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THE INTERNET used to be likened to the wild and woolly west. Less so today, perhaps; but a Great Firewall has limited China’s access to the worldwide web. I learned about this and other aspects of Chinese censorship from “National Trolls,” by Huang Yuan, in the October 5, 2017, issue of the London Review of Books. Here’s a selection of tidbits gleaned from this enlightening article.
The 19th Party Congress of the People’s Republic of China opened two days ago, October 18, 2017. LRB author Yuan reports that building up to this quinquennial event, “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.”
“For example,” Yuan notes, “any publisher who acquired A.A. Milne titles has faced difficulties since 2013, when jokes were posted on social media likening [Chinese President] Xi to Winnie the Pooh.” According to Scroll.in, a search for Pooh’s Chinese name, Little Bear Winnie, causes a message saying the content is illegal in China.
“China’s social media market,” Yuan explains, “is dominated by WeChat, with one billion active users monthly…. a payment platform, an online games gateway, and a vast online shopping mall….” But don’t look for Pooh stickers; they’ve been removed from WeChat’s official gallery.
WeChat shenanigans complicate the censors’ lives too. As Yuan explains, “… in China we have learned from using WeChat that texts or images won’t show in group chat. This is irritating for ordinary users but it has far more frustrating repercussions for censorship bosses.”
For instance, a boss sends out guidelines citing banned phrases or images, only to have the message itself blocked. Yuan senses the irony in “editors and censorship staffers looking at blank pages, and forcing managers to email screenshots of their original post or dust down the fax machine.”
Books about religion and religious texts must be approved by China’s Ethnic and Religious Commission before publication. This commission, Yuan observes, “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.”
China’s movie censors are an example. The country is the second largest movie market in the world; only the U.S. has more moviegoers. What’s more, Yuan notes, “After a recent multiplex conversion, China now has 45,000 screens; North America has 43,500.”
Fewer than 100 foreign movies are approved each year, with censors keeping a watchful eye: The kids’ flick Pixels, for example, has aliens misinterpreting arcade-game video feeds as real war. The movie received censor approval only after its alien attack on the Great Wall was cut.
Foreign TV gets even more bizarre scrutiny: The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television requires a Chinese broadcaster to wait for an entire season to end overseas before it can purchase rights. Yuan says “… by the time we get to watch it, spoilers are everywhere.”
As a consequence, TV channels tend to leave foreign drama series to video sites with pirated content. Yuan says, “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…. 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.”
As Stan Laurel used to say to Oliver Hardy, “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017