China's system of filtering websites by blocking web addresses and keywords of overseas websites has come to be known as the "Great Firewall." (No that is not it's official name - I believe the term was first coined by some frustrated bloggers.) But the GFW, for short, is only a small part of Chinese Internet censorship.
Repeat after me: "The Great Firewall is only one small part of Chinese Internet censorship."
My Op-ed in today's Asian Wall Street Journal, The Chinese Censorship Foreigners Don't See, is an effort to get people to get beyond what Internet scholar Lokman Tsui describes as a Western fixation on "Iron Curtain 2.0" which blinds most Western observers to the realities of the Chinese Internet - and to China more generally, for that matter.
Back in June I wrote a post explaining how we need to get beyond the "wall" metaphor in order to understand Chinese Internet censorship properly. People at this year's Chinese Internet Research Conference suggested "Net Nanny" or even "Hydroelectric Management" are better metaphors for how speech is controlled on the Chinese Internet. But they're just not as sexy-sounding somehow, and lack the same nifty Soviet-era-with-Chinese-flavor overtones.
While I'm at it, another pet peeve. Repeat after me: "The Great Firewall does not equal the Golden Shield Project. The Great Firewall is only a subset of the Golden Shield."
The filtering system we call the Great Firewall is only a very small part of the official Golden Shield Project (pdf), the official goverment name for a a national initiative spanning digital surveillance, better communications and data sharing among law enforcement and security agencies, data mining, general use of ICT to improve Chinese law enforcement and national security - as broadly defined by all the relevant departments, ministries, etc. Censorship is one small part of the digital efforts to protect "national security" from the perspective of those in charge.
But that's for another long rant some other time, I digress. Since my WSJ op-ed was limited to 600 words and could not contain my usual blog links, screenshots, quotations, and so forth, I thought I'd share a few more details here that relate to the examples of censorship I gave in the article.
In the piece I described the results of some tests I conducted this week as part of my research project looking at how Chinese blog-hosting companies censor their users' content.
Over the past week I've been posting a variety of Olympics-related content onto accounts set up on 16 different Chinese blog-hosting platforms to see what content gets censored, by which platforms, and how. A small band of badly-paid masochists and I have been doing these kinds of tests on and off since the beginning of the year - once we've got enough results to draw conclusions, I'll do some follow-on research then write up my findings for an academic paper. So far, I'm finding censorship on blog-hosting services to be common and wide-ranging and there is huge variation on who censors what. Many services over-compensate to stay out of trouble, which combined with inexact automated censorship systems, results in frequent censorship of things you can find on Xinhua.
In the article, I cite two tests, one on Sina and another on the Baidu blogging system. Here's the text I posted, taken from the BBC Chinese website (which is not currently blocked by the Great Firewall at least in some parts of China) about the knife attack against two Americans and their Chinese guide in Beijing over the weekend, and which was almost entirely based on Chinese state media reports:
据中国媒体报道，中国浙江警方经调查后认定，8月9日在北京鼓楼持刀杀害美国游客并跳楼自杀的凶手唐永明因对生活失去信心而迁怒社会，属个人极端行为。警 方说，唐永明没有犯罪前科，出事前也未发现有任何异常。47岁的唐永明经历过两次婚姻和几次恋爱失败，之后变得性格孤僻，脾气暴躁。警方说，唐永明原为杭 州某企业职工，后买断工龄辞职，并两次拒绝政府所安排的就业机会。据中国媒体报道，唐永明溺爱他21岁的儿子，对其寄予厚望，甚至卖掉自己的房产，将房款 20余万全部交给儿子。
You'd think that something like this wouldn't be censored given that the GFW isn't blocking it, and it's not saying anything beyond what you can find around the Chinese web from news websites. But you'd be wrong.
Sina and Baidu were playing their censorship system so conservative that Sina took down my post after a few hours and Baidu wouldn't even let me publish it. Here's the error message at the url where my Sina post had briefly resided (click image for full error message page):
It says "Sorry, the blog address you visited doesn't exist."
And here's what happened on Baidu, when I pressed "publish:"
It says: "Sorry, your article failed to be published. The article contains inappropriate content, please check."
Yahoo! China censored it too (click image to see original error page):
Lots of apologies and links to various help pages, but no hint that the reason why you're landing on this error page might be because the post was censored.
Even more amusing, this Xinhuanet article, about President Hu Jintao's pre-Olympics pep talk telling everybody to "put on a good Olympics" was censored by iFeng (the blog platform of Phoenix TV), and Mop (a property of Oak Pacific, recipient of much U.S. venture capital). Mop gave me this error message:
"Apologies, your article has been put into the blog recycling station, please correct it then publish again."
I find it pretty common for blog-hosting platforms to censor Communist Party propaganda material about Chinese leaders. Do the regulators instructing them assume that all mentions of China's leaders are likely to be negative or sarcastic?
Then, many are. Take the political joke censored by China mobile, which I also mentioned in my article. Here's blogger "deerfang"'s description of what happened:
Last night, my friend were telling me some political jokes that were circulating through cell text messaging. The joke involves current Chinese president and Mao. He showed me story on his phone and tried to forward it to my phone. Strange thing happened. My phone received the message but in blank saying “Missing Text”. We realize these kind of text messages might be censored now in China because of certain keywords. The one my firend received were back in May. We tried to send the joke a few more times and also tried someone else’ phone, but never succeeded.
Here is the original joke (third paragraph down), which, in addition to doing the rounds on mobile SMS has also done the rounds on the web - censorship is patchy enough that if you're taken down in one place you can usually find a home for the material somewhere else - though it may be in a corner of the web where fewer people surf. The joke doesn't translate very well, but the gist of it is that President Hu Jintao, at his wits' end about what to do with all the crises happening around the nation, goes to see Mao - lying preserved under glass in his mausoleum - and asks for advice. Mao offers to trade places with Hu and to go out and kick some foreign behind, frighten all the foreigners and put them in their place by making them take a ridiculous series of Chinese tests. Or something like that. It's (slightly) better in Chinese...
The point is, nothing revolutionary or particularly brilliant in there. I've heard much crazier and nastier political jokes - like the one about Li Peng switching private parts with Deng Xiaoping at Deng's wake, or the one about Deng and Thatcher doing the nasty.
The joke was censored on China Mobile most likely because it mentions Hu Jintao, which they have probably entered as a keyword for blocking.
That implies an assumption by China Mobile that any Chinese person who mentions their president on mobile SMS is more likely than not to have bad things to say...