By David Bandurski — Censorship in China is bewildering in its complexity and often its inconsistency. On April 25, the Yangcheng Evening News ran an editorial by Yuan Minjie (袁敏杰) that scratches its brow over the highly inconsistent censorship standards applied at Internet sites in China. The editorial raises at least two points of interest concerning media control policies and news and editorial coverage in China.
The first is that we do see journalists, in editorials in particular, turning to the issue of censorship itself, giving us public glimpses into the inner workings of media control. Obviously, this coverage has its limitations, and in-depth news coverage of censorship tactics like the news commentary group (阅评组) or Internet commentators is off limits.
Secondly, Yuan Minjie’s editorial suggests, contrary to the dominant narrative about the Internet in China — namely, that it is purely a force of openness constantly frustrating attempts at government control — that controls on content are often stricter for the Internet than for traditional media.
One important but often overlooked reason for this is that Internet companies are not part of China’s traditional news structure, and therefore do not have the powerful official backing that sometimes allows newspapers and magazines to be bolder. Websites, that is to say, are more exposed.
For an in-depth study of how Chinese Internet companies censor content, readers should see Rebecca MacKinnon’s excellent study, “China’s Censorship 2.0: How companies censor bloggers.”
Yuan’s arguments about censorship are also interesting because he makes a case against the arbitrariness of blog censorship even as he supports (at least publicly) the broader goals and priorities of media control.
“Yes, we need to safeguard the overall situation and online propaganda discipline; we need to clear up the Internet environment and uphold correct guidance of public opinion,” he writes. “But this process of safeguarding, clearing up and correcting should happen rationally, with fairness, seriousness and strict principles guiding behavior.”
A partial translation of Yuan’s editorial in Yangcheng Evening News follows:
“Posts Should Be Deleted Rationally“
Yuan Minjie (袁敏杰)
On the evening of April 12, I posted an article called “The Heights of Niu Han and the Sadness of the Literary Man” on my personal Weblog, and a friend of mine who is a veteran media worker wrote a very long comment post in response after reading through it. He raised a number of important and profound points exploring the maladies of cultural figures today, their root causes and the climate facing cultural people today. His overall tone was one of concern. This journalist also provided examples like one he saw with his own eyes, how when an artist who typically spoke about “artistic integrity” went before the head of the government department that oversaw him he became a servile toady, behaving in such a fawning manner it made [the journalist] sick. I appreciated his remarks. But when I opened my blog to have a look on the 13th, I found that this comment had already disappeared! Plenty of other comments were there, but this one had gone “missing.”
Was that not strange? Clearly, it had been deleted by the manager of the blog site! I couldn’t understand it. This comment was talking about quite ordinary truths, and contained nothing that went over the line. What exactly had been its crime? Where had it gone wrong that it should be obliterated?
What’s more, I cannot understand why some words and sentiments can appear as a matter of course in the print media, but are a problem as soon as they make it into Internet blogs. Could it be that there is an entirely different set of propaganda policies and news discipline for Internet media? I really don’t get it, and I can’t understand it.
I completely understand that online media also [like their traditional media counterparts] must respect relevant regulations, that they must have relevant controls, that they are subject also to news and propaganda policies and discipline, that they work by their own rules and special nature. At the same time, there is the question of the media environment [of competitiveness for limited resources] and the need for self-preservation. These things I can understand. But the problem is that those in the online media need to raise their level of personal character, correctly ascertaining how relevant policies and discipline should be carried out.
In my view, the way managers of blogs at Sina.com, for example, delete posts from Web users needs to be further considered. Personally, I think that in order to maintain the overall [political] situation (维护大局) there are some comments that should be deleted. Nevertheless, some opinions from Web users that should not be deleted meet their doom. What I find puzzling is that you can also see this bizarre situation whereby the most raw verbal streams of abuse and nastiness are systematically overlooked, and this kind of stuff is hardy enough to survive, so that is comes “completely ordinary.” That which should be deleted remains, and that which should not be deleted is deleted without an afterthought. Is that ordinary, I ask? I cannot for the life of me understand what principles and standards for deletion are being applied at Sina.com. Perhaps these content managers are “following their own inclinations” (跟着自己感觉走)? As I see it, they have at the very least very strong subjectivities . . . I’m afraid the problem is one of personal character. That is to say, the personal characters of these content managers determines their “level of post deletion.”
Yes, we need to safeguard the overall situation and online propaganda discipline. We need to clear up the Internet environment and uphold correct guidance of public opinion. But this process of safeguarding, clearing up and correcting should happen rationally, with fairness, seriousness and strict principles guiding behavior. This [business of discipline] should not come down to the arbitrary personal acts of content managers. This is exactly where the problem lies. The low personal character of a number of Internet content managers has lowered the character of online controls generally and blog controls specifically, so that the whole business has reached a point of ridiculousness . . .
[Posted by David Bandurski, April 28, 2009, 11:44am]