper was still in its infancy, the paper published a piece on the social networking site Douban's struggle with censorship called "Publish and be Deleted." It was promptly deleted.
The self-imposed removal of the article is a staunch reminder that most censorship in China is self-inflicted and that social media, for all its faults, holds sway over the country's completely state-run print media. GT has made its stance on censorship well-known, believing that it's necessary and somehow also nonexistent. The paper went so far as to publish pro-censorship editorials on the Tiananmen incident anniversary this year. This, however, does not make them immune from this same censorship.
Censorship takes many forms at the paper, and in this case, according to the source at the Global Times, it was a "precautionary measure." Others have suggested that the final orders came directly from the Publicity Department (中共中央宣传部), China's official censorship and propaganda body.
While the government and its pet newspapers hem and haw over whether or not China has online censorship, the list of blocked sites, banned words and deleted accounts is growing year after year. As is well known, the Chinese government censors an array of online domains, from social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter to activism sites like Amnesty International. Some censorship is pure political retaliation, such as the blocking of The New York Times website after it's expose on Wen Jiabao's family wealth.
The authorities have struggled to defend their online policies, which is why China’s papers praised the American whistle-blower Edward Snowden. His headlines gave China a rare excuse for the suppression of Internet and press access at home.
Despite the American-spies-under-your-bed justification, China also cites national security and pornography as reasons for having what is widely considered to be the most complex censorship machine of any nation. This presumably led the critical Kaifu Lee to post the article, as he regularly has his posts deleted.
The terms and phrases that are blocked on China's most popular social networking and microblogging site, Weibo, number in the thousands. As a result, it is hard for the Middle Kingdom's 591 million internet users to keep up with the censors’ whims. One can never tell when or why they'll get blocked; Kaifu Lee was blocked from Weibo for a few days in February, causing an online firestorm from his then 30.4 million followers.
Other state-run papers have, in the past, published articles on Internet censorship. While some of these have made headlines around the world, they have always been careful to tow the party line. For China's beleaguered netizens, progress is slow if not steadily marching backwards.
It's not unheard of for state-run papers like the Global Times to "un-harmonize" articles, but this particular piece succeeded in some small measure in its efforts to define the line that must not be crossed: you cannot talk about the things you cannot talk about.
Tyler Roney is a Beijing-based columnist for China Power and an editor of the magazine, The World of Chinese.