From Index of Censorship magazine. Fountain Ink has partnered with the UK-based magazine to periodically bring stories on assaults on free speech from around the world to readers in India.

Weiwei, a Chinese journalist, insisted on only communicating with Index on Censorshipvia the social media app Telegram. “It’s safer than Facebook and Weibo,” he said, and not tapped like his phone. His messages vanished almost as soon as they appeared. Weiwei had set a timer, which automatically removed them after a minute.

It was hard to keep up. “Don’t screenshot,” he said, before changing the setting to once an hour and the conversation became slightly less rushed.

Weiwei worries about his online trail.

Compared with the pre-Internet China in which he grew up, the rules have changed. Paper could be destroyed; there is no such safeguard with new media. Telegram has a unique feature that allows users to start a “secret chat” with their contacts. These self-destruct after a chosen interval and supposedly leave no trace.

“It’s not that popular yet [in China] and I hope it will stay that way,” said Weiwei. Popularity means one thing: the government will make disabling it a priority. Barely 24 hours after this conversation took place, Telegram was blocked in China—another victim of the censorship machine. According to People’s Daily (the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party), it was singled out for aiding Chinese human-rights lawyers, who have become the target of a recent crackdown.

In June China passed a new national security law. The vagueness of its wording has led many to fear it could be applied widely. It joins a long list of extensions of Internet censorship in China this year.

Among the most concerning was the blocking of several prominent virtual private networks (Astrill, Golden Frog and StrongVPN) at the start of 2015. VPNs are easy-to-download systems for anonymously gaining access to the internet via another computer’s IP address. Used by millions of Chinese, they have become the main tools for working around the censors—but more recently have been targeted. While some VPNs are still in use, they are reportedly slower and more erratic since the new law, but alternatives are hard to find.

This is the pattern of the free-speech battle in 21st-century China. Sometimes a new product or idea, such as Telegram, enters the market promising to bypass censorship and then it’s a matter of time before it’s removed or blocked. FreeWeibo, a site which captures all the posts taken off Weibo (China’s version of Twitter), is another example among many.

Weiwei grew up in the 1980s, a time of perceived freedom after the repressive policies of Mao and before the Internet. Has all the new technology brought more or less freedom? “When I was growing up, there were no blogs, no Facebook and the like. The government controlled the media and felt more in control than today,” he said. “Now it’s harder to stop the flow of information, but it is also spending a lot more money and manpower to censor information than ever before.”

The sheer volume of information is the biggest difference from the past. Michel Hockx, director of SOAS China Institute, University of London, writes regularly on Chinese literature and Internet culture. He lived in China in the 1980s, when there were fewer newspapers, magazines, books, theatres, concert halls and museums. Everything was more state-controlled and ideological.

“The 1980s was intellectually very free compared to what came before it [the Cultural Revolution], and it was exciting for those doing daring things underground or on university campuses. But the country as a whole and the population as a whole is infinitely freer now than it was in the 1980s,” Professor Hockx told Index. “If you look at what is being published and discussed on the Internet nowadays, and you go back to books from the 1980s, you’ll see the difference. It’s massive.”

Certain writers, once banned, are now readily available, said Hockx, mentioning the “Misty Poets” from the 1980s. Their work was often critical of the government but they are now considered giants of the contemporary Chinese literary canon, appearing in every textbook and anthology—showing that criticism of government policy, once a big no-no, is now allowed to a degree. It is the same for translated works: in the 1980s, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was banned for being too sexual, but now it can be bought anywhere.

Censorship is no longer “prescriptive” but rather “prohibitive”. Hockx explained: “It tells you a few things you cannot say or do, but otherwise anything goes. The majority of people can live with that, so the conflicts are less tense and less significant to most people.”

Censorship can still be clunky and obvious, such as when certain films and books are banned. But with a population less willing to put up with restrictions and with more tools to counter them, it tends to be very subtle, especially online.

“In previous years, for instance, Weibo might block an entire sensitive term, such as ‘June 4th’ or ‘Wukan protests’. But now, instead of wholesale blocking, results are more likely to be selectively curated. This gives the appearance of unrestricted access of information but is censorship all the same,” said Liz Carter, author of the recently published book Let 100 Voices Speak: How the Internet Is Transforming China and Changing Everything.


 “I have turned from best-selling author to a creature
of the shadows” 
Writer Murong Xuecun on censorship in China. 

More than 20,000 words were lost from the China edition of my fourth novel, Dancing Through Red Dust, which is the story of a corrupt Chinese lawyer who ends up on death row. In China, when a publisher tells you your book needs “revisions”, they mean “cuts”. I could describe corruption, but not the causes of corruption. My corrupt judges could be shown as bad individuals but I was not allowed to criticise the legal system. I could describe life inside China’s prisons and remand centres, but had to remove scenes—based on interviews with wardens and former prisoners—that raised controversial issues, such as the system of “cell monitors” (inmates charged with disciplining their cellmates), or the practice of selling organs of death row prisoners. Seven different publishers read my manuscript before I got a contract. They had described it variously as “a compelling read”, “powerful” and “deep”—but none dared offer me a contract. A southern China publisher, after months of hesitation, finally agreed to take it. This is one of the bravest publishers I have known, but unfortunately just months later, they paid a serious price for their courage, because they were forced to shut down. As the publication date approached, the publisher already had serious apprehensions. Several times he told me: “I can’t be sure what kind of trouble publishing this book may bring us, so we must prepare and ‘do some revisions, a lot of revisions’.” When the Chinese version of the book was released in late 2008, I discovered without any great surprise, that numerous passages on China’s legal and justice enforcement systems passages had been “revised” to the extent that there was hardly a trace of them. The censors also demanded a new ending for the book—the original was thought to be unhealthily dark. The original title of the book was also changed by the publisher, in anticipation of a backlash. I had wanted to use the Chinese characters for mancheng (full city) and yiguan(officials’ hats and robes), loosely translating as A City of Officials. But the Chinese word yiguan is often associated with another word, qinshou, meaning inhuman. The implication of this title is that the behaviour of the city’s impeccably dressed officials is little different from that of beasts. My publisher firmly insisted we change the title to yuanjing wo (forgive me) hong cheng (red dust, a metaphor for the human world), diandao (inverted, confused). Diandao, used as a verb, can also articulate a strategy that Chinese writers may adopt by offering inventive explanations of the meaning of words or phrases to make them seem less sensitive. When navigating the censorship process, with all its risks and uncertainties, sometimes our best response is to muddy the waters. “If censorship cannot be abolished, I hope that it can become more relaxed. If it cannot become more relaxed, I hope it can become more rational,” I said in a 2011 talk about censorship. Four years later, I find that more and more books can’t be published, more and more topics can’t be discussed, more and more authors are being sent to jail for things they said. As for me, I have turned from a best-selling author into a creature of the shadows who often cannot speak out, whose writings cannot be published. China’s censorship has not become more relaxed or logical, but ever more strict and stupid. The only positive development is that there are more creatures of the shadows like me now, and we are not frightened like our predecessors were. My friends and I, together with countless other writers, journalists and lawyers, and millions of our fellow citizens, are preparing to welcome a China that enjoys freedom of expression. 

 Murong Xuecun is an author based in Beijing and Hong Kong. A full English translation of Dancing Through Red Dust, which restores the original ending and other material cut from the Chinese edition, is published by Make-Do Publishing and comes out this month.

As the nature of censorship has shifted, so have counter-censorship measures. They have also become more nuanced and clever. Advanced technologies are used to bypass internet censorship and even simple tools involve an element of craft.

“Getting around content filters does require a lot of creativity, [like] writing words differently, using puns and homonyms and so on,” said Carter. “Media outlets, activists and ordinary individuals have found an amazing variety of ways to alert their readers that the government is interfering with the free flow of information.”

Hockx said he was struck by how people today, especially China’s youth, approached the free-speech battle in a more playful and ironic manner: “The 1980s generation was extremely brave and heroic, and fond of grand gestures. They really gave you the impression that they were fighting the system, but in many ways they were using the same language as the system: the language of revolution, battle, struggle and so on. Nowadays most people just ignore the system or make fun of it, and the language of the system seems strangely outdated and obsolete.”

Some of these techniques nevertheless borrow from the past, such as a practice called “opening a skylight”. “Opening a skylight is a form of protest by which newspaper editors leave blank space in their printed editions where censors removed articles or information, thereby alerting readers to the censorship,” Carter explained. “This was done at least as early as 1911, when one Chinese paper protested the Qing dynasty’s censorship of information about the Wuchang Uprising, and it is still occasionally done today.”

But the modern form of opening a skylight will see outlets alerting the reader to censorship through allusions or catchphrases. For example, during a press conference at the start of China’s annual parliamentary session in early 2014, a government representative responded to journalists’ questions on the highly sensitive trial of former state security chief Zhou Yongkang with the words “you understand”. The implication was he could only reveal so much. Since then, Chinese media have used the phrase “you understand” to signify the unsayable.

Free-speech advocates are nervous about Xi Jinping’s China and rightly so. This summer has seen the arrest of scores of human-rights lawyers, as well as the new national security legislation. Fewer topics are out of bounds, but those which are remain fiercely guarded. Despite this, the situation has improved from the recent past, and when censorship does take place there are ways around it—if only for a fleeting moment.


How the NYT skirts the censors

The New York Times—both the English and Chinese language versions —has been blocked in China since October 2012, when an article revealed the private wealth of then premier Wen Jiabao. The Times’ relationship with China could have ended then—but it didn’t.

Not only is it still available in China but its readership is growing. According to Craig Smith, managing director for The New York Times in China, only the US, Canada and the UK represent larger online markets.

“We are regaining our readership and continuing to produce quality journalism in Chinese,” Ching-Ching Ni, editor-in-chief of the newspaper’s Chinese website, headquartered in Beijing, confirmed to Index.

Ni was not at liberty to reveal more; nor would other Times employees in China when approached by Index. But Internet experts who have been watching the company have come to their own conclusions about its success.

Many readers are gaining access to the site via VPNs, but The New York Times also uses a variety of measures to make its content accessible to a Chinese audience.

The first method is known as mirroring. The NYT distributes new articles across three or four “mirror” sites. These look and feel similar to the original, but are hosted on a different server, making them harder for the censors to track.

The alternative server is usually one that is government-sanctioned, and so to block the site officials would have to stymie content they don’t otherwise want to block. Amazon’s server is often used—to take down that server would affect all the businesses using Amazon in China.

Eventually most of these mirror sites are blocked, yet the small window of availability is all the NYT needs to have an impact. It also uses apps to its advantage. New apps are created, sometimes openly branded with The New York Times name and logo, and articles are distributed on these.

The same goes for social media. While the official account is blocked, unofficial accounts spring up, often under similar names.

Finally, the news organisation also syndicates material to local websites and newspapers, such as QDaily, a popular news aggregator.

None of these measures is foolproof and they all come with potential risks, including fines, prison sentences or, in the case of foreign workers, visa problems. But all is not lost on the wrong side of China’s Internet censors—so long as one thinks outside the box.