National Trolls

Huang Yuan

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.

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[*] Despite its ‘Don’t be evil’ slogan, Google may already regret its confrontation with censorship in China and try to zigzag back. Google’s partnership with the Chinese government for this year’s Future of Go summit was a failure. Despite the prestige of the event, and the presence of Google’s AI player, AlphaGo Master, the name ‘Google’ was not mentioned once in Chinese media coverage. Once you cross the line, the leadership finds it hard to give you a second chance.