How China's Censor Machine Works


The awarding of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo made front-page news all over the world. But in China, you could be forgiven for missing the story. The last week has been an interesting lesson in the complex machinery of Chinese censorship, and has offered a few insights into the confusing way in which the news is constructed here — and the ways it can be challenged.

First, a look at the official media. Initially, the response was a resounding hush. There was no mention of the prize on CCTV, China’s main news station, and it didn’t appear on the front web page of the official news agency Xinhuanet — though the other Nobel recipients were all happily announced.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Chaoxu did hold a press conference on 8 October, where he stated that the decision went against the principles of the prize and would "do harm to Sino-Norwegian relations". The official news sources obligingly buried even this statement in the back pages; it only got traction in overseas sites.

Knowing the story wouldn’t go away, Xinhua ran a report the following day quoting a Russian academic, titled "Russian Media say the Nobel Prize Has Become a Political Tool of the West." According to the China Media Project’s news feed, journalists were reporting that the "Ministry of Truth" had ordered them to run this story. Twitter reports also said that a directive ordered journalists to take down any Nobel Prize features.

The following day, Xinhua had found a Norwegian who agreed the prize was illegitimate. On Tuesday, the Foreign Ministry’s regular press conference got the same line from the same spokesperson.

Not only the journalists but the sources are targeted. A ban was issued against Jilin University professors taking interviews about former student Liu. All of this information is regularly leaked by Chinese journalists via Twitter and the Chinese equivalent, Sina’s Weibo. Though the former is blocked and the latter heavily censored, the reports have a chance to get out before they get deleted.

In real life, a gathering of Liu’s supporters was broken up and some have been placed under eight day detention, according to The Guardian. Reports on Human Rights in China list individuals placed under increased surveillance and in some cases house arrest.

Meanwhile, the tweets were resounding first with congratulations — and then soon reports of further restrictions. Liu Xia, the wife of Liu Xiaobo, reported she is under house arrest. "My mobile phone has been messed up, so I can’t receive phone calls." Text messages containing the Chinese characters for Liu Xiaobo’s name were quickly blocked.

Internet censorship is surprisingly rapid and efficient. Google searches for Liu Xiaobo turn up "not responding" errors, and Google itself disappears for five minutes afterward. But many Chinese people get around the Great Firewall, often called by its flimsier and more porous name the Bamboo Curtain, by using web-based proxy servers (like or ninjacloak), software such as fanqian, or buying an overseas VPN which hides their location from Chinese censors. There is an escalating battle between those building the wall and those climbing over it.

In a more PR-savvy strategy, the state also employs thousands of people who make up the "50 cent party" — paid government astroturfers who trawl the web leaving pro-party comments and steering discussion along orthodox lines, so named because of their cash-for-comment fee. This tactic is well known among Chinese web users and often dismissed, but it is a powerful method of steering discourse and one increasingly used everywhere.

No attempt to suppress information will completely succeed, and even censorship allows room for some dissenting voices. One can only assume that the Chinese government is hoping the issue will blow over. That they are banking on the apathy and complicity of the vast majority of the population, or a willingness to buy the line that the West is out to get China.

Many have no choice but to buy it. For the majority of Chinese readers and internet users, the news has a habit of vanishing. It is not an unsophisticated process. The news is constructed everywhere, and contrary to the usual representations of Chinese censorship as a blunt instrument wielded over a subjugated population, the everyday reality is closer to the corporate-style image management we’re familiar with in the West. Chinese people are just as intelligent at navigating the various sources, and just as cynical (perhaps more so) about the unreliability of the mainstream line. But these subtleties tend to be missed in favour of representing China as a volatile country, an enemy of human rights, and potentially of the USA.

Allegations of a Western conspiracy to destabilise China might seem paranoid, but the award is certainly a calculated risk, in part an attempt to prise open the stuck jar of Chinese domestic media. And it is certainly biased — I doubt there would be such a gleeful reception internationally if the Chinese started handing out human rights awards to prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.

The embarrassment is compounded by anxiety. China’s image management gurus have long been yearning for a Nobel — but they keep giving them to the wrong Chinese people. See Evan Osnos’ piece on this in the New Yorker.

Resistance is complicated. There are quiet means of talking about censorship without talking about it directly. On the blog of novelist Han Han, the post for the 8th October reads simply " ". Twitter might be blocked along with Facebook and Blogger, but the internet-savvy post-80s and 90s generations are quick to find ways to spread the news, regardless of what the government-sponsored media say. I found out about the prize myself from a Chinese friend. Foreign media are still pretty much allowed to say what they like, and the tolerance for dissent wavers — but has apparently been getting worse since the last major PR sweep, the 2008 Olympics.

Generations of amnesia and complicity are perhaps the government’s most powerful tool. But on Wednesday it became even clearer that freedom of the press is not an issue which is going to go away.

On 11 October, 23 elder statesmen of the Communist Party submitted an open letter to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s highest state body, calling for freedom of speech and freedom of the press in line with Article 35 of China’s constitution, which has never been realised. The letter says, "this false democracy of formal avowal and concrete denial has become a scandalous mark on the history of world democracy."

The open letter goes on to point out that censorship has become so pervasive that it even affects Premier Wen Jiabao, whose three recent speeches about political reform have all been edited out of official news releases. "Right now the Central Propaganda Department is placed above the Central Committee of the Communist Party, and above the State Council. We would ask, what right does the Central Propaganda Department have to muzzle the speech of the Premier? What right does it have to rob the people of our nation of their right to know what the Premier has said?"

The process of centralised control of publishing is already challenged by online media. But in China the system is such that everything has to gain approval through the Central Propaganda Department before it can be published.

The letter has appeared in a timely manner after the Nobel Prize but it appears to be written in response to the detention of journalist Xie Chaoping, who was recently detained for a month over his book which investigated the forced relocation of many people in Shaanxi province during the damming of the Yellow River in the 1950s. The letter demands that his case be investigated. And its demand that history should be liberated from officialdom may prove to be the most dangerous one.

The letter’s fourth demand is that "internet regulatory bodies must not arbitrarily delete online posts and online comments. Online spies must be abolished, the "Fifty-cent Party" must be abolished, and restrictions on "tunneling/[anti-censorship]" technologies must be abolished."

The China Media Project is now reporting that the letter is "being swiped from China’s internet at lightning speed" — no surprises there.

Liu Xiaobo is in prison for his involvement with Charter 08, a statement initially signed by 303 activists making several strong demands for democratic reform. Its circulation has been part of the blossoming of the era of internet activism in China, which while not about to bring out a utopian future led by the people, is certainly helping to undermine the state’s claim to monopoly on truth. Liu Xiaobo himself once called the internet "God’s present to China" and praised it for bringing about "the awakening of ideas among the Chinese". Learning to use it only ten years ago changed his work forever. This Nobel prize is the first awarded to a new generation of activists — a generation making social change through social media.

The level of support for the party line in China is hard for a newbie like me to gauge, as is the level of resistance. It’s obvious that the microblogs are not about to turn into a mass movement on the streets. But perhaps those days are over. It may be a complicated machine, but it is only a question of how long Chinese censorship can withstand the triple pressure as the international community pushes from outside, ex-Party officials from within and microbloggers from below.

Jennifer Mills is in China on an Asialink Arts residency.


Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.