Banned in Beijing

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Everyone knows that the Chinese government goes to extraordinary lengths to police the internet (see: "Blocked on Weibo").

And most sentient beings are aware of the awesome fame of the Grass-Mud Horse, the notorious Franco-Croatian Squid, and and the mysterious River Crab.  You can find all of them in "Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon Classics".

Sometimes, the censors begin to look pretty ridiculous, as when they outlawed the word "jasmine" in 2011, particularly since it refers not just to the Jasmine Revolution, but also to a favorite flower, tea, and folk song.

mòlì 茉莉 ("jasmine")

mòlì chá 茉莉茶 ("jasmine tea") OR mòlìhuā chá 茉莉花茶 ("jasmine tea") OR xiāngpiàn 香片 ("scented [usually with jasmine] tea")

mòlìhuā 茉莉花 ("jasmine flower", name of a popular folk song; presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao were both excessively fond of this song, and there are videos of them singing it, so it becomes especially awkward to try to forbid citizens to use the word mòlì 茉莉 ("jasmine")

Today, of all days in the year, however, the CCP censors are out in fuller force than usual, with the result that a goodly portion of written Chinese has been eviscerated.

Here, as presented on China Digital Times, are some of the words that have been disappeared for the duration of the current paranoia over the 25th anniversary commemoration of the Tiananmen Massacre:

  • 今天: today
  • 89+(任意字符): 89+(any keyword)
  • 廿五周年: twenty-fifth anniversary
  • 致敬: pay respects
  • anniversary
  • viiv: Roman numerals for six and four, i.e. June 4th (“Six Four” 六四).
  • 己巳月+乙未日: Jisi month+Yiwei day. In the traditional 60-year cycle, the first term is equivalent to May-June 1989, the second to a number of dates in the same year including June 4.
  • june 4
  • Jun+4th
  • 6+4
  • 63+1
  • 65-1
  • 六+四: six+four
  • 六4: six4
  • 6四: 6four
  • liusi: pinyin for “Six Four” (六四 Liù Sì)
  • bajiu: pinyin for “Eight Nine” (八九 Bā Jiǔ), i.e. 1989
  • 陆肆: six four
  • 陆四: six four
  • 六肆: six four
  • 捌玖: eight nine
  • 捌九: eight nine
  • 八玖: eight nine
  • 六four: six FOUR (combination of Chinese character and English)
  • six四: SIX four (combination of character and English)
  • six+four
  • 8的平方: square of 8, i.e. 64
  • 八的平方: square of eight
  • 祭奠: memorial ceremony
  • 黑衫: black shirt
  • 烛光: candlelight
  • 维园: Victoria Park – a candlelight vigil for victims of the crackdown is held every year in Victoria Park, Hong Kong.
  • 蜡烛: candle
  • 平反: redress
  • tank man
  • TAM: short for Tiananmen
  • tiananmen
  • 天安门: Tiananmen
  • 广场: square
  • 占占人: characters used as pictures to respresent a person standing in front of tanks
  • 占占点: person being crushed by tanks
  • 占点占: person being crushed by tanks
  • 反官倒: oppose official profiteering
  • 坦克: tank
  • 戒严: impose martial law
  • 学运: student movement
  • 学潮: student strike
  • 北京+屠城: Beijing+massacre all the inhabitants of a conquered city
  • 丁子霖: Ding Zilin – Mother of a teenager killed on June 4th and founder of the organization Tiananmen Mothers.
  • 邓屠夫: Deng The Butcher – i.e. Deng Xiaoping
  • 胡耀邦: Hu Yaobang – Liberal Party leader whose death on April 8, 1989 sparked pro-democracy protests
  • 赵紫阳: Zhao Ziyang – Hu’s successor as Party General Secretary. For his support of the student protesters, Zhao was purged from the Party and put under house arrest for the rest of his life.
  • 袁木: Yuan Mu – State Council Information Office spokesman during the 1989 protests and apologist for the regime.
  • 严家其: Yan Jiaqi – sociology student who went into exile in the US.

Do the Chinese authorities really believe that by forbidding and blocking the use of these words they can prevent the citizens of their country from thinking about the horrible events that took place in Beijing and many other cities on this day a quarter of a century ago?  It seems to me that they grossly underestimate the intelligence and resourcefulness of China's netizens.  The latter will always think of a way to outwit the thought police and language cops.  Will the censors be able to catch every new punning reference to June 4, e.g., bàba wànsuì 爸爸万岁 ("long live daddy!") || bābā wàn suì 八八万岁 ("long live 8 X 8 = 64" –> "long live 6-4 / June 4")?

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28 Comments »

  1. Brendan said,

    June 4, 2014 @ 5:40 pm

    One of the more common substitutions is "May 35th" (5月35日 or some variation). Like "VIIV" (6-4) and "VIIIIXVI" (8-9-6-4), it's currently blocked on Weibo.

  2. Eidolon said,

    June 4, 2014 @ 7:09 pm

    The censors surely do not believe that by banning these words, they are, in fact, erasing all discussion of the events. But in the same way that shutting down popular dissident sites does not stop dissidence – the dissidents simply set up shop elsewhere – what it does do is introduce inconvenience, which acts as a form of casual dissuasion. Creating a new lingo around 6-4 and getting other people to learn it – so that they're able to search with it – requires effort, and that added effort mitigates against the popularity of the endeavor.

    That said, with respect to the Chinese censorship machine, I believe much of it has become ceremonial rather than practical. The censors are just doing what they do so that they don't get accused of not doing anything. The propaganda department of the CCP, after all, is still an organ of the government with countless paid staff. People's jobs are on the line.

  3. Anne said,

    June 4, 2014 @ 8:50 pm

    Eidolon is right, but it's not just one government agency censoring the Internet in China. In fact, censorship and filtering is delegated to Internet companies. Weibo has to obey directives in order to stay in business. Those directives are often vague, leaving Weibo management to guess which terms ought to be blocked. In this respect, censorship is completely practical.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    June 4, 2014 @ 11:34 pm

    From a correspondent in China:

    =====

    六-四 is by far the most common expression. 天安门事件 is fairly common, also using "89" as in 89年的事件, maybe 89年广场的事,etc.

    =====

    From Kaiser Kuo:

    =====

    And of course there are many clever ways intended to avoid censors, like 63+1, 五三五 (May 35)

    =====

    From David Moser:

    =====

    …and, my favorite, 8 x 8. I love this because it opens up the entire dizzying universe of mathematics to generate more euphemisms.

    =====

  5. Simon P said,

    June 4, 2014 @ 11:40 pm

    My few conversations about the massacre when living in (southern) China a few years ago indicated that the censorship machine was working well, but of course they were not a representative sample. While the intellectuals may know all about it, the people on the street might not be so aware.

  6. David Morris said,

    June 4, 2014 @ 11:49 pm

    We have more students from China (or from the Chinese dispora) than from any other country. Last week's topic was politics and this week's was the media, so this post was timely. One Chinese student said her high school English teacher had been a student protester, had spent time in jail, and had effectively been banned from an academic career and was now a high school teacher in a provincial city.
    I showed several of the students the China Digital Times Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon page and they had never seen anything so funny (and, of course, had never seen that site). On the other hand, my general manager (about 50) had never heard of the Grass-Mud Horse.
    One of the items on the CDT page is 'the 35th of May'.

  7. Jeff W said,

    June 5, 2014 @ 4:15 am

    with respect to the Chinese censorship machine, I believe much of it has become ceremonial rather than practical.

    I agree, at least based on my own very limited experience of six or seven years ago. At that time, when I posted on the English-language China Daily forums (all of which are in predominantly in English), the censorship would increase around late May/early June and also at least one year (2007) in October (around the time of the National Congress of the Communist Party of China). Our posts, mostly in English, which, previously, would appear instantly upon submission, would be delayed or not appear at all.

    At first it wasn’t clear if the problem was a technical glitch or just some general delay in moderation. The group of us who tended to post together determined that certain words in English—such as June (by itself) and tank—were enough to have the post be delayed, if not disappear entirely.

    We could discuss quite openly on the forum (or complain about, really) the fact that the posts were being censored and we could even compile lists of “sensitive words” to avoid with the smallest of changes, e.g., J une in place of June, and post them right on the forum as it was being subject to censorship. The censorship, whether it was automated or manual, was so perfunctory that it seemed like those who implemented it were, as Eidolon said, just doing what they were doing so that they didn't get accused of not doing anything. But even as perfunctory and easy to evade (at that time, at least) as it was, it still chilled our conversation to some extent—it wasn’t only the inconvenience but the fact that it felt demeaning to have to deal with it at all.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    June 5, 2014 @ 7:18 am

    It's good to have Jeff W's description of what it feels like to deal with the Chinese censorship machine in the trenches. In the long run, isn't this an unintelligent policy that will provoke the anger of Chinese citizens who resent this severe restriction of their ability to communicate with their countrymen and the world?

    It seems to me that eventually the Chinese government's policy of attempting to ban any and all words that they perceive to be "sensitive" will backfire, even if superficially and temporarily it blocks discussion of forbidden topics.

    In the long run, not only are these draconian censorship policies ineffective and unnecessary, they are also counterproductive and risky.

    Can you imagine how long censorship of this nature would last in America and in Europe?

  9. Nathan said,

    June 5, 2014 @ 9:34 am

    @Victor Mair: It's hard to know just what you mean by "censorship of this nature", but there's a lot of overzealous censorship that has lasted for years. The clbuttic example is the Scunthorpe problem.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    June 5, 2014 @ 11:34 am

    @Nathan

    China censors pornographic materials too, but by "of this nature" I meant what I was describing in this post and in the linked materials.

  11. a George said,

    June 5, 2014 @ 12:02 pm

    "Can you imagine how long censorship of this nature would last in America and in Europe?"

    It has not quite arrived yet, but "political correctness", "avoid anything that might be insulting", etc. is creeping up on us, and believe me, it will last in a world where every electronic utterance is monitored and retained for proof. So, perhaps a different mixture of active censorship and self-censorship will appear, but 1984 is here to stay.

    In the period 1933-45 the German patent office obviously issued patents, and certainly from 1940 each printed patent had a header. It was an eagle sitting on a swastika. When you order copies or download them from the respective websites, you will find that each and every swastika has been eradicated by a speed marker, sometimes even blotting through to disturb the reading matter on the subsequent pages. That is a politically correct black blob but historically a distortion. Why?

  12. Ray Dillinger said,

    June 5, 2014 @ 12:46 pm

    I sometimes get the impression that the job of the censorship is to be noticed as censorship – it's less an effort to actually prevent people from talking about it in the short term than a signpost, intended to be noticed, that when you have to resort to these euphemisms or avoid particular phrases you're probably doing something that could result in getting in trouble.

    The analogy in physical terms would be the difference between a chain link fence topped with razor wire – intended to physically keep people out of (or inside) an area even when they are fairly determined to do otherwise – and a "no trespassing" sign posted on an ordinary wire fence that anyone can go over at will.

    Information being contagious, the long-term effect is nearly as effective; the more people desist from talking about something in the short term because of the "ineffective but noticeable" censorship that serves a tacit warning that they could get in trouble, the more people have just never heard of it in the long term. Collectively, when people forget what's inside the "no trespassing" area, they stop going there.

    Also, exactly what is being suppressed here? Search terms. While suppressing particular words and phrases is completely ineffective at suppressing conversation about a topic, it is VERY effective at suppressing people's ability to find out about that topic it on search engines. It's easy and simple to develop ways to talk about something when you've already decided what you're going to talk about. But if they can't anticipate the particular way you got around a particular censorship constraint, people ignorant of the facts will never be able to use search engines (even once censorship is lifted) to escape their ignorance.

    IOW, while the "grass mud horse" is very clever and works fine for people to talk about the events, people who don't know about the events will never discover them because "grass mud horse" was used instead of the terms they'll be searching on.

  13. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 5, 2014 @ 1:40 pm

    To Ray Dillinger's point, in the West there's apparently some ability in online communities to come up with euphemisms or variant spellings of particular words/strings likely to be blocked by filters in certain parts of the internet (e.g. http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/pr0n). There must be some social process by which knowledge of these conventionalized alternatives is disseminated reasonably effectively to newcomers/outsiders. Indeed, this is true of euphemisms generally even pre-internet. Saying "Old Scratch" or any of a number of other archaic workarounds used in former times to avoid uttering the name of the Devil was only effective if your interlocutors knew what you were trying to refer to. Perhaps human interest in certain subject matters traditionally likely to attract word taboos (e.g. matters having to do with sex and religion) is stronger than the interest in many of the politically-sensitive topics the PRC is trying to tamp down discussion of, so the same processes will not work to the same extent?

  14. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 5, 2014 @ 1:54 pm

    a George: I guess I can see both sides of the practice of the current German patent office (esp. given that swastika taboos are understandably rather stronger there than they are in the U.S.). Especially for a governmental agency, whenever a new certified/authenticated copy of an old document from the files is issued there's a certain amount of ambiguity about whether the government is making a new statement or at least reaffirming the prior statement versus just making a historical report on what the archives contain. I would like to hope that elsewhere in some university's collection there is a complete set of those old patent files in unmodified form and/or that is at a minimum legal to retain such copies in private hands.

    Frankly, if I were involved in patent litigation and for some reason it was appropriate to attach a copy of such a document (because the prior art disclosed in a German patent issued 1943 was for some reason relevant to the issue at hand) to a court filing, I might well want to redact off the more Nazi-ish parts of the letterhead just to avoid causing the reader to be unprofitably distracted from the point I was trying to make.

    OTOH, I'd be interested to know whether someone born in what was then Karl-Marx-Stadt under Communist rule who needs to get a duplicate birth certificate gets a xerox of the original from the files, complete with whatever symbols of oppression the DDR letterhead might have included, or gets a newly-issued form on the relevant agency's current post-Communist letterhead saying he/she was born on such-and-such date in Chemnitz.

  15. Mike said,

    June 5, 2014 @ 7:58 pm

    Re: bābā. How ironic that the CCP would ban duos of the famously lucky number 8.

  16. Dave Cragin said,

    June 5, 2014 @ 8:49 pm

    A recent discussion with a Chinese friend who had just returned from a trip to China showed me that the news controls can have much more potent effects than I imagined and in a way I wouldn’t have guessed.

    From a Weibo discussion with professional Chinese friends in China, she said her friends were very annoyed with the US because our news services did not call the attack in the train station in Kunming a "terrorist" attack. Her comment surprised me, because I knew of it as a terrorist attack from watching/reading US news. When I got home, I did a quick search: 100% of the news sources I checked noted that Chinese authorities called it a terrorist attack (ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, Yahoo, NYT, others) . The articles used Xinhua and/or Chinese officials as their source.

    It was clear the opinions of my friend’s colleagues had been manipulated into an anti-American stance based on their inability to readily access US news sources. A quick google or bing search would have instantly shown them the supposed issue was fabricated (I don’t know who invented the issue).

    The above really struck me because while there are substantive issues of disagreement, terrorism is a shared threat for both China and the US (and almost any country in the world). It showed that the news blockage can leave people open to have their perspectives manipulated. Of course, in the US we have the opposite problem, i.e., readily available credible news sources but still many people who believe in kooky ideas (e.g., the many people who think 9/11 was fabricated).

  17. Victor Mair said,

    June 5, 2014 @ 9:57 pm

    Dave Cragin's argument is very well taken. This has been a major point of discussion on Xinjiang discussion lists, but no one has put it so succinctly and persuasively until now with what Dave has written.

  18. Jeff W said,

    June 5, 2014 @ 10:44 pm

    …her friends were very annoyed with the US because our news services did not call the attack in the train station in Kunming a "terrorist" attack

    It seems to me that the issue was a bit different than that and had some basis in fact.

    I think the issue was that, for the Chinese media, the overseas media (and the US State Department) were slow to label the Kunming incident a terrorist attack in a way that they were not with other similar incidents (e.g., the attack and murder of a British soldier in London in May 2013). A check of Google and Bing after the fact might not reflect accurately the initial reports.

    The People’s Daily published a chart showing the difference in wording in the initial descriptions of the Kunming attack and the London attack.

    A China Daily editorial said that “some media organizations in the United States put quotation marks around the word ‘terrorists’ when describing the eight uniformed knife-wielding attackers.” A Dawn [Pakistan] piece named some of these media organizations: the New York Times, CNN, Reuters, BBC and CBC of Canada. A Reuters video journalist news report also referred to the quotation marks and noted that some news agencies later dropped the quotation marks “after they had their own reporters on the ground.”

    The US State Department didn’t help matters. The NY Times noted that the State Department called the attack “terrorism” only after prodding. The South China Morning Post said it did so “after China’s largest journalist association condemned Western media for ‘harbouring ulterior motives’…”

    Obviously, censoring the media allows the people’s views to be manipulated. But I think the Chinese state media might rely even more on framing some issue as one of Western bias, a perennial favorite, than on outright blocking.

  19. JS said,

    June 6, 2014 @ 5:57 am

    My impression of the first CNN reports following the recent Urumqi incident jibes with what Jeff W says above, with write-ups from subsequent days beginning to draw a connection to "terrorism" as such. I notice the Washington Post report report refers to survivors' "terror" but does not characterize the incident as a terrorist attack, preferring reference to "assailants" and "insurgency."

    There is obviously no hard-and-fast definition of what constitutes "terrorism" in the first place, but it is easy to understand why Chinese observers would object to this apparent double standard.

    The CNN front page today features the headline "Why Beijing Fears Eastern Lightening," framing discussion of a legitimately horrifying attack by clearly deranged members of a deviant religious cult in terms of the group's (indeterminate) potential for real political insurrection. Again, it's a matter of perspective.

    On the whole, in China it is not the existence of particular (often anti-American) views that is troubling, but rather the almost complete lack of nuance in public opinion on many sensitive issues; media slant and censorship are obviously key contributors to this situation. The virtue of a more open media lies not in the nature of the views expressed but in their variety, a point many angry Chinese commenters on CNN, etc., seem to fail to appreciate.

    Posting from China; we'll see if it goes through…

  20. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 6, 2014 @ 10:51 am

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/May_2014_%C3%9Cr%C3%BCmqi_attack links to what seem to be contemporaneous stories from major US media outlets (NYTimes, a different WaPo story, CNN) that use the word "terrorist," although in some cases they are being nuanced enough to say that that's a characterization being used in the PRC state-controlled media. It's not necessarily only a question of what label to apply to a given set of facts but a question of not knowing at least on the first day of the story whether to take the apparently-factual elements of the reporting of the PRC state-controlled media (a/k/a the propaganda outlets of a brutal dictatorship) at face value, especially when the story is coming from a location where there don't happen to be any outside/independent reporters on the ground.

  21. markonsea said,

    June 6, 2014 @ 11:59 am

    @ J. W. Brewer:

    "I guess I can see both sides of the practice of the current German patent office (esp. given that swastika taboos are understandably rather stronger there than they are in the U.S.)."

    A lot stronger: the swastika (in its Nazi form) is legally defined as a symbol of propaganda of "a party which has been declared to be unconstitutional" and its dissemination therefore a criminal act unless it "serves to further civil enlightenment, to avert unconstitutional aims, to promote art or science, research or teaching, reporting about current historical events or similar purpose".

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strafgesetzbuch_section_86a

    You might conclude that providing copies of patents falls within these exceptions, but the world is so damn litigious these days …

  22. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 6, 2014 @ 12:33 pm

    @markonsea: yes, I was being euphemistic re German law on the subject in order to avoid unnecessary digression. (I tend to think the German law is ill-advised but I appreciate that it is tied up with extremely sensitive and emotionally-loaded issues over there and I do not expect the Bundestag to solicit my outsider's opinion.) It would not make sense for simply providing a copy of a historical document in its original form not to fall within one of the legitimate-use carveouts, but it would make a fair amount of sense for there to be in practice a taboo broader than the actual terms of the law that might create the instinct to bowdlerize the document in a context where the taboo part was not affirmatively necessary. For an arguably more problematic bowdlerization of the historical record, see, e.g. http://iconicphotos.wordpress.com/2011/01/09/the-case-of-missing-cigarettes/

  23. Dave Cragin said,

    June 6, 2014 @ 4:34 pm

    I had an e-mail exchange about this with a friend, so I can offer more info (it's hard to keep posts concise & readable……)

    Notably, the headline of the initial Xinhua report in the China Daily News didn’t include the word terrorist or terror. The headline was: “At least 29 dead, 130 injured in Kunming violence” see http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2014-03/02/content_17315119.htm —Why "violence" and not "terrororist attack" in the headline?????
    The China Daily doesn’t even mention terrorist until the 3rd paragraph. US news organizations use Xinhua as their primary source. (A cynic would say the China Daily needs to write itself an editorial to remind itself to use terror and terrorist in its headlines and to also use the words in the lead sentence/paragraph).

    Quotes are used is because the news reporter or news editor isn’t making a personal decision as to whether to classify it as a terror attack (as Jeff W notes). The quotes indicate that Xinhua or other Chinese authoritative sources made this determination. Using quotes is a standard news approach in the USA.

    This Associate Press article is a good example of this approach. Every significant statement about the attack is attack is attributed to a source using quotes, virtually all from China (as it should be). http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/27-dead-train-station-knife-attack-china-article-1.1707232

    This the usual approach in the US even with ordinary crimes: news reporters will say "the police say it is “murder”" or "it's a case prosecutors are calling “murder.”" The reporter doesn't make the determination that it was murder, even if it looks like it was.

    As an American, I agree with the above approach – I don’t think reporters or editors should make personal determinations on whether a specific attack was by terrorists or just criminals. They aren’t qualified to do so (and to do so based on fragmentary info about a situation in another country would be just wrong). It should be left to the authorities to assess whether an attack was by terrorists and I think they were correct to rely on Chinese authorities for this determination.

  24. Ray Dillinger said,

    June 6, 2014 @ 9:41 pm

    Honestly I don't see a distinction between terrorists and other criminals.

    Murder is murder. If someone murders a thousand strangers for reasons incomprehensible to political moderates, the crime is one thousand counts of murder. "Terrorism" is just a made-up word which obfuscates the crime itself by making the motives the primary consideration in classifying it.

    So we've got sickos now who make David Berkowitz and Ted Bundy look like a little boy having a mischevous day by comparison. The difference is in numbers, not in what they're doing.

  25. Camille C. said,

    June 7, 2014 @ 1:27 pm

    If it was me trying to get past the censors, I would try something like ******** ********* ****** ****
    or !!!!!!!!! !!!!!!!!! !!!!!! !!!! or BBBBBBBB PPPPPPPPP JJJJJJ hhhh
    that's 8 (typing) characters then 9 characteres then 6 characters then 4 characters.

    There's always a way to code something. Chinese is especially flexible.

    English computer nerds substituted numbers for letters (5 for S), they could do the opposite. Capital I instead of 1. q instead of 9 B instead of 8
    IqBq (1989).

  26. Jeff W said,

    June 7, 2014 @ 11:52 pm

    If it was me trying to get past the censors

    There are a lot of issues here. Getting past the censors is actually one of the easiest. In even just chatting with my friends in China via instant messenger, I can refer to the “sensitive event” (kind of like The Event That Cannot Be Named) in the right context and they know exactly what I mean. (If they didn’t, I might add “of 23 + 2 years ago” or something like that. It’s basically impossible for the authorities to block every reference to some year or some amount of time.)

    Victor Mair asks “Do the Chinese authorities really believe that by forbidding and blocking the use of these words they can prevent the citizens of their country from thinking” the events of 1989? I think ideally they would like to erase those events completely à la 1984 but, in a practical sense, they’ll settle for “signposting” as Ray Dillinger says, in the form of inconvenience, as Eidolon says: the inconvenience keeps the topic from propagating as easily as it could—you have to make some minimal effort to stay ahead of the censors; the signposting makes it clear that the topic is off-limits to the limited extent that it does propagate.

    But, really, the Chinese authorities aren’t concerned about what their citizens think about specific topics at all but more at curtailing collective action, according to a 2013 Harvard study, and their actions make a lot more sense if viewed that way. In very broad sense, they don’t really care if people critique the government, its officials, and its policies; they care about people coalescing around topics and those who might espouse them and taking collective action outside of their control. The censorship is aimed at preventing that kind of concerted behavior.

    The censorship and the way it is applied already does backfire—on itself. Recall how three editors of the Chengdu Evening News were fired in 2007 for publishing an obscurely-worded ad paying tribute to the 1989 events—because a young person, responsible for vetting the ads, did not know its significance and let it go through. The friends and I who posted very thinly veiled versions of “sensitive words” on the China Daily forum were asked by one or two of the (presumably) younger members why those words were sensitive at all (to which one of my friends sardonically replied that they should be thankful they did not know). Signposting doesn’t work very well if the sign doesn’t refer to what is forbidden; being inconvenienced for reasons that are themselves unmentionable inevitably leads to asking why you’re being inconvenienced. Still, signposting and inconvenience work well enough to prevent a nucleus of collective action from forming.

    The ridiculously broad way in which the censorship is applied doesn’t prevent China’s citizens from thinking about these events—it compels those who otherwise would not to do so. We were posting on the most apolitical forum of China Daily—it was the English language section (sort of akin to Language Log). We were not trying to post about sensitive events—but we got ensnared in the loony algorithms of the censors and the delayed moderation just the same—and ended up paying attention to those words because we were forced to. I would surmise that Chinese students talking about math equations on some forums somewhere where the numbers 6 and 4 came up probably experienced about the same.

    None of my friends from China, almost all of whom I know from that experience, are “activists”—most of them just use English to various degrees in their professional lives. They know about “sensitive events” but they’re not actively seeking them out to discuss. The ongoing censorship is even more counterproductive as to them because, for the most part, they’re not even trying to see the stuff that the censors don’t want them to see but they’re affected just the same. Of course they would like “freedom of speech” but, on a more everyday level, they just want to chat on a forum or see videos on YouTube or post photos on Flickr or use Google Docs or Dropbox—all of which are blocked to various degrees in China—like everyone else. To the extent that they or any Chinese netizen wants to see things that the authorities don’t want them to see, the censorship regime transforms them all into dissidents.

    I would not be surprised if, within communication theory, there is a subtopic on the paradoxes of censorship: how censoring topics calls attention to the topics themselves; how knowing about something is essential to preventing knowing about it. Of course, if the Chinese authorities are more concerned with preventing collective action, perhaps it doesn’t matter to them how much any one person knows about or pays attention to a given topic—the paradoxes are beside the point. But the censorship itself touches everyone and that carries its own risk of collective action. along the lines of what Victor Mair is saying. That might be the reason why criticism of the censors is one of the topics that is consistently highly censored.

  27. Dan H said,

    June 10, 2014 @ 5:01 am

    Murder is murder. If someone murders a thousand strangers for reasons incomprehensible to political moderates, the crime is one thousand counts of murder. "Terrorism" is just a made-up word which obfuscates the crime itself by making the motives the primary consideration in classifying it.

    Murder is, indeed, murder. But not all murders are terrorist acts, and not all terrorist acts are murders. And I'm rather confused by your assertion that "Terrorism" is "just a made-up word". Surely all legal definitions are made up?

    There are clear, practical reasons for categorizing crimes differently depending on the motivations behind them, particularly when you think beyond sentencing and start looking at questions like prevention and legislation. There is clearly a huge practical difference between a murder committed by a lone individual in self-defense and a murder committed by an individual as a statement in support of the political goals of an organised body which is likely to inspire, fund or plan other murders.

  28. Brendan said,

    June 10, 2014 @ 2:11 pm

    A nice variation on the old “crisis = opportunity” canard about 2:30 into John Oliver’s coverage of the 25th anniversary.

    The part about people being obsessed with “Friends” is completely true, as is the mention of a cafe in Beijing that’s a replica of the cafe from the TV show. (It’s off of Chaoyangmen Wai, or at least it used to be.) My wife is part of a generation that bought English-teaching CDs based on the sitcom. Inoffensive enough, I suppose — it's probably easier than trying to learn English from “The Wire” — but I’ve never been able to see the appeal.

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