41. Censorship

Photograph courtesy of Helene Minot

Another level, where Daoism has an impact on China today goes beyond politics and economics and deals more with the general culture and outlook of the country. Here intellectuals and academics see issues of ethics, ecology, leadership, and more, evaluate them from a Daoist perspective, and make every effort to steer the country into a more sustainable, equitable, and creative direction. These efforts are hampered every step of the way, most importantly by the censorship that pervades all aspects of cultural and intellectual life.

The Party controls all media, both state-owned and private. All news agencies and broadcasting services belong to the state, including major newspapers, radio, and television stations. News are strictly controlled, and especially any form of protest anywhere in the world is usually blacked out. Thus, for example, when Hong Kong youths protested against mainland interference in their democratic process in 2015, occupying large parts of the city center, nobody in mainland China had a clue. Similarly, people are still surprised when, after going abroad, they first hear about the extent of suppression during the Tian’anmen democracy movement in 1989.

All content in publications and programming run by the private sector, books, CDs, videos, and magazines—on automobiles, gardening, computers, fashion, and the like—are subject to approval by censorship officials. At this point, this is usually a routine process, since writers and editors know the parameters of what is acceptable and self-censor with great efficiency.

The toughest and most complex censorship area is the internet. When it first became available in China in 1998, the government was delighted, seeing it as a major new way of influencing public opinion and establishing even more stringent controls. This proved not to be the case, and the state quickly took containing measures, establishing what they call the “golden shield,” better known as the Great Firewall of China. This prevents some of the most common and most popular Western websites from operating in China, including Google, Gmail, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and more—typically companies who, unlike Microsoft, refuse to allow the state to tamper with their content and limit freedom of expression.

This tampering is relatively easy, since there are few indigenous browsers and internet providers, and keeping websites out and content limited is not as hard as it would be in a free country. On the other hand, people with a vested interest in access to Western information—notably businessmen and academics—get around the firewall by using virtual private networks (VPN), available for a few dollars a month and regularly advertised on the Chinese web. Tolerated by the government, yet under constant threat of closure, they create a virtual location for one’s computing activity, in Australia, Europe, or America, that makes it look to the censors as if one were working overseas.

In addition, with the increase in cell phone usage—1.36 billion phones registered today—and the rise of new internet giants that include instant messaging like WeChat, communication has become instantaneous and pictures of natural disasters and social protests can go viral within minutes. As a result, the government today employs over two million people to monitor internet activity and watch for subversive content. This sometimes can be just a single word or common phrase. For example, during the Arab Spring in 2011, the word “jasmine”—part of Jasmine Revolution—was banned completely, making it impossible to shop for jasmine tea. Similarly, when dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Price in 2010, the term “empty chair” was no longer acceptable.

On the proactive side, the state has also taken to bolster its online presence and popular image by hiring many thousands to regularly post positive comments about state policies on social media and wax enthusiastic for the new Party line of the China Dream.

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