Censorship in China: an Introduction to the Great Firewall of China

Censorship in China at times is so extreme that it is almost laughable, like when they claimed foreigners couldn’t go to Tibet because of the weather (it was the anniversary of anti-Chinese riots). The news articles are so carefully screened for any material that doesn’t portray the official line that they can end up being whittled down to a single sentence. So today we are going to be looking at the ways the Chinese gov’t controls the news and the net.

It’s no secret that the internet here is tightly controlled. Over the past four years I have seen (most of) Wikipedia become available, and have seen Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, and countless other sites disappear without explanation. These sites are referred to as being beyond “the Great Firewall of China”.

For the most part sites that end up blocked all have a few things in common, 1. They allow people to communicate quickly 2. They are without censorship and 3. They are foreign companies.

I think most of us assume that these sites are blocked because of the new methods of communications they enable, but actually China has clones of all three of these major sites (Chinese Youtube, Chinese Facebook, Chinese Twitter). The biggest problem is not that the foreign sites are something unique, but that they do not have to agree to the strict set of rules placed on Chinese websites.

I first became aware of this when I was talking with a close Chinese friend. He had tried to write a blog post that mentioned Hu Jintao (current leader of China), but the website said it was sensitive content and could not be published, even though his comment was fairly positive. He was a bit confused so he tried a variety of other terms that referred to the President, only to find that those too were sensitive.

This list of “sensitive” terms is widely disputed as to what is or isn’t blocked, but the consensus seems to be that it is fairly massive, and is updated within a few hours of unrest (examples here). After a new phrase is added to the list a message is sent out to all of the webmasters of China’s popular social sites to delete any post containing the offending content (this can come with a 30 minute time frame for compliance).

When I first read this I couldn’t help picturing the scene from 1984 where the workers in the Ministry of Truth are tossing the old books that no longer fit the government line into the massive incinerator.

Newspapers and broadcasts are largely self-censored, after all the only way to get promoted is by not making any political mistakes. So it is best to run the most sterile version of any story, unless it is a slam dunk smear job against a foreign country (usually the US). Chinese newspapers also have a few special requirements, 1. They are not to report on issues outside of their local area, 2. They are required to run national news using only the official statement.

With this level of censorship it’s easy to picture China as a place where the people blindly follow the omnipresent gov’t, but tomorrow we’ll see why that isn’t the case.

18 responses to “Censorship in China: an Introduction to the Great Firewall of China”

  1. It’s worth remembering is that a similar system operates in the West: notice the worldwide lockstep coverage of issues as dissimilar as the invasion of Iraq and the suppression of marijuana. We are supposed to believe that because a few capitalists decide on a policy that this makes us ‘freer’ than if the decision is made by a few bureaucrats. This belief is, of course, inculcated by the very same media…

    • Chopstik says:

      The major difference in your comparison between the West and China, of course, is that you are not immediately imprisoned in the West for providing a dissenting point of view from the official line.

    • Tom says:

      Not sure I agree with you on this point Godfree. I would argue that because America has a capitalist system, with a lot of competition for news, I have a wide variety of choices in whom I consume media from. Whereas in China there is only the state controlled media, and the competition is not empowered to provide any meaningful alternative.
      If I wanted to I could read all of the pro-marijuana blogs I could get my hands on, while those in China would be deleted.
      If I am making some mistake here, please correct me.

  2. Chopstik says:

    There, of course, ways around the GFW – not to mention the Grass-Mud Horse. I’m waiting on the next in this series (presuming this is a series). I am left to sometimes wonder if part of the relative success of the GFW is due to the lack of concrete knowledge surrounding its process and policies.

    • Tom says:

      I think that is part of its success, punishments for violating the content restrictions are also somewhat random. Sometimes the website is simply blocked, sometimes it is attacked, and sometimes the owner is arrested for subverting state power.

  3. M. says:

    I remember reading that censorship is 50% political and 50% economic. Chinese officials know that they can’t compete on innovation, so they keep RMB at home by banning Facebook/YouTube/et al. and fostering the Chinese equivalents — some of which are eventually bought by the government and become SOEs (State Owned Enterprises).

    • Tom says:

      As far as I know the gov’t doesn’t have any SOE websites, but it’s an interesting idea. I think more of it has to do with the fact that by being in control the party members are able to amass huge amounts of wealth.

  4. john book says:

    I think godfree is really a ghost-writer for mrs. clinton………..

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  6. […] Censorship in China at times is so extreme that it is almost laughable, like when they claimed foreigners couldn’t go to Tibet because of the weather (it was the anniversary of anti-Chinese riots). The news articles are so carefully screened … Continue reading → […]

  7. […] Seeing Red in China The Middle Kingdom Made Easy Skip to content HomeAbout MeComplete ArchiveRecommendationsSuggested SitesChina Books You Need to ReadThe Best China MoviesMap of China ← Censorship in China: an Introduction to the Great Firewall of China […]

  8. […] Censorship in China: an Introduction to the Great Firewall of China (seeingredinchina.wordpress.com) […]

  9. […] Given this narrative, we could say that the Party was clearly not the solution to China’s problems, and could be facing serious problems in the near future. At this moment I regularly hear complaints about gov’t corruption, and the central gov’t struggles to enforce its laws when they conflict with the interests of local officials. The Party has also sought to keep China isolated, during Mao it was literal isolation, and under the current leadership we see it in the control of China’s internet. […]

  10. […] you aren’t familiar with the Great Firewall of China I would suggest reading this and this […]

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  12. […] on China. A few days later though, the site was accessible and we hadn’t changed a thing. The Great Firewall of China had shifted once […]

  13. […] in China: an Introduction to the Great Firewall of China [WWW Document]. Seeing Red in China. URL seeingredinchina.com/2011/03/21/censorship-in-china-an-introduction-to-the-great-firewall-of-china/ (accessed […]

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