Subverting Censorship

Censorship is one of the Chinese Communist Party’s most powerful tools.  Throughout the sixty-two years the party has ruled, its hold over the country’s media has been crucial to its attempt to both unite and control the Chinese population.  However, the internet age has created an unprecedented situation in which government censorship is actually catalyzing creativity.

How can a rigorous internet censorship campaign result in increased creativity? Today, China has over four hundred million internet users. These users range from casual bloggers to high-profile writers seeking a broader audience.  No matter what the internet users are publishing, however, they are all acutely aware of what ideas they cannot disseminate. Their intimate recognition of these forbidden words allows them to develop a secondary lexicon to express themselves.

As each user attempts to subtly out-step government censors, they are forced to exercise their creativity, creating codes to communicate their opinions.  Yu Hua, a famous Chinese author, describes this process by saying, “To evade censorship when expressing their opinions on the internet, Chinese people give full rein to the rhetorical functions of language, elevating to a sublime level both innuendo and metaphor, parody and hyperbole, conveying sarcasm and scorn through veiled gibes and wily indirection.” For example, internet users have adopted the word “harmony,” touted by Hu Jin Tao, the President of China, in his signature “harmonious society” campaign.  Mocking the government slogan, internet users write that they have been “harmonized” to alert other readers that censors have blocked their online writing.

Engaging in this high-level word play, internet users exercise their creativity so that their work is understood by their target audience while appearing benign to the ever-wary government censors. Communication on such a large scale outside of full government control is an unprecedented trend in the CCP’s history. In his acceptance speech for the 2010 People’s Literature Award, acclaimed author Murong Xuecun said of the CCP’s traditional control over the media, “In my country, the job of the press and electronic media is to promote the government, not to report the truth. The education system is tasked with instructing the people to be loyal to the government and keeping the people ignorant, not with disseminating knowledge.” Within the context of this system, even a censored internet is a drastic departure from the controlled education and stymied traditional media forums of the past.

As an increasing number of Chinese authors turn away from the heavily scrutinized world of print publishing and begin to expand into the online literary world, their verbal dance around internet censors is only becoming more advanced. Murong has mastered this art. Although he has published critiques of rampant government corruption, he has never encountered issues with censors because he publishes a censored print version and a more free-form online edition for his followers.  Unlike other outspoken Chinese authors who have fled the country and are now publishing to a predominantly Western audience, Murong’s ability to use internet publishing to evade censors allows him to direct his message at his target audience, the Chinese people.

Because the Chinese internet is a literary forum comparatively free of government intimidation, online literature has the potential to be the most effective platform for individual expression in contemporary China.  As long as authors like Murong can continue to work within the system, they can take advantage of the incredible power of the internet to mold and shape Chinese society.  This is not to say that the internet is a completely protected incubator for free thought.  Famed thinkers and bloggers such as Ai Weiwei have faced the consequences of publishing their thoughts too openly online.  Despite this reality, however, there has never been a more powerful forum for political self-expression in China.  As long as writers continue to play the game well, this freedom will not be wholly revoked.

The remaining question is whether the upswell in online literature will eventually translate into action offline. As a generation of idealistic internet writers comment on the flaws of Chinese society online, they do so knowing that the authorities are not as likely to hold them accountable for their words. While it is unclear whether this freedom will spur concrete change, for the time being the internet may be the exact source of mobilization needed in China—a place for citizens to turn their thoughts into collective expression.

Elizabeth W. Pike ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Holworthy Hall.