Last month​ in an open letter, the editor of China Quarterly, Tim Pringle, reported that more than three hundred articles deemed ‘sensitive’ by the Chinese censors had been blocked in mainland China. The letter caused outrage among Sinologists. CQ’s publisher, Cambridge University Press, appeared to have complied out of fear that failure to do so would cost it its entire operation in China. The Chinese response to Pringle’s letter was typical: the party’s mouthpiece the Global Times suggested in an editorial that it wasn’t important if some articles in CQ disappeared from the Chinese internet. This was a matter of principle and time would tell whose principles were better suited to the era. Why, in other words, should foreign academics be entitled to preferential treatment? If you want to conduct your business here, you must comply with our laws, as all Chinese do. (Netizens refer to the Global Times as an agile dog that always fetches the ball, no matter how far the Party throws it; also as the ‘one-eyed minion’.)

Hundreds of academics protested. Many of them accused the press of privileging money over academic freedom and publicly stated that under these conditions they could no longer collaborate either with the journal or with CUP. Within days the press had a change of heart, releasing all the blocked articles and offering free downloads (normally they charge a small fortune for a single piece). The university then stepped in, supporting the academic community and CUP’s new position. At that point the argument was no longer confined to a few angry Sinologists. It’s not clear yet whether the Chinese censors will up the ante; for the moment, they seem to have abandoned the game, although the Party has a habit of settling scores after the house has closed.

Five years ago, no one on the mainland would have thought that an English academic journal with a small, highly specialised readership would require censoring. Chinese censors usually target large foreign news outlets such as the New York Times, the BBC, the Economist, or the Wall Street Journal, and leave academics in peace. The New York Times is blocked in both its English and Chinese versions by the Great Firewall of China (the world’s most infamous internet censor); the BBC’s main anglophone site comes and goes, depending on what it’s publishing; the Chinese version is fully blocked. The Economist often receives phone calls from Chinese subscribers to the print edition complaining about missing issues (especially when the cover shows a panicky Xi Jinping astride a stumbling dragon). And it’s not uncommon for pages with critical reports about China to be torn from the magazine before subscribers get it (we have no shortage of manpower for this labour-intensive task). The New York Review of Books – always critical of China, and sharing many contributors with the New York Times – has so far dodged the censor, most likely because the number of subscribers is too low for the censors to condescend to.

In its coverage of the Cambridge controversy the Global Times also ran a byline piece (less official than the editorials, and without an English translation) by its chief editor, Hu Xijin, writing under the pen-name Shan Renping, accusing CUP – not unreasonably – of being ‘philistine’. The press’s U-turn is not based on principle; it’s tactical. But the Global Times is no better. Hu argued that the authorities didn’t, on the whole, see a need to supervise every foreign publisher or patrol the vast ‘grey area’ of overlapping media between the West and mainland China. He also noted that after many years of being reproached for restrictions on freedom of speech and information, China has grown ‘accustomed to the situation’ (in other words, impervious to criticism). Some Western companies have chosen to leave, but many have stayed and complied. It’s Westerners rather than the Chinese, Hu insisted, who lack flexibility and the capacity to adapt to a changing world; they have lost confidence in their own societies and are dismayed by the rise of China.

Hu, who is famous for his own ‘flexibility’, is right about one thing: foreign publications are of far less concern to the censor than material produced at home. In the past few years the screws have been turned tighter and tighter. This year, with the approach of the 19th Party Congress – a quinquennial event to decide on a successor, or in Xi’s case, to lay the ground for his staying in power – the Propaganda Ministry and Cyberspace Administration have gone into panic mode. In a matter of months the number of guidelines issued by the censors has exceeded the total in the previous ten years. Newspapers, TV, cinema, websites, social media, publishing, even sport: everything has been brought to its knees.

The publishing houses are on the frontline (I’ll leave the news outlets to one side: there’s very little news any longer, only propaganda). For example, any publisher who acquired A.A. Milne titles has faced difficulties since 2013, when jokes were posted on social media likening Xi to Winnie the Pooh. New translations or illustrated versions may well be denied an ISBN, and so may existing editions: ISBNs have to be renewed every five to ten years, depending on the contract. Ricardo Piglia’s Plata Quemada was abandoned by the publisher after the translation was delivered because the in-house censor thought its tone too dismal and worried that the amounts of sex, drugs, violence and crime were inappropriate for the young and contradicted China’s ‘positive and harmonious mainstream spirit’. Hilary Mantel’s collection of stories The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher appeared in Chinese as The Assassination: the censor took the view that announcing the murder of a head of state (even of a dead former head of state) on a book cover was too shocking. Gay novels are off limits.

Then there is the case of Salman Rushdie. The scholar Liu Kaifang translated Midnight’s Children in 2002, but his publisher promptly got cold feet and the book was pulled. In 2015, another house bought the rights and published the book, using a variant translation of Rushdie’s name (La Shi Di became Lu Xi Di; in the hope, it was rumoured, of fooling the censor into thinking this was a different author). The same house published The Moor’s Last Sigh in May, a few months after Iran announced that it had raised the bounty on Rushdie’s head. Word got out that Chinese Muslim leaders had complained to the Bureau of Religious Affairs that publishing Rushdie’s works was an offence to China’s Muslims. The Religious Bureau sent an official letter to the Publishing Bureau, the publisher was duly rebuked and the novel went no further than the first print run. The publisher has now had to write off six or seven other Rushdie titles, for which it had paid handsome advances.

More straightforward books about religion, and religious texts, must go before the Ethnic and Religious Commission for approval before publication. Recently the commission has adopted a Taoist strategy: actionlessness. Bound proofs arrive in the building and are left to gather dust: religious censors have one of the most enviable jobs in China: they are paid to do absolutely nothing, while censors in other areas are currently working flat out. All this leaves the publishing houses circling over classics in the public domain like kites over a skeleton already picked to the bone. New titles are far riskier, given that few foreign novels or non-fiction works have bright, happy endings, or the ‘positive spirit’ that would satisfy our censors’ sunny worldview. Xi and other senior leaders appear to admire Western classics – Goethe, Hugo, Balzac, Tolstoy – and quote them liberally. But for the moment any publisher will have put new titles on hold, hoping that the political mood will change after the Party Congress, which convenes on the 18th of this month. Some pessimists – I’m one – don’t think it will. If the leadership has been testing the machinery of ideological control only to discover that it has triumphed over heterogeneity and dissent, why stop now? And why would Xi ever want to expose himself to criticism again?

Peter Hessler, formerly the New Yorker’s China correspondent, wrote in 2015 about his Chinese editor, Zhang Jiren: ‘For an editor like Zhang, who is not a party member, there is no ideology and no definitive list of banned subjects. His censorship is defensive: rather than promoting an agenda or covering up some specific truth, he tries to avoid catching the eye of a higher authority.’ It’s rare for a Chinese editor to talk in detail with the author, as Zhang did with Hessler, about the passages in his or her book that are likely to be cut; ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is the usual practice. A few celebrity authors such as Vargas Llosa demand to know whether the translation will reproduce the original intact and inevitably, when they discover the truth, these bowdlerised editions are cancelled. It’s a loss to the Chinese reader as much as the publisher.

Since China became the movie industry’s second biggest market, Hollywood has had no trouble kowtowing to the leadership. The overall box-office take in China in 2016 was 45.7 billion RMB (about £5 billion); in the first half of 2017 it was 27 billion RMB (about £3 billion), and will probably reach 50 billion RMB by the end of the year. After a recent surge in multiplex conversion, China now has 45,000 screens: North America has 43,500. At the same time, the gate is narrow: fewer than a hundred foreign movies are allowed onto the market each year, while Asian countries that don’t have censorship screen many more – more than five hundred in Japan last year; more than 1200 in South Korea. Of our pitiful quota, forty Hollywood blockbusters account for more than half the overall box-office take, and under the current revenue-sharing model, US studios get to keep 25 per cent of box-office receipts. In order to keep Hollywood at bay, the Film Bureau launched National Film Protection Month in 2004. For one month a year (usually in summer), cinemas are only allowed to screen Chinese movies. This year National Film Protection Month saw the nationalist action movie Wolf Warrior II sweep up five billion RMB in thirty days, breaking the box-office record for any film, foreign or domestic, in China.

Three or four years from now, industry pundits predict, China’s overall box-office takings will overtake those of the US, and it will become the biggest film market in the world. Servility is therefore the only way forward for foreign producers. Leaked internal emails from Sony Pictures in 2014 showed in detail how Hollywood studios exercise self-censorship, trying to guess what Chinese censors might not like and altering or cutting scenes. An attack by aliens on the Great Wall in the original version of Pixels (2015) was carefully excised, in order not to upset the censor. In recent years, more Chinese movie stars have appeared in Hollywood movies as a sop to the censor and bait for the Chinese public.

Foreign TV drama is much more complicated. In 2014 the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) introduced new regulations intended to discourage TV channels and video sites from buying in overseas drama series. In essence, a channel now has to wait for the entire season to end in the countries where it first airs, before it can purchase the rights. Only then does it add subtitles and submit the package to SARFT for approval. This means that Chinese audiences lose the cliffhanger thrills of following a drama episode by episode: by the time we get to watch it, spoilers are everywhere. Most foreign TV dramas contain violence, crime and sexual content. Crucially they often depict Chinese and Russians as villains, a habit which ensures that they fall at the first hurdle. Most video sites have abandoned the legal route and gone for pirated content, while TV channels have simply given up trying to acquire foreign series. The latest episodes of Game of Thrones, say, or House of Cards, will appear with subtitles on Chinese sites within hours of airing in the West.

In China piracy is the only route to knowledge and understanding of other cultures. This is not some facile defence of piracy: I earn enough to pay for content I like to watch and I’d prefer to do so; it’s just that there’s no one to pay. In July China’s most popular video sites, Acfun and Bilibili, were told to remove all Japanese, Korean and English TV dramas and most foreign movies, leaving video-addict millennials in despair. SARFT has also decreed that no entertainment programmes or foreign dramas can be aired at prime time on any TV channel in the run-up to the Party Congress. If the state won’t compensate broadcasters for the losses they’re incurring – and it shows no sign of doing so – they will not survive by airing ‘harmonious’ mainstream content day after day.

Apple bows to the constraints in China without hesitation. In July people noticed that its China Store had quietly removed all VPN apps (virtual private networks, which help people circumvent the Great Firewall, and access Google, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and so on), at the instigation of the government. Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, said ‘we would rather not remove apps,’ but was quick to add that Apple always obeys local laws in the countries where it operates. Sales of iPhones in China have fallen in six successive quarters in favour of local brands like Huawei, Xiaomi and OPPO, but the high end of the market is still the preserve of iPhone and Mac users, pushing App Store revenues to a new high. Cook has every reason to comply with government directives and hang on to his marginal place in the Chinese market. Foreign Policy described the VPN ban as ‘a death blow’, which may be true for businessmen, expats, academics and students, but it has little impact on the rest of the population. Scientists bring up the ban at every major conference, arguing that blocking Google search, Google Scholar and the VPN apps will impede the rise of Chinese talent and thwart the country’s aspiration to become a world innovator, but in the eyes of our leaders, talent without obedience is nothing.

Google​ left the Chinese market in 2010. Its departure set an alarming example for other internet giants, but there are those who refuse to take no for an answer.* Facebook, with two billion monthly active users, is salivating at the prospect of gaining a toehold in the world’s most populous country, though few believe it will do well if it’s allowed to operate here. China’s social media market is dominated by WeChat, with one billion active users monthly. WeChat is a super app that integrates the functions of Facebook, WhatsApp and We Media; it is a payment platform, an online games gateway and a vast online shopping mall; it also offers an array of personal services: manicures, pet care, home food delivery, housekeeping etc. FB would be pushed to outperform it, but Zuckerberg seems determined to get into China, and there’s no limit to his prostrations before the leadership. In 2016, in an attempt to win their hearts, he jogged with his entourage in Tiananmen Square in heavy smog (pollution index 300+) without a mask. In 2015 he humiliated himself by asking Xi to name his daughter: no luck. In 2014, when he hosted our former internet tsar Lu Wei at FB’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Xi’s book The Governance of China was conspicuous on his desk.

Zuckerberg is also said to be developing censorship tools that would make it easier for FB to get into China. Pre-censoring social media is harder than blocking content that has already appeared elsewhere (FB does this in countries like Turkey and Pakistan), and in China we have learned from using WeChat that texts or screenshots containing sensitive words or images won’t show in group chat. This is irritating for ordinary users but it has far more frustrating repercussions for censorship bosses: like all professionals and senior cadres in China they use WeChat, and often send out guidelines to their staff, or address editors and publishers, via group chat. These messages are bound to contain trigger terms. Imagine, for instance, a directive about a dissident Nobel laureate, a renegade businessman and a restive offshore acquisition: ‘Closely watch and delete all online comments about Liu Xiaobo, Guo Wengui and HK independence.’ WeChat software, primed to detect the offending items, would block this message, leaving editors and censorship staffers looking at blank pages, and forcing managers to email screenshots of their original post or dust down the fax machine. It’s worth adding that all social media in China leave a door open to party cyber censors, who are free to enter and roam around, removing anything they don’t like. Social media are also obliged to share their users’ data with the police, especially when posts are critical of the government. Zuckerberg must agree to all of this – and he will – if he wants to get in.

Most Westerners look at the Chinese predicament with sympathy, but we were born into a world where censorship is the norm, with freedom of speech available to very few. As Hu Xijin would say, we’re ‘accustomed to the situation’. When the internet first appeared, many people, including some Chinese, were optimistic about horizontality, elective mass communication, free flows of information and the empowerment of the individual voice, but it has since become clear that the internet has very little to do with freedom and much more to do with control. But in China censorship and control are objectionable mostly to a tiny minority of vexed liberals – who’re unhappy with almost everything here in any case – and an even smaller group of expats. Their views are of no concern to the government or their fellow Chinese. Half a billion small-town citizens are happy enough with video sites such as Kuaishou. Once in a while their patriotism and cultural confidence can be raised to a pitch by Wolf Warrior. They won’t be banging the table and demanding a VPN for the foreseeable future, and they don’t share the restless voyeurism of liberals about the world beyond China.

In addition to this core provincial demographic, we have what we call the 50 Cent Army: large numbers of trolls who are paid by the government to marginalise dissenters even further by outnumbering them on the internet or distorting what they are trying to say. The army, which depends for its livelihood on censorship, labels anyone advocating freedom and democracy as the ‘American Cents Party’. We also have ‘Little Pink’, the millennials born in a period of economic growth who believe passionately in the superiority – cultural and political – of the motherland, and are willing to do battle with any criticism of China, real or virtual. When Yang Shuping was accused of being a ‘traitor’ – last summer she praised fresh air and freedom of speech in her graduation speech at the University of Maryland – the accusation came from Little Pink. They also flooded the model Gigi Hadid’s Instagram feed and called for a boycott of her forthcoming runway show in Shanghai: she’d been seen on camera earlier this year appearing to squint, mimicking the expression of a Buddha cookie she held up. Little Pink took it as a racist gesture. Studying overseas has done a lot for their confidence and chauvinism: they compare China’s relative stability with the chaos unfolding in the West, and maybe they have a point. But there’s nothing to crow about here. Of course we’re free to spurn our enemies abroad, if that’s the way we see the world, but within China there is no serious conversation about censorship, or why we put up with it. That would involve taking the moral high ground, and there’s no such place in China. Or Cambridge.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 39 No. 20 · 19 October 2017

Huang Yuan says that Mark Zuckerberg must agree to censorship of Facebook in China, ‘and he will – if he wants to get in’ (LRB, 5 October). Not really. Facebook (a bigger nation than China) is launching a constellation of satellite internet hubs to allow everyone on Earth to get online with, essentially, American First Amendment free-speech rights. Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Google have similar schemes.

Whether we’d rather have Zuckerberg or the Chinese government deciding what people can and can’t do online is moot. But recent history has unequivocally shown that humans are happy to trade their privacy for free data. As long as the band width is high enough, it is almost inevitable that people worldwide will choose free satellite internet and phone service over land-based fibre connections which they have to pay for and are controllable by governments.

Adrian Bowyer
Foxham, Wiltshire

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences