Blunt instrument? What a list of banned articles says about China's censors

SHANGHAI (Reuters) - An old review of an academic monograph on agrarian revolutionaries in 1930s China is hardly a political third rail in Beijing today, even by the increasingly sensitive standards of the ruling Communist Party.

People walk past the Cambridge University Press (CUP) stall at the Beijing International Book Fair in Beijing, China, August 23, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

That such a piece appeared on a list of some 300 scholarly works that Cambridge University Press (CUP) said last week the Chinese government had asked it to block from its website offers clues about the inner workings of China’s vast and secretive censorship apparatus, say experts.

President Xi Jinping has stepped up censorship and tightened controls on the internet and various aspects of civil society, as well as reasserting Communist Party authority over academia and other institutions, since coming to power in 2012.

Far from being a well-oiled machine, though, China’s censorship regime is fragmented and often undermined by gaps, workarounds, and perhaps even hasty officials, say academics specializing in Chinese politics.

“Crude is the word,” said Jonathan Sullivan, an associate professor at the University of Nottingham in Britain. “The blunt way in which articles were chosen for censoring ... suggest to me that there was not a lot of thought put into it.”

CUP, the publishing arm of Britain’s elite Cambridge University, on Monday reversed its decision to comply with the request to censor the articles published in the journal China Quarterly following an outcry over academic freedom.

China’s response remains to be seen. The education ministry, foreign ministry, cyberspace administration and state publishing authority all declined to comment.

The list of articles the authorities wanted blocked covered topics that are considered sensitive by the government, including the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy protests, the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, Tibet, Taiwan and the violence-prone far-western region of Xinjiang.

But it was far from thorough or comprehensive.

The article on 1930s agrarian revolutionaries may have got there by mistake, say experts.

What appears to have condemned the scathing but otherwise innocuous 1991 review of Kamal Sheel’s book about a Communist base area in China’s southern heartland was the fact the place was named Xinjiang, and the word appeared in the book title.

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The Chinese characters are different for Xinjiang, the village, and Xinjiang, the mostly-Muslim region more than 2,500 km (1,550 miles) to the northwest that is beset by ethnic tensions and occasional unrest. But in English they are indistinguishable.


Xu Xibai, a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford, tweeted a brief analysis of the list that noted that its creators appear to have hastily searched the China Quarterly database for taboo words in titles and abstracts.

“The censors probably used a few keyword searches to locate just enough articles to make a nice, long list to impress their superiors,” Xu’s post said. “They did not bother to read the articles or go through the content list manually.”

An article defending Mao Zedong was on the censored list, for instance, while others more critical of the former paramount leader were not.

Some sensitive subjects seem to have eluded the officials’ net.

The Communist Party tightly controls discourse on the 1958-61 Great Leap Forward, in which millions starved to death due to ill-conceived economic policies. Censors have banned books on the topic but it was apparently not on this list.

Nor were the brutal, Communist-led land reforms of the 1950s, or the Hundred Flowers Movement, an effort by Mao to lure critics out of the woodwork by feigning openness, only to punish them.

The party’s efforts to censor news and information have sometimes backfired or left outsiders perplexed.

In 2009, software designed to check pornographic and violent images on PCs blocked images of a movie poster for cartoon cat Garfield, dishes of flesh-color cooked pork and on one search engine a close-up of film star Johnny Depp’s face.

Citizen Lab, a group of researchers based at the University of Toronto, compiled a list of words banned as of last year on popular live streaming sites in China. Among them: “Moulin Rouge”, “braised rabbit”, “helicopter” and “zen”.

The request to block the articles was passed to Cambridge University Press by its import agent, but without knowing where it originated it is hard to draw firm conclusions, said Sebastian Veg, a China scholar at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences in Paris.

“The censorship system is of course centrally directed, but not uniform,” Veg said.

Lee Siu-yau, assistant professor of Greater China studies at the Education University of Hong Kong, suspects the request was a trial balloon.

“They usually start with something small-scale and gradually expand and make their requirements more difficult,” he said.

“This might be one of the first steps that the Chinese government would take to see if it could actually influence international academic publishers.”

(Story refiles to add dropped words “a” and “an” in paragraphs four and six.)

Additional reporting by Christian Shepherd and Cate Cadell in BEIJING