The reality of censorship in the PRC

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When we published the ABC Chinese-English Dictionary from Hawaii in 1996, the original American edition had this definition for Lin Biao:  "veteran Communist military leader; Mao Zedong's designated successor until his mysterious death".

Imagine our surprise when we discovered in the licensed edition of the dictionary from Shanghai the following definition:  "veteran Communist military leader; ringleader of counterrevolutionary group (during Cultural Revolution)".

Without even telling us, the Shanghai publisher had made many other changes of this nature.  We were deeply disappointed, but this is what happens when you try to collaborate on such projects in China.  What is particularly sad is that the degree of censorship is only intensifying with every passing day, to the point that it has become intolerable for many researchers, scholars, and journalists.

I have often seen dictionaries (and other works) published / printed in the Mainland with portions / items / words / entries blacked / whited out or otherwise obviously altered (different type, taped over, etc.).  Sometimes I have been told that I must change things before my works are published in China.  Often, if it is a consequential matter, I just won't publish there.

Some authors submit to the demands of the Chinese censors, and then you end up with bowdlerized versions of their works.  For example, the mainland Chinese edition of Ezra Vogel's Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China is substantially different from the original English version published by Harvard University Press.

"Author bows to Chinese censorship of his Deng Xiaoping biography:  Ezra F Vogel says it was 'better to have 90% of the book available there than zero'", Liz Bury, The Guardian (10/22/13).

That was in 2013, but, as I noted above, censorship on the mainland is becoming increasingly draconian, such that today we read this report:

"The absurd face of China’s censorship: Bookstore tears out Taiwan page from Webster’s", Simon Denyer

I bought a dictionary two days ago in Shanghai Foreign Language Bookstore. I’ve noticed that the plastic wrapping on all the copies had been removed and the shop assistant told me, ‘There are some problem, and we removed the wrapping to deal with them.’ I bought the books and carefully examined it, only to find that two pages have been torn out. I wonder what could be the words that irritate the authorities.

2014 meeting of the European Association for Chinese Studies in Portugal when the head of the Confucius Institutes, Xu Lin, tore out pages of the conference programs in a rage because they mentioned Taiwan, a sponsor of the meeting.

"Censorship at China Studies Meeting", Elizabeth Redden, Inside Higher Ed (8/6/14).

"Taiwanese literary landmark comes to China's Venice

A sprawling brick-and-mortar bookstore may seem like a risky investment in one of the world's most tightly censored nations. And yet in November 2015, the hugely popular Taiwanese bookstore chain Eslite opened its first flagship store in mainland China.

What happens with these fancy Taiwan and Hong Kong bookstores on the mainland is that the books are largely pablum, while the excitement comes from the decor, the cafes, the controlled lectures, etc., in other words, everything but books with truly thought-provoking contents.

[h.t. Arif Dirlik]


  1. David Moser said,

    October 13, 2016 @ 8:51 pm

    This is so disgusting. And I would bet money that the censorship was not due to some Party official ordering that the definitions be sanitized. My guess is that some office editors over-cautiously took it upon themselves to scrub the text clean, in order to save their skins later on should there be a problem. 90% of the censorship in China today is self censorship, lower level functionaries second-guessing the level of political correctness required and erring on the side of caution. The Party overall avoids getting its hands dirty with direct censorship, but instead merely maintains a sense of fear.

  2. Alex said,

    October 13, 2016 @ 11:09 pm

    Hopefully this blog doesn't get blocked anytime soon!

  3. Bathrobe said,

    October 14, 2016 @ 12:40 am

    The problem is not simply the censorship of the government or the need to balance profit against principle; it is the fact that the rabid anal retentiveness of the Chinese psyche is now strutting with increasing confidence on the world stage, as summed up in the online reaction by Weibo social media user, Zhaozhong, to Lush's support of Tibetan human rights: “Tibet separatism supporter, please get out of the Chinese market.”

  4. Alex said,

    October 14, 2016 @ 7:58 am

    I take offense to the general use of the word Chinese in regards to psyche. You are talking about the mainland/da lu. Dont lump Taiwan and all Chinese into it. Hong Kong is technically mainland but its Chinese people generally dont strut. Its like interchanging Germans for Nazi. You can use words like some or growing. I know many local people here in Shenzhen who are embarrased about the behavior of their fellow citizens on the world stage and also hate the censorship and wish they didnt have to use VPNs.

  5. Bathrobe said,

    October 14, 2016 @ 9:03 am

    @ Alex

    Perhaps you are right. It is not all Chinese who have this mindset, although I note it was Hong Kongers who first started landing on the Senkaku / Diaoyu islands. The rabid nationalists / irredentists seem to have appeared before the current leadership came to power, but the current leadership seems to have turned their mentality into the leading edge of Chinese policy.

  6. JerryK said,

    October 14, 2016 @ 10:27 am

    Years ago a Taiwanese colleague asked to read my English language copy of "The Soong Dynasty" because she noticed it was much thicker than her Chinese language copy. Later she said she hadn't noticed any difference in the content. She thought the difference is thickness was because Chinese is more densely expressive. Does that sound correct to those with experience with this?

  7. unekdoud said,

    October 14, 2016 @ 1:00 pm

    @JerryK: Clearly it's because Chinese is printed at a much smaller font size.

    Less snarkily: I think this is an apples-to-oranges comparison that can't be done by looking at book thicknesses, if at all (even though it's been tried in several fancy ways on and off Language Log). Translation lengths are just subject to so many uncontrollable factors.

  8. julie lee said,

    October 14, 2016 @ 2:41 pm

    My impression is that Chinese is much shorter on the page.

    Here is a comparison of the length of English and Chinese on the page:

    Classical Chinese:

    子曰:“學而時習之,不亦樂乎? 有朋自遠方來,不亦悅乎?" (21 syllables)

    Translated into Modern Mandarin:

    孔子說: “學樂而時常復習,不也是樂趣嗎? 有朋友從遠方來,你不也很開心嗎? (29 syll.)

    Translated into Modern English:

    Confucius said: ”Learn something and review it sometimes, aren't you glad? A friend comes from afar, aren't you pleased?“ (25 syllables) or

    Confucius said: "Isn't it a pleasure when you learn something and review it occasionally? Isn't it a joy when a friend comes from afar?"(34 syll.)

  9. julie lee said,

    October 14, 2016 @ 2:46 pm


    The first sentence in Modern Mandarin should be:

  10. Alex said,

    October 15, 2016 @ 12:28 am


    My family/kids and I live what you are sensing. Its very real for us so please don't feel I am not understanding and fearful. My son born in HK goes to the public school here in Shenzhen . We chose this so he can learn Chinese and to experience what other kids experience here. There were several incidents that happened to him by both teacher and other students during the height of the "nine dashed lines" conflict. Needless to say these issues were caused by him having an American father. The school handled these issues in what I consider in a very profession manner.

    I see some parallels with the history of pre Germany and the time leading up to Nazi Germany discussed in the first of several books about the Third Reich by Richard J Evans," The coming of the Third Reich." (on the side it was interesting to see how their national language was formed given all the different regional dialects) Needless to say as the economy gets worse here you can feel the tension mounting. This is true whenever there is a large disenfranchised class. The powers to be here certainly know how to use the Jedi mind trick to convince people who is the enemy (wag the dog) I do hope that things get better.

    On the side is

    I hope when my sons come to the US to go to school they don't encounter this. I did not encounter this where I grew up in Cherry Hill, NJ in the mid 70's through 80's .

    I am in a large wechat group. US China connections with many expats and locals. People throw around the words "Americans" and "Chinese" too loosely. Westerners think I am pro china, Locals think I am pro US. Mainly I call a spade a spade so I get into trouble with both groups! As for myself now here in China I try to make things better. I go to many kids maker groups and speak with educators in my free time. Like Jabba the hut there are many that are not susceptible to government Jedi mind tricks!

  11. Bathrobe said,

    October 15, 2016 @ 9:24 am

    I certainly didn't take your comment in a negative sense.

    In fact, my comment did a disservice to the thread by going off on a tangent from Professor Mair's post, which was strictly about the deleterious effect of government censorship rather than the phenomenon of rabid nationalism.

  12. Alex said,

    October 15, 2016 @ 11:22 am

    I also went off point. Sorry

  13. Eidolon said,

    October 17, 2016 @ 3:31 pm

    Rabid nationalism can be in alliance with or against government censorship. In fact the Chinese government has, at times, censored content specifically to guard against rabid nationalism, while at other times it has encouraged rabid nationalism through either not censoring content, or censoring the other side. In both cases this is more targeted towards the less educated & technological savvy, since more sophisticated internet users can easily get around it. In both cases the main goal is the maintenance of political stability & correctness for the PRC government, which is why censorship has also been used against rabid nationalists, since rabid nationalism is a fundamentally destabilizing force due to its emphasis on aggression.

    On the topic of rabid nationalism, I believe Chinese nationalism will continue to grow and that its peak has not yet been reached. Many forces are at play that still help to hold it back – a growing economy, a stable central government, and internal ethnic and linguistic diversity within the PRC necessitating a liberal form of political correctness. When these forces weaken, as they necessarily must, nationalism will strengthen. The only question is whether China will grow too old, by the time nationalism hits its peak, to act on it. Old men may start wars, but they need young men to fight them.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    October 17, 2016 @ 10:04 pm


    On "rabid nationalism".

    "Many forces are at play that still help to hold it back – a growing economy, a stable central government, and internal ethnic and linguistic diversity within the PRC necessitating a liberal form of political correctness. When these forces weaken, as they necessarily must, nationalism will strengthen."

    I'm curious why you say "as they necessarily must". Are you certain that the Chinese economy is going to collapse? If so, why are you so sure about that?

  15. Alex said,

    October 18, 2016 @ 2:48 am

    On collapse this area is actually the area I have been working in for over 2 decades. Global macro .

    I think the chances are high that a serious event will happen within 2 years. I can give many stats and reasons but we can use daily life. I have never tried to establish credit here. However have received easily 10 calls a day asking if I want to take out a loan from various small and large banks. The rules for down payment are easily circumvented much like during the US real estate bubble then crash. People can easily borrow the down payment from many financial intuitions and they do. We had a driver for the business that we had to let go because his credit card companies came after him to serve him notice at our company. HIs salary didn't justify being able to take out over 600,000 rmb over 7 cards. Lets just say when I asked someone in the courts who handle these issues they said the courts for this are packed daily. Many are no shows they return to their hometown. I can go on and on with daily observations.

    On the macro front real estate is tremendously over valued compared to average salaries. A substantial part of gdp is real estate related.
    On the foreign reserves over 3 trillion sounds like a lot but one must remember a huge % is FDI owed to multinationals and then one divides by 1.4 billion. Multinationals are looking for ways to repatriate. Per capital perhaps Norway has the largest reserves. All the advantages that China had to create prosperity is dwindling. Inexpensive labor force, large market (Multinationals have painfully discovered totally unfair marketplace.) Many are moving to Vietnam, India, Thailand etc. It isn't just because of cheaper labor and those countries becoming more stable. Its about a relatively better playing field. Why should corporate Japan invest in China over Thailand etc. As seen by who the top mobile phone sellers here in China its now local. The easy money has been made. You can tell the government is worried about this issue as they are making it easier and easier to bring in foreign investment and increasing the amounts foreign nations can hold bonds and other asset class wise. They will try to allow even more foreign participation into the stock market. But the effect is like the nightclub when you bar people and have lines people want to come in. When you start giving coupons to people there is a sense of desperation.

    Finally but most importantly the RMB though now in SDR is still not easily convertible and cant be printed and distributed like the USD. Real Estate inflation is making it very hard for small business to operate as they can no longer pass on the increases. Real Estate/banks have been the one that has boosted the economy in the same way people used their houses as ATM's during the US boom.

    Example would be like this: a person has a property, the person buying borrows from the lax bank and pays the owner (who then buys a car and another 2 places) then the next buyer borrows from the bank to pay the new owner now seller. The banks will end up holding the bag when the final buyer young adult walks away from the mortgage. In the same way the US banks collapsed in 2008 and needed bailing out Chinese banks will too. And while they can print RMB they cant print other foreign currencies. All those kids going to school abroad and those who bought properties abroad will need to pay real estate tax tuition etc . Already several students studying abroad are having a more difficult times as the government is beginning to limit the amounts that can be exchanged daily. Also the RMB has declined by about 10 plus % so its costing more RMB wise.

    The biggest issue though is corruption at every level of the government and the mentality of the people has changed. Its like the US, there was the Leave it to Beaver, Little House on the Prairie, Even Cosby and Family Ties values but now My sweet 16, or other shows that glamorizes stardom and quick money. The young adults and kids here are not the same as their parents. And with the good times rolling now for 30 years no one ever thinks there can be a downfall.

    This is a reason why in my other post I worry about nationalism and my kids here. Its also the reason why the government needs to look toward the future and think of ways to raise "GDP" for lack of better word, longer term aka pinyin :-)

  16. Bruce Humes said,

    October 18, 2016 @ 7:19 pm

    "Do the CCP authorities believe that, by tearing out pages of a dictionary, they can obliterate Taiwan from humanity's conscience and the face of the earth?"

    Like much of what is written about censorship as practiced in the PRC, this statement misinterprets its goals and its relative success. The authorities are not trying to "obliterate Taiwan." They are merely trying to control and shape the image that their own citizens have of Taiwan.

    The combination of censorship, propaganda and the largely monolingual nature of Chinese society means that the vast majority of citizens hold views about Taiwan that are fairly close to how it is described in mainstream China-based media.

    During my 20-plus years on the mainland, I was often surprised to find that many well-educated 20-somethings who are not Party members and have generally negative opinions about the Party, its leadership and Chinese media, which they find very biased, will nonetheless voice opinions about China's role on the world stage that are much closer to what one reads in The People's Daily than anything one would see written in the foreign press.

    To summarize: It is one thing to find China's censorship practices offensive. It is quite another to imply that, at least on the home front, they are ineffective.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    October 18, 2016 @ 8:16 pm

    @Bruce Humes

    But this happened in Europe (Portugal), not in China.

  18. Alex said,

    October 18, 2016 @ 9:14 pm

    On a related note the big tv ad in Times Square a few years back. Really wondering who they consulted. I suppose i can google it. Who was the ad designed for? Now I think it was designed to show mainland citizens to say see we have ad in Times Square. Id imagine any Westerner would easily say it had the opposite effect of putting peoples minds at ease.

    The hanban incident I think is in the wiki entry for Hanban

  19. Bruce Humes said,

    October 18, 2016 @ 9:27 pm

    @V Mair

    The comment I quoted was clearly a reference to the report by the Washington Post that a page with a reference to Taiwan was torn out of a dictionary sold in Shanghai.

  20. Eidolon said,

    October 19, 2016 @ 3:32 pm

    "I'm curious why you say "as they necessarily must". Are you certain that the Chinese economy is going to collapse? If so, why are you so sure about that?"

    I guess I'm on the side of economists like Michael Pettis and maybe George Soros on this issue. ALL developing countries slow during the transition to developed, but in China's case, a protracted down turn is due as a result of the debt to GDP ratio that they are increasingly taking on in order to hold up growth. There is also a real estate crisis developing – anecdotally, housing prices in the major cities in China are ridiculous, and almost certainly the consequence of investor speculation. Given that it is PRC law that citizens cannot permanently own property, this is a ticking time bomb. Housing prices must crash and the banks have to liquidate their bad loans eventually. The result will be a correction period that can be very politically chaotic due to mass lay offs, bankruptcies, and plunging property prices.

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