What are the reasons for Chinese censorship?
November 21, 2007 12:09 PM   Subscribe

I’m trying to help my students understand the reasons behind censorship in China. They ask very simple and yet very profound questions: Why keep information and knowledge from your people? In the long run, how can a free-thinking populace be anything but good?

I tell them that those in control of government wish to perpetuate that control. If the people hear or say too many “bad” things about that government, it might be in danger of being replaced. And perhaps, by introducing too many outside philosophies, you might also be in danger of altering your culture; the fear of being overly “Westernized” is a legitimate one. But having been born in the West and nourished on Western thought and media, I am unable to speak logically from a Chinese perspective. How do I explain to American high school students, in a way that makes sense, that some governments see the introduction of unfettered speech and religious practice as detrimental?
posted by jackypaper to Law & Government (36 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
How about the concept of authoritarianism?
posted by k8t at 12:19 PM on November 21, 2007

I would suggest simplifying this enormously. As in, give half the class access to a candy jar with a limited amount of candy, and tell them not to tell the other half of the class about its existence. Then watch the class try to keep the secret, and watch what happens when the secret is revealed.

The analogy you would be making is that a struggle over scarcity of resources = a struggle for power.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:21 PM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

The history of China is a history of peasant uprisings. In the context of this history, the Communist Party is reasonably frightened of another uprising that will bring their dynasty to an end.

You would do well to read about Chinese history; particularly a history of the tumultuous 19th century in China.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:22 PM on November 21, 2007

As for the reasons for the Chinese government's censorship, your explanation sounds pretty good.

If you want to go further and explore the merits of democracy vs authoritarianism, maybe consider the following points...

1) Why allow anyone but elites--people who are trained to make such decisions--to make decisions about government policies? Why allow uneducated people to participate?
2) Democracy causes instability, which is detrimental to the orderly functioning and economic growth of society.
3) Singapore works pretty well under a system of authoritarian (although nominally democratic) capitalism.

Of course, these are just Devil's Advocate positions against democracy, but it's food for thought for teens who've grown up assuming that Democracy is the only legitimate political system.
posted by mpls2 at 12:24 PM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

There's nothing particularly Chinese about censorship, and I suspect that every government has tried to control the information its citizens receive. Some are just more subtle about it than others.

In the long run, how can a free-thinking populace be anything but good?

Those in power might argue that the populace doesn't really understand its own best interests. But, yeah, authoritarianism. It doesn't matter what's best for the country, what matters is what's best for those running the show. The Communist Party is running the show in China, and they don't want to be challenged. Other communist countries have been similarly censorious.
posted by adamrice at 12:28 PM on November 21, 2007

Stanley Fish in his book and this interview introduces the thin end of the wedge.
posted by washburn at 12:31 PM on November 21, 2007

Just a side note: I come from a country where something as apparently innocent as the "The Sound of Music" was forbidden because a catholic nun left the convent and married a widow. So you might want to keep in mind that sometimes religious practice is a fundamental basis for censorship. Not that this applies to China, obviously, but I imagine you might want to speak to them about the function of censorship in more general terms.

Can't you use the parallel of the McCarthy era in the USA? I have no idea if American teenagers study that period or not, but if they do and if they understand that once the USA thought communists were a threat to the American way of life and culture, I'm sure they can understand the inverse view. And might be a good way of not let them think censorship only happens in far away places - the "others" - and that freedom is something you can't take for granted.
posted by lucia__is__dada at 12:33 PM on November 21, 2007

I watched an amazing episode of Frontline on PBS earlier this year, about the guy who stood in front of the tanks in Tiananman Square in 1989. There's a mind-blowing scene where the reporter shows a picture of the scene to some Beijing University students, and simply asks them what it means to them. None of them have any idea what the image is. They whisper to each other. They're perplexed.

If you can get a copy of this to show your class, it may create more questions than it answers, but there are a lot of interviews with Chinese in it, so there's more local perspective. It also covers related topics like their internet censorship system, etc.

More here.
posted by autojack at 12:35 PM on November 21, 2007 [3 favorites]

I think there are a couple of ways you could approach this.

One is historical. You could point out the past episodes of crackdowns on speech, behavior and belief in the United States, such as: The Alien and Sedition Acts; the Espionage Act of 1917 the Sedition Act of 1918 and the Palmer Raids (used to crack down on opponents of WWI and communist radicals, among other things - they deported Emma Goldman and jailed Eugene Debbs); McCarthyism and the Red Scare; The Civil Rights movement, etc...

Another way to discuss this is to compare to more modern examples. I think an excellent comparison can be made to the current battle within the Republican and Democratic parties to to define that party's future. This is especially true for the Republican party - where you have the liberterians vs. the religious conservatives vs. the neo-cons. Each side wants to exclude the other, and views any dissent and borderline treasonous (example: at one of the Republican debates, when Ron Paul pointed out that we were attacked on 9/11 partly because of our presence in the Middle East, Guiliani basically called him delusional and demanded an apology). I think another example might be found in current American religious circles, again especially among evangelicals. There is a rising power struggle between the old-line, heavily political pastors and the new preachers that tend to be more apolitical. It would also be worth covering the whole flap over Keith Ellison and his swearing-in using a Koran.
posted by thewittyname at 12:35 PM on November 21, 2007

how can a free-thinking populace be anything but good?

Define "good". Also, good for whom? If your students are challenging you, challenge them back.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 12:44 PM on November 21, 2007

Perhaps you could teach them about the concept of face , which perhaps predisposes Chinese culture to accepting information and knowledge control. Two other key topics are direct versus indirect communication and high-context versus low-context societies. (sorry I can't find a link for the former that is not extremely biased towards the American view that indirect communication is for passive aggressive jerks)

A source that provides comparisons between many cultures is Hofstede's framework for assessing culture. This covers the difference between hierarchical cultures and relatively flat cultures, respect for authority and power distance, which all can paint a broader description of the average differences among cultures. Analytical studies like Hofstede's are, of course, seen to be generally true, and not always true: In China there are several examples of anti-censorship protesting, and I believe that there is a very active blogging community that has been known to very indirectly criticize the Communist party.

Finally, for an anecdote, a friend of mine from Beijing with fairly nationalist tendencies said something along the lines of: In China there are so many people with so many ideas. There are millions of uneducated people whose perspective on governmental and economic ideas is widely seen as being useless to anything productive. If you don't control the public forum it will become a sea of anarchy.
posted by dobie at 12:47 PM on November 21, 2007

plain and simple: a free-thinking populace would overthrow the commies, and they can't have that. mao tse-tung championed the proletariat against the running-dog, capitalist-road insects parasitizing the blood and sweat of the noble workers, and if you take a look at china now, those insects have gotten out and built nests all over the place. control of the government is the only thing the commies have left, and censorship is one of their shackles.
posted by bruce at 12:52 PM on November 21, 2007

A concept that high schoolers can possibly relate to is how their parents censor information from them. Initially, the idea might be "for their own good," but very easily, those good intentions can turn into a powerplay.

For example, hyper-religious parents may attempt to shield their children from media that contradicts doctrine. What happens here is that the parents have an idea of what's "good for their child" but fears said offspring making poor choices if allowed to make up their own mind given free access to information. This happens through a unique (but not uncommon) mix of need for control and lack of trust, and has absolutely nothing to do with what's actually yields most good and is sustainable.
posted by reebear at 12:55 PM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

*what, not what's.

You can also see this reflected in the Chinese culture: parents tend to be noticeably more protective and overbearing than western parents, and oftentimes will attempt to override their adult children's decisions (marriage, work, etc.)
posted by reebear at 12:58 PM on November 21, 2007

Also, it might be useful to discuss the concept of moral relativism.
posted by dobie at 1:01 PM on November 21, 2007

This awesome video from 1946 is a very good primer on the basic contributing factors to despotic behaviour. It's clear and straightforward in a way a lot of educational films haven't been in a long time. You can download it here.

An interesting exercise might be for you to compare and contrast this video with a few minutes of contemporary news footage from across the media (not just Fox), and ask your students to think about the different contexts and agendas at work.
posted by Happy Dave at 1:04 PM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

I watched an amazing episode of Frontline on PBS earlier this year, about the guy who stood in front of the tanks in Tiananman Square in 1989... If you can get a copy of this to show your class, it may create more questions than it answers, but there are a lot of interviews with Chinese in it, so there's more local perspective. It also covers related topics like their internet censorship system, etc.

It's available on line here. Of course, it's in the smallish video formats we were using at the time (WM and RealPlayer.)

Here is a higher-quality version in Quicktime. the scene with the students apparently not recognizing The Tankman is in Chapter 6. Keep in mind that there are two possible scenarios in this scene:

-The kids really don't recognize the image

-There are government monitors just off screen (that is not speculation). These are university students and therefore the children of important people. Even if they recognized the photo, they would have felt compelled to feign ignorance.

Either way, it's a shocking display of how Chinese censorship affects people.
posted by Mayor Curley at 1:31 PM on November 21, 2007

i am sure that the aclu or the first amendment center have teaching materials on freedom of the press...

why don't you assign your class to have a debate on the subject of state-controlled media? they'll figure out the reasons themselves.
posted by thinkingwoman at 1:32 PM on November 21, 2007

Here is a concrete example of communist corruption, the ensuing farmers' protest, and police crackdown. I think your students will understand why the government tries to keep this out of the papers.

Farmers' Rising Anger Erupts in China Village
Land Seizures, Stagnation Fuel Unrest

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 7, 2004; Page A01

SHIJIAHE, China -- Hundreds of police stormed this village in central China before dawn last Saturday and fired rubber bullets into large crowds of unarmed farmers who had threatened a protest in the provincial capital, injuring dozens in one of the most violent clashes known to have taken place in the Chinese countryside in recent years.
Here in Shijiahe, a relatively prosperous hamlet of corn fields and vegetable farms about 400 miles southwest of Beijing, villagers are protesting another problem that has emerged as an explosive issue in rural China: the seizure of farmland by local officials to build roads, dams, factories or real estate projects, often for personal profit.

In part because the state still owns all land in China and has granted peasants only long-term leases to their plots, local officials managed to take control illegally of at least 300,000 acres from 1.5 million farmers between 1999 and 2002, according to conservative estimates by the Land and Natural Resources Ministry. And official police statistics show a rising wave of protests over such land transfers.

Residents said hundreds of villagers staged two protests in Zhengzhou, a few miles away, in recent weeks against plans by the village's party chief to expropriate 80 acres of land, which would reduce each family's plot by about a third. The party chief had seized nearly 250 acres from the village's 6,000 residents since 1996, they said, selling some of it for a huge profit.

City authorities sent a team to investigate in mid-July after the second protest, when 400 villagers disrupted traffic in downtown Zhengzhou. But the investigators seemed uninterested in the protesters' grievances, and the villagers threatened on July 30 to protest again the next day.

posted by sebastienbailard at 2:27 PM on November 21, 2007

I agree with reebear. Closest analogy would be parents protecting their children. Not even necessary to have ridiculous overbearing parents, just anyone who thinks it is better to keep children away from violence, pornography, sex, smoking etc. If you, as a guardian and authority see that the harms triumph the benefits, then why wouldn't you try to block the harmful influence. The idea that nobody should be able to tell adult what to do and what not, is just an idea that we have just assumed without much thinking. Westerner usually takes great offense when someone tries to tell him what to do, as subjugating would mean face loss for us, unless the dominating person pays your wage or you are in military, or you are child: If the boss at work says that you're not allowed to surf internet without filters, western people agree with it -- their time, they pay us for it, goes the rationalization. If government says that, we feel insulted -- treated as children, because that's the closest analogy we can find. Just expand the sphere of people who you can take orders from and still maintain your self-value and it doesn't seem much problem anymore. Churchgoing American can easily accept that some pastor tells them what not to read or listen, because they have expanded their circle of accepted authorities to include them. Or their doctors, or their lawyers, because of their expertise. But for some reason not accept expert authority from government in much anything. That is weird and born from centuries of cultural push against various governments.
posted by Free word order! at 2:57 PM on November 21, 2007

My interpretation of the motives of the Chinese government and the control of information is that the government has definite goals to be achieved. To the government it is a foregone conclusion that China will be the dominant superpower, and nothing is going to get in the way.
A free exchange of information would introduce debate for the direction of the nation and the choices being made, slowing the progress toward their goals. If knowledge of any repercussions beyond progress and growth were shown, the Three-Gorges Dam might not have been built and Beijing might not be reconstituted for the Olympics and beyond.
posted by arruns at 3:33 PM on November 21, 2007

the Chinese have different values than we do. that ideas should be free and speech should be protected are very Western in nature and somewhat alien to East Asian cultures.

what the Chinese do value, however, is becoming rich or at least the opportunity to become rich. the Chinese economy is booming and has given ample opportunities to a young generation that is more interested in seeking their fortunes than protesting their government. keep in mind that up until the 1970's, China has historically been unable to feed itself, leading to regular famine and the deaths of tens of millions every century from hunger. now young people from even modest homes have access to luxuries that their parents could never have dreamed of.

that's why Louis Vuitton is a much more important organization in China than is Amnesty International.
posted by Mr_Crazyhorse at 3:41 PM on November 21, 2007

I've deleted a number of attempts at a longer answer that floundered because they really need to be essay-length to hold up. They would also probably not be much use in answering simple questions from young people, other than to perhaps hint that history isn't really that simple.
I would boil it down to this: The current regime believes that its sustained control and national stability are paramount.
It has enough dirty linen and skeleton-stocked cupboards that there is an acute awareness that its legitimacy would be severely threatened by wider awareness of the full measure of its crimes and incompetencies.
But more important even than that is the avoidance of any coherent alternative being offered. Chinese people may not have easy access to full and frank histories and fearless exposes that name names (remember we can have and either don't produce them or don't pay attention to them), but there's more than enough people who have a fairly clear idea that things are pretty badly wrong in many respects. Close censorship and other controls largely seek to stop any significant force emerging outside of the official framework that would break the party's monopoly on power. They fear once that happens the dam will burst on a Three Gorges scale and wash it all east to the sea.
In its best spin, this allows the maintenance of essential stability and a smooth transition to modernity; viewed cynically it allows the crony klepto-nomenklatura to carry on getting away with it.
On preview: I would advise taking the various cultural or "values" explanations offered above with a very large pinch of salt. There are a number of factors that could be argued as having influence, but any attempt to simplify them to the level you require will be at best silly and most likely wrong.
posted by Abiezer at 3:58 PM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

Heh, kind of forgot to add the salient point of why censorship: if public speech is tightly controlled, it becomes enormously difficult to form any cohesive overtly political force extending beyond a fairly close-knit community at a factory or in a village where people know each other; and nigh on impossible at national or even provincial scale.
posted by Abiezer at 4:05 PM on November 21, 2007

American high school students should be familiar with the Federalist Papers, and how our own government is structured to keep the people from wielding excessive power. Maybe you could have them read one of Chomsky's essays where he trots out that old sawhorse quote of Madison about the function of government being to protect the minority of the opulent? (That is not exactly in the Federalist, by the way.)

Theory of power structure and dominance manipulation is probably a little advanced, but high schoolers ought to be able to grok Chomsky.
posted by bukvich at 4:42 PM on November 21, 2007

One more contributing factor is the notion, held for centuries, that if it's not Chinese, it's crrrap! Nowadays, as in many days past, the ruling class has looked upon itself and proclaimed, 'We are China'. And once you've bought into that, there's really no reason to let anyone else talk to your populace.

The fact that this props up their own continuing importance and access to a higher standard of living—well, let's just say they don't mind that too much.
posted by eritain at 6:24 PM on November 21, 2007

The last time China allowed Western ideas free reign in the country they got a Christian revolutionary who precipitated the Taiping Rebellion - 30 million dead and the elimination of China as a world power for generations. Get your students to look that one up.
posted by meehawl at 7:01 PM on November 21, 2007

meehawl writes "The last time China allowed Western ideas free reign in the country they got a Christian revolutionary who precipitated the Taiping Rebellion - 30 million dead and the elimination of China as a world power for generations. Get your students to look that one up."

And that was only one of four or five major rebellions/revolts in China in the 19th century. Seriously: with a little historical context it's easy to understand why the Communist Party sees itself as the levee holding back the tide of chaos. It explains their repression of political organization (any unsanctioned organization, in fact) and what seems to many in the West as the insanely disproportional response to the "threat" of Falun Gong. Not to justify, but it helps to put their fears in context.
posted by mr_roboto at 7:11 PM on November 21, 2007

-The kids really don't recognize the image

-There are government monitors... Even if they recognized the photo, they would have felt compelled to feign ignorance.

I'm not sure we need to be that complicated. How many American university students would necessarily recognize the image? They'd have been born around the time it was on the news... It certainly depends on the students and their investment in history and politics, but I'd bet there are plenty of Americans in the 17-21 range who would have no idea what the image meant either...

As for the original question, political science has pretty much always claimed that human beings tend toward mob rule or dictators; we can set up fair systems for periods of time, but power struggles end up causing them to degenerate either to a point where we allow simple "majority rule" (no civil liberties, just widely held sentiments) or one charismatic leader manages to pull forward to make the tough decisions for us. When we're scared or when there isn't enough for everyone or when our enemies defeat us, the whole "free society" thing doesn't seem as important as just surviving, and it doesn't exactly streamline the process. When the basics are covered, we can get excited about diversity, but when the question is, how do we feed a billion people, it's not that surprising a top-down approach seems appealing, at least to those closer to the top.
posted by mdn at 7:12 PM on November 21, 2007

And that was only one of four or five major rebellions/revolts in China in the 19th century

You could look at Taiping as kicking off basically a century-long civil war in China, with eruptions ever few years punctuated by periods of ceasefire. Kind of a crappy end to the Qing dynasty. People argue a lot about how many died, and when they died, but Wikipedia references The Great Chinese Revolution 1800-1985 to say that in 1850 China's population was 410 million, but by 1873 the population had plummeted to 350 million. Things didn't really improve for a long time after that, but the Chinese state (or its feuding successor statelets) lost the ability to gather reasonably accurate census data as the disintegration and occupation of the country proceeded.
posted by meehawl at 7:26 PM on November 21, 2007

There really is little attempt to block Western ideas in an abstract sense. You can run down to any bookshop here and by a wide range of fairly competent and uncut versions of Western political philosophers, and these days a shedload of business guru and lifestyle type books. I believe some classic of US civics like the Gettysburg address is included in high school primers.
You'd have a bit more trouble buying informed Western critiques of China specifically, but that's about all. They block the BBC mostly because it has a Chinese service reporting about Chinese things and Chinese thoughts; you can read the same news in your English is good enough on any number of other sites.
Much of the other stuff like quotas on foreign films comes from a more complicated place that includes a certain moralism but also commercial motives. There are still some discourse on the corrupting nature of certain things associated with the West but really when you look at the wall-to-wall NBA, MTV-alikes and all that, it becomes pretty hard to maintain that there's much resistance to Western culture beyond a few neo-Confucians whinging on their blogs. There is a concern to create and promote native things (maybe another feature length cartoon of Monkey!) but again, you can't hark back to the Spiritual Pollution days any more.
I don't want to over-play that, but I remain convinced the main thrust of censorship is to stop Chinese people talking to other Chinese people. They're fairly confident they can handle what's coming from abroad (I think they're likely right, nationalism has an enduring appeal and is the easiest card to play); they're far more worried about Chinese people talking to other Chinese people.
posted by Abiezer at 7:52 PM on November 21, 2007

Gah, that was a bit of a garbled mess. But to give a recent example that touches on a pretty touchy topic, I spotted a Chinese version of Melvyn Goldstein's "Decline of the Lamaist State" last time I was down the bookstore. That's the most thorough history of the period of Tibetan independence during the Nationalist era. A slightly better than cursory flick though didn't reveal any major cuts to my recall, though I wouldn't be surprised to hear some were made. You can buy Foucault, any of the Enlightenment crowd, you can buy political autobiographies of recent US presidents. You can watch the news channel and see reasonable reporting of popular uprisings for democracy in other countries. You can't find anything balanced about Taiwan.
posted by Abiezer at 8:01 PM on November 21, 2007

China is conservative in the pure sense, i.e. resistant to change. The western world is more liberal, i.e. more accepting of change. From a liberal perspective, change = growth and innovation. From a conservative perspective, change = risk of losing everything that your culture has built and developed over the last several thousand years.

So, imagine that you are in charge of preserving a huge, ancient society as it emerges into the modern world. As communications expand, your citizens will see how the rest of the world lives. They might be very enticed by those images. They may or may not want to radically change their lifestyles and abandon their traditions in order to achieve this 'western' life style. As their ruler, do you let your citizens see these all these images and chose their own fate, or do you pick images for them, and hope you can steer them in the best direction? What are the risks associated with each approach? Discuss.
posted by lisaici at 10:07 PM on November 21, 2007

I think part of the *Chinese* aspect of your question revolves more around the traditional culture of Chinese people: that there are certain people, especially elders, who know better than you, and that you should listen and obey your elders. One of the commenters above made a great comparison with the parent-child example.

As for the political reasons behind the cersorship...I hope this doesn't sound like a disguised political view: you could tie this into events in the U.S. Why is the Bush administration trying so hard to censor info? Why would *any* government, Chinese or otherwise, want to do this? You could really open this up to a much broader discussion on governments, control, and power.
posted by edjusted at 8:33 PM on November 22, 2007

I highly recommend reading this article about the recent closure of a magazine reporting on grassroots civil society in China. There's a translation of a substantial portion of a brave open letter by the editor Zhai Minglei. Here again, the crackdown has been on Chinese social activists networking and sharing ideas with each other. Foreigners do feature as bogeymen accused of funding initiatives in China in an "Orange Revolution" style attempt to encourage change, but really that's not the core issue.
posted by Abiezer at 2:56 AM on November 23, 2007

I know this is a bit late, but as poli sci major living in China for the past 18 months...

Though the government certainly wants to keep out damaging detailed information about things like Tiananmen and smaller crackdowns, what's going on is more about controlling content delivery and giving the kind of news reports Americans say they'd rather have: happy and cheerful positive spins on everything. Whether it's "Look how bad it is over there," or "Look at how we're fixing our own problems." It's a shift of focus, not always outright lies, that you see in the media here. The protests in Burma were about gas prices, dontcha know? Partial truths divorced of context. Aren't we glad we don't have fuel prices that double or triple like that? Whew!

If someone teaches students or writes an article about democracy, they'll talk about the growing practice of "inner-party" democracy being advocated by Beijing right now and talk about the election difficulties in X location. It's not lying, per se, it's just putting there own spin on things... all the time. The reinforcement works.

"Taiwan is a part of China. Xinjiang and Tibet are a part of China. There are those who wish to divide China, are you one of them?"

I've heard someone say this. Almost verbatim. Every time they've heard these issues addressed, they've always heard about people wanting to divide a great (but struggling) nation. It's stuck in their heads and will never come out.

I've personally known of a roof that collapsed in a school when unauthorized classes were taking place. The story would be reported a few months later as "principal responsible for... fired and tried for...." instead of a headline-stealing report of dead children, as would happen in the West. They're reporting on the justice delivered, not the tragedy itself.

To simplify, to a student, it's that the government here has a strong interest in portraying everything in a positive light, part of the story arch of China's march towards modernity.
posted by trinarian at 3:32 AM on November 30, 2007

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