By Qian Gang — On September 11 the writings of one of Taiwan’s most celebrated cultural critics, Lung Ying-tai (龙应台), were scrubbed from China’s internet. And in a poetic illustration of how the internet is changing the nature of media control in China, the order for an all-out assault on Lung’s essays was delivered via MSN Messenger.
The web censors responsible for this recent action were the usual suspects from Beijing’s web management office — officially, the Beijing Municipal Internet Information Administrative Bureau (北京市互联网宣传管理办公室) — which sits directly under the Internet Propaganda and Administrative Office (网络宣传管理局) of the State Council Information Office (国务院新闻办).
There is nothing municipal at all about Beijing’s Web management office. Jurisdiction over the internet companies of Beijing means effective jurisdiction over the vast majority of websites with broad regional or national reach in China. Even QQ, which has its corporate base in Shenzhen, handles editorial operations from its base in the capital.
The September 11 instructions from the Web management office were crystal clear: delete all essays from Lung Ying-tai, and do not attempt any further posting of her work.
Before the order came down from web censors, the last piece about Lung Ying-tai appearing online was posted on September 3 at Xinhua Online and other sites. It was called “New Lung Ying-tai Book Explores the Great Changes in the World Over the Past 60 Years” (龙应台新书追溯60年沧桑世事 讲述平凡人曲折命运). The new book it referred to was Lung’s Wide Rivers and Seas: 1949 (大江大海 一九四九).
The headline for this piece can still be tracked down at many websites through the Baidu search engine, but the content is inaccessible at all but one link at Xinhua Online: “We’re sorry! The article you’re looking for has been deleted or has expired,” says a notice at the original location at Xinhua Online. A notice at QQ reads: “Page not found. You will be taken to the homepage in 5 seconds.”
When I visited the online sites where many of Lung’s essays had previously been archived, I found that they had all disappeared.
The control of China’s internet has an increasingly important place within the overall media control regime in China today. Web censors have their own advanced technologies to assist them in monitoring the Internet — including, we have been told, their own internal messaging services for the delivery of more sensitive censorship instructions to website editors — and they also use MSN and other shortcuts to exercise more direct and “flatter” control over the web. It takes only a matter of seconds or minutes now for orders and bans from the authorities to make it to the desks of editors at Chinese websites, or to their mobile phones.
In Beijing, where most of China’s websites are concentrated, preparations are underway to implement a real-name registration system to remove the anonymity many web users have hitherto enjoyed. Teams of tens of thousands of “volunteers” are being mobilized by the Web management office to “monitor unfavorable website trends” (监控不良网站动向).
All of these changes are clues to how both the human and technological means of media control are being transformed in China.
In contrast with China’s new generation of Web censors, the old guardians of media discipline in China – the Central Propaganda Department and its News Commentary Group – look like slow and ineffective dinosaurs.
Lung Ying-tai is one of the most influential contemporary Taiwanese intellectuals on the mainland. In the 1980s her essay, “Chinese, Why Aren’t You Angry?” (included in her Wildfire Collection), was all the rage in China. In the late 1990s, she wrote for a number of mainland newspapers, including Southern Weekend. Over a period of roughly ten years, she published hundreds of articles inside China. A few of her books were also published on the mainland, including her book Dear Andreas (亲爱的安德烈), which was selected by the news portal Sina.com as second on its book of the year list in June this year.
The Central Propaganda Department has scratched its head for years over what exactly to do with Lung Ying-tai. Her writings are fiercely unorthodox from the CCP’s standpoint, but she has proven a formidable opponent for China’s censors, wedging her way into deeper issues through social and cultural criticism. Her writing is superb stylistically, and readers adore her.
Her essay, “In Defense of Taiwanese Democracy,” which made the rounds on the internet in China in 2005, and her essays for the China Youth Daily supplement Freezing Point – “The Taiwan You Probably Don’t Know” (你可能不知道的台湾), “What is Culture?” (文化是什麽？) and “Three Bows from the Chairman” (一个主席的叁鞠躬) were seen as a series of glancing attacks on the mainland. These Freezing Point pieces, fortunately, have so far survived at the China Youth Daily website.
In early 2006, Freezing Point, which had frequently invited the displeasure of propaganda officials by printing Lung’s essays, was shut down by the Central Propaganda Department’s News Commentary Group. An essay by historian Yuan Weishi (袁伟时), and not Lung’s writings, was cited as the straw that broke the camel’s back. But Lung Ying-tai, furious at this attack against one of China’s finest publications, fired back with an open letter to President Hu Jintao criticizing press controls. It was called, “Please Use Culture to Convince Me” (请用文明说服我).
Obviously, web censors moved quickly to ensure that Lung’s open letter to Hu Jintao was scrubbed from China’s internet. But even after the Freezing Point affair there were some media in China that walked the tightrope and published essays from Lung Ying-tai. She wrote a number of important articles for Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis Daily.
So why now?
Why is there a move to cleanse China’s internet of Lung Ying-tai’s writings? We do not know what the reasons of the Web management office are. But clearly these actions are related to the PRC’s upcoming 60th anniversary celebrations.
In early August, the same Web management office called together a meeting of representatives from major websites and began mobilizing for online news and propaganda work surrounding the anniversary. They emphasized the need for uniformity and conformity to the CCP’s “main themes,” and urged the need to avoid “static and noise” (杂音/噪音) — which is to say, divergent viewpoints.
To its credit, Lung Ying-tai’s latest book is definitely, to apply the CCP’s standards, “static and noise.” The book opens up the black box of China’s history, taking a direct look at the cruel facts and circumstances of China 60 years ago.
If China’s leaders have a faith today, it is not Marxism-Leninism but pragmatism (实用主义). The basic demand placed on propaganda surrounding the 60th anniversary is not that it show fealty to an ideology but that it benefit the CCP’s position and promote national unity.
Concerning 1949 and its place in China’s history, they must walk a tightrope. On the one hand, they cannot stray from the narrative of CCP victory in the war for China’s liberation. On the other hand, they must take care not to upset relations with the current government in Taiwan.
Wide Rivers and Seas: 1949 is bound to generate lively debate among Chinese from all walks of life and all convictions. At this juncture, with National Day just around the corner, this is something China’s leaders cannot stomach.
We can only hope this campaign against Lung Ying-tai’s writings online is, as I believe it to be, an expedient measure that will fade away of its own once we are through this tough October.
[Posted by David Bandurski, September 18, 2009, 1:23pm]