All Aboard the Censorship

“The most difficult part of writing about contemporary China is capturing its proportions: How much of the story is truly inspiring, and how much of it is truly grim? How much of its values are reflected in technology start-ups and stories of self-creation, and how much of its values are reflected in the Great Firewall and abuses of power?” – Evan Osnos

China is easy to think of as a land of extremes. There is an extreme amount of people (1.4 billion), an extreme amount of wealth (somewhere between 152 and 358 of the world’s 1,600 billionaires), and an extreme number of basketball courts (they’ve committed to building 800,000), to name a few. With numbers like these, it’s far too easy to miss the forest for the trees, and to confuse China’s bigness with a lack of vital nuance.

To begin to understand the humanity behind the huge scope, take a look at the two men competing for the title of China’s richest man. In September of last year, Alibaba’s CEO Jack Ma was the reigning champion after his company had its IPO at $25 billion, ranked as the world’s biggest at the time.

When Alibaba’s growth slowed, the man who Ma displaced as the richest in China, Wang Jianling, overtook him again. Wang, who owns Dalian Wanda Commercial Properties, a development company that had $40 billion USD in revenues last year, is leading, as the Economist puts it, a wanda-ful life. His new goal: transforming his business from real estate to “global entertainment colossus” to compete with Disney, who is opening a theme park in Shanghai soon. Beyond formidable business sense, Wang also has ties to the Communist Party and a history as a member of the People’s Liberation Army. With those political connections and his level of influence, questions concerning their merit are inevitable. What happens when that scrutiny comes from outside of China?

Edward Wong reports that the four journalists working for Bloomberg news on a piece about ties between the wealthiest men in China and the families of powerful Chinese leaders found out that their nearly-yearlong effort would not be released. Though Bloomberg denies that this decision had nothing to do with Chinese influence, they’ve had their journalists denied residency and their website blocked in China after publishing unflattering articles about Chinese officials in the past. Bloomberg isn’t alone in this pressuring: The New York Times has dealt with similar issues. Journalists and their organizations walk a difficult path: if they talk too freely about certain issues, they can find themselves locked out; if they limit the reporting’s scope to avoid the ban, they end up censoring themselves.

Author Peter Hessler spent a week touring China with his Chinese editor to better understand the fluid levels of censorship in China, and writes about the experience in Travels with my Censor. Since completing his first book River Town in 1998, about his time in Fuling as a member of the Peace Corps, the attitude of the Chinese people has changed in dramatic ways. One such way, according to Shanghai Translation, is the growing appetite for non-fiction books about China by foreigners. Hessler details the sort of nuanced censorship that his editor performs to insure the majority of the book can be published. It’s not a simple process, and often there are many agents involved, working to disseminate information to a hungry public in a way that does not alert the authorities. However, the fight they are involved in is not fair: the rules always change, the opponent is unseen, and the punishment for losing is archaic; nevertheless, significant swaths of the population continue to fight. Hessler takes their side, allowing his books to be published even when his original text faces changes.

Hessler’s New Yorker colleague Evan Osnos takes a different tact on the matter in China’s Censored World, writing that it’s “tempting to accept censorship as a matter of the margins — a pruning that leaves the core of the story intact — but altering the proportions of a portrait of China gives a false reflection of how China appears to the world at a moment when it is making fundamental choices about what kind of country it will become.”

What Osnos is choosing not to publish in China is Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China, a book remarkable in its breadth, access, and color. He details shifting cultural trends as well as remarkable individual achievements – from a Taiwanese man who leaves behind his family to seek a life in China, knowing full well he can’t return, to the woman who starts the largest Chinese dating site, from the renowned international artist Ai Weiwei to a blind Chinese lawyer fighting for his freedom.

It’s this lawyer who epitomizes the power one person can have, even in a nation like China. As the Economist puts it, “Guangcheng illustrates how a single determined dissident in the Chinese countryside can take on a repressive government – and win.” He has since been granted asylum in the United States. Guangcheng has said he has some reservations about America, and perhaps, given our own ongoing troubles with censorship, he is right to have them.

What happens when a capitalist country that touts free speech meets the business potentials of censorship? There’s an app for that: Clean Reader prevents profane words from appearing in your eBooks. Cory Doctorow argues in favor of the app in I hate your censorship, but I’ll defend to the death your right to censor. After all, readers have every right to choose what they do or do not read, whether it’s a word they don’t like, or a page they find boring. It is when unspoken institutional pressure forces authors to change their original content that problems develop. One cannot simply undo the effect of that pressure with a swipe, there’s no button to hold to turn off that app, and no way to restore that author’s intent to its factory settings.

In China, people still risk their lives to have their voices heard. Guangcheng was kept a prisoner in his own home, before escaping over fences and through ditches (by finding his way with echolocation) to a neighboring village. Weiwei was kept isolated from his family and subjected to harsh punishments. These are two very public figures, whose celebrity prevents the government from taking more extreme measures. It’s less obvious what happens to those who don’t have the same prestige, and what it means to deal with that level of censorship in obscurity.

We can understand better what the Chinese are going through by learning to empathize with their situation. Fortunately, censorship is a subject we spend significant time and energy debating in America, amongst friends, amongst family, and in our media. Let Rex Sorgatz’s How Netflix Broke the Unbreakable Spoiler Alert explain to you how our extreme act of television consumption has led us into a quagmire of self-censorship. Then take a deep breath. After that, just remember if the biggest threat to your personal liberty is your own concern over when to discuss the latest season of House of Cards on Twitter, then you are doing extremely well.

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