A few weeks ago SeeingRedinChina.com was not accessible within China. My initial urge was to figure out which post had led to being blocked, and decide what that would mean for the future of the blog. Was it our coverage of Chen Guangcheng’s case? Or was it my rant against the Global Time’s incredible lack of integrity which unintentionally went online the same day that Global Time’s called us one of the best English language blogs focused 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 again.
In my year of blogging I’ve seen a number of websites get blocked and often people try to find a single reason. Instead of trying to list every possibility, I think it’s more efficient to look at the issue from a different angle.
Why we haven’t been blocked
I think the most important factor concerning why we haven’t been blocked is this is an English language blog. For the majority of netizens, English is not a language they easily understand, and so my website only reaches a tiny percentage of Chinese people. Meanwhile, translations of my posts appear on yizhe group’s site, which is blocked in China. I think if I were to write these same thoughts in Chinese, it would be seen as much more of a threat. As it stands though, Chinese readership is somewhat limited.
The second factor is that I don’t usually report on news stories as they happen. While this is somewhat a form of self-censorship, I am also trying to avoid knee-jerk reactions to complicated problems. To be completely honest, there are news stories coming out of China every week that are so shockingly amoral that I don’t even repeat them to my wife or parents. I don’t repeat these stories because they aren’t representative of the China I know. The writing I enjoy doing looks more at trends than individual events, and I think this helps me avoid the censors’ eyes who are watching for the most sensitive and recent news stories.
The third factor, is that I do try to present a fair view of China. While this doesn’t always show through as much as I would hope, I wish nothing but the best for the Chinese people. When I think a certain law or gov’t action is problematic, I try to find credible sources (from a Chinese perspective) to back up my arguments. After all it’s much harder for censors to argue with a point made by the People’s Daily than one made by some expat who sits typing away at his desk. The murkiness of what is or isn’t acceptable allows me to push boundaries.
The value of the invisible line
There are a few issues that will always draw the attention of China’s web monitors, like articles about Taiwanese or Tibetan independence or vivid descriptions of what happened in Tian’anmen Square. During the riots in Tibet back in 2008 I would read an article on CNN and email it to another foreign teacher who then wouldn’t be able to open the link. Stories were blocked almost as quickly as they went online. This visible line is useful for censors, but is easily skirted by netizens.
The much more powerful force though is the invisible line that keeps the author guessing what is or isn’t “sensitive.” A recent article from the New York Times profiling author Murong Xuecun illustrates just how powerful this force can be. In the article Murong Xuecun highlights the fact that when he writes he has no idea where exactly the line is. This ambiguity causes him to delete his most daring lines, and then make additional cuts during the editing process as the publisher also tries to guess at what is or isn’t acceptable.
I would guess this is the system that the Party prefers. With no one clear about what can be said, many opt instead to be more cautious in their writing, even if it wouldn’t have been caught by censors. I see this on an almost daily basis in the courses I’ve taught. When asking students for their opinions you’ll see an entire room full of people who, one-on-one, can be incredibly vocal but when surrounded by peers who could report their thoughtcrime, remain completely silent.