Censorship in China and the “Known Unknown” of Political Stability

This week I read two interesting articles on censorship in China, one by former New York Times Beijing correspondent Howard French and the other by New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos. Together, they point to what the not-so-great Donald Rumsfeld might have called a “known unknown” in our understanding of China: Is that country’s ruling party really maintaining political stability in spite of the myriad and increasing pressures it faces, or is it just manipulating the information we receive well enough to make us think that it is?

Osnos’ essay, for the Times‘ Sunday Review, relates his decision not to have his new book published in China because of the extensive cuts that would have required. Osnos’ description of “China’s censored world” should be familiar to anyone who has studied or spent time in an authoritarian regime: the limits of permissible speech are always a little fuzzy, and people test them at their own peril.

Living and writing in Beijing from 2005 to 2013, I found that the precise boundaries of the censored world were difficult to map. Though some rules leak to the public—last month, the State Council Information Office advised all websites to “find and remove the video titled ‘Actual Footage of Chengdu Police Surrounding and Beating Homeowners Who Were Defending Their Rights'”—most of the censored world is populated by unmentionable names and untellable stories, defined by rules that are themselves secret.

French’s article , for Columbia Journalism Review, focuses on the arc of censorship of major foreign outlets over the past several years, using the tale of a spiked Bloomberg exposé to show how that arc has bent toward tighter control after a short-lived boom in investigative journalism on high politics. French reported from China for the New York Times from 2003 to 2008, a time when, he says, foreign correspondents often gleaned some of their best material from frustrated Chinese counterparts who reasoned “that at least the news would be on the record somewhere, and with a bit of luck, word might eventually filter back into China.” That changed in 2012, however, when those foreign outlets competed “over a critical story: political maneuvering and corruption at the highest levels of the Chinese political system.”

Against the backdrop of a once-a-decade leadership transition in China, three big American news organizations, one after the other, began breaking historic ground with original investigative work, ground on which no one in the Chinese media, however plucky, had ever dared to tread.

Unsurprisingly, Chinese officials fought back, using both political and commercial levers to put the lid back on. According to Osnos,

The New York Times has been unable to receive new residency visas for journalists for more than a year, because it reported on the family wealth of Chinese leaders. Bloomberg News is facing similar retaliation for its investigations of party officials.

French’s article in particular got me thinking about how this tightening of censorship in China might be obscuring our view of trends in politics there. By definition, censorship produces selection bias in the flow of information we receive, and in this case we know the censors’ intent is to bias our perceptions in a particular direction. Right now, the Chinese regime is under a remarkable amount of pressure. Some observers have argued that the Communist Party is well equipped to manage this pressure and point to the absence of obvious crisis as corroborating evidence, but I’m not so sure. As Osnos describes,

The most difficult part of writing about contemporary China is capturing its proportions: How much of the story is truly inspiring, and how much of it is truly grim? How much of its values are reflected in technology start-ups and stories of self-creation, and how much of its values are reflected in the Great Firewall and abuses of power? It is tempting to accept censorship as a matter of the margins—a pruning that leaves the core of the story intact—but altering the proportions of a portrait of China gives a false reflection of how China appears to the world at a moment when it is making fundamental choices about what kind of country it will become.

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