On Censorship

In the 2004 Worldwide Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Sans Frontières, China is ranked 162 out of 167 countries.[1] RSF says that more journalists – 32 of them – are imprisoned in China than anywhere else. Essays published on the Internet can land people in prison for terms of over ten years; a man called Huang Jinqiu received 12 years in 2003. Print journalists are not safe either, but as it is impossible for articles critical of the system or the central government to appear in print, their arrests are usually due to investigating local issues such as rural unrest, corruption or industrial protests. After a crackdown on Nanfang Dushi Bao (Southern Metropolis) in 2003 for its reporting on the SARS epidemic and the death in detention of a student who was arrested for not having identity documents on him, two of its journalists were sentenced to 12 and 11 years respectively — despite the fact that the government subsequently adopted a strategy of openness about SARS and abolished the so-called Custody and Repatriation, the scheme under which the dead student had been arrested.

Several documents provide the formal basis for limiting the freedom of expression. The Constitution itself says that citizens cannot “harm the collective interests of the country” and that they must “protect state secrets,” “uphold public order and social mores,” and protect the “security, honour and interests of the Fatherland” (Articles 51-54). Obsession with secrets is a peculiar characteristic of Chinese regulations: delegations going abroad are supposed to receive training on the protection of secrets before departure. The definition of secrets is exceptionally broad: the Law on the Protection of State Secrets extends it to any subject classified as such by any government body, providing a constitutional basis of arbitrary restrictions on freedom of speech. The Penal Code of 1997 makes “dividing the Fatherland” (through either words or deeds) and “harming the country’s unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity” a crime punishable with three to ten years in prison, and journalists who publish opinions that “endanger state security or harm the country’s reputation or interests” can be sentenced to prison terms of up to three years (Articles 103 and 250). Article 26 of the Publishing Statutes[2] repeats these prohibitions and adds that no publication may “promote heresy or superstition,” “destabilize public order or damage social stability,” or “harm social mores or the nation’s outstanding cultural tradition”. Articles 54-56 of the same Statutes make those responsible for publishing, importing, printing, reproducing or distributing such material liable to criminal prosecution and dismissal, as well as to the confiscation of the offending material and a fine of up to ten times of the “illegal gain,” and in “serious cases,” the company may be ordered to close down. Publishers who allow others to produce such materials by selling their ISBNs – a widespread practice that allows the semilegal existence of de facto private publishing companies – are liable to the same punishment.[3]

The government body with actual power over what can be reported, displayed, published, aired or performed is the Propaganda Department of the CCP. In February 2006, a former head of the Propaganda Department, Zhu Houze, and a number of other senior retired officials, wrote a letter saying that the department’s controls on the media violated the constitution; the letter was reproduced on various blogs. In 2005, Jiao Guobiao, a lecturer in journalism at Peking University, was dismissed for calling for the abolition of the department and placed under surveillance. (He was the only known dissident on the “traitors” list that originated on US-based bulletin boards.) In its 2006 Congress, the Communist Party reaffirmed that “news and publishing, radio, film and television, and the social sciences” continue to need “correct guidance of public opinion”.[4] This was because, as a recent editorial in the People’s Daily put it,

Opinion is either true or false. Information is either good or bad. Historical experience demonstrates that correct guidance of public opinion is a blessing for the Party and the people; when guidance of public opinion is wrong, this is a misfortune for the Party and the people. Particularly as information flow increases, as the avenues and methods for obtaining information grow daily more diverse, correct guidance of ideology and public opinion is irreplaceably useful in helping people understand the Party’s propositions, accept scientific theory, be clear about their own responsibility, distinguish right from wrong and twisted from straight, correctly tell good from evil and sublime from foul, foster good behavior and morals as the order of the day, waken the creative energies of society, continuously promote social harmony and other areas.[5]

The Propaganda Department’s publishing rules, the latest of which is the Notice on a Repeated Announcement on Strictly Enforcing Publishing Management Rules, state that book manuscripts must undergo “three vettings” (三审), meaning that they have to be approved by two levels of management above the editor in charge. These are to ensure the “quality” and the “direction of thought” (思想倾向) of the publications and prevent the publication of “erroneous views”.[6] A similar procedure operates for periodicals. In addition, book publishers must submit an advance list of titles to be published each year to the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP, 新闻出版总署, a body under the “guidance” of the Propaganda Department), and certain titles have to receive prior permission. These include:

1. Publications by or about current or past executive members of the Politburo. They must be approved by the Central Committee.

2. Publications on the history of China and the Chinese Communist Party. These “may not contain erroneous views negating or distorting the history of the struggle of the Party, the military and the people.” It must “correctly distinguish political issues” – which are not up for discussion – “from scholarly questions.”

3. Publications on the military and on foreign policy.

4. Publications on ethnicity (民族) and religion. Some categories of religious publications are only allowed to circulate within religious establishments, while

all Islamic scriptures, classics and popular reading material based on the doctrines and rules of Islam, as well popular reading matter based on so-called ‘hearsay and soft matters’ are as a matter of principle not arranged for publication. Albums and picture books on Islam may not be arranged for publication.

In 2007 – the Year of the Pig – GAPP and the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television instructed media to avoid all references to pigs in television programming and advertising “in consideration of ethnic groups,” i.e. of perceived Muslim sensitivities.[7]

5. Learning materials on Party and People’s Congresses.[8]

Another set of rules, published in 1997 but posted on GAPP’s website in 2006, has a slightly different list of categories, notably including publications on the Cultural Revolution, high-level personalities of the Kuomintang, the Soviet Union and other “brotherly parties and states,” Hong Kong and Macau; maps of China’s borders; cartoons; and directories.[9] These rules also establish the procedure of applying for GAPP approval: the application must include an explanation of the author’s or editor’s background and be accompanied by a supporting opinion from the government department with which the publisher is affiliated (all publishers being nominally state-owned, this is usually a provincial government or a central ministry) or the local party organisation’s propaganda department. Periodicals must also follow the system of “three vettings,” up to the level of editor-in-chief.[10]

The rules make it clear that GAPP does not approve publications on its own but in turn seeks permission from the government bodies appropriate to the case (the Party Central Committee in the case of books dealing with Party leaders; the Central Military Commission in the case of military-related books; religious affairs authorities in the case of religious materials, and so on). Furthermore, some categories of publications – such as those about the Party and its leaders or on religion – may only be published by Renmin Chubanshe or Zhongyang Wenxian Chubanshe (People’s Publishers and Central Document Publishers, presses belonging directly to GAPP) unless GAPP has authorized another press to do so. Publishers who violate these rules repeatedly or whose actions lead to “serious consequences” can be shut down and those responsible dismissed.[11] In any case, the heads of television and radio stations, publishing houses and newspapers are salaried cadres appointed by the Propaganda Department, and even though they are rewarded for good economic performance they are unlikely to risk punishment for political missteps. Those newspapers that are known for pushing the limits of censorship are able to do so because they have bonus systems that counteract the state’s effort to link loyal reporting to economic incentives: they reward journalists for a report even if they decide not to publish it out of caution.[12]

The real power of these rules lies not in defining the categories of titles to receive prior permission, but in leaving open the possibility of sanctions for the leaking of “secrets” in publications whose range is undefined. Article 6 of the rules states that

All publications, including those circulated internally, are prohibited to reveal secrets regarding major state policies, defense construction and military strength, diplomacy and foreign affairs, as well as matters that must be kept secret to the outside; secrets regarding the national economy and social development; scientific and technological secrets; secrets related to the protection of state security and the persecution of crime; and other secrets as determined by the state’s secret protection work bodies.

As it is impossible to determine what information from any of these realms is a “secret,” the rules further stipulate that

any content related to major state policies, Party documents and files, defense construction and military strength, the state’s diplomatic activities and foreign propaganda work, statistical information or data on the national economy and social development, cutting-edge science or technology or data, surveys or maps reflecting scientific and technological achievements, state security activities and the persecution of crime, other matters from any state body or profession that are unsuitable for publication, as well as matters whose classification as secret is uncertain, must strictly be submitted for approval prior to publication.

Clearly, these “rubber clauses” can fit any disclosure at all if the government so decides: they can be and has been used against any author or publisher who has provoked the government’s anger. The Canton newspaper 21st Century World Economic Herald, which was shut down by the Guangdong Propaganda Department in 2003 after criticizing the provincial authorities for withholding information on SARS, had not violated any of the specific clauses named in the rules. In the same year, the Singapore journalist Ching Cheong was sentenced to five years in prison on charges of supplying state secrets to the Taiwan government, but his relatives say that he had only advised mainland Chinese leaders; it is more likely that he was punished for gathering materials about Zhao Ziyang, the former Secretary-General of the CCP who had been under house arrest since the protests of 1989. In 2006, Li Datong, the editor of the magazine Freezing Point, was fired after censure by the Propaganda Department. He told a BBC reporter that he had requested a written explanation but was not given one.[13] Also that year, the editor-in-chief and the Party secretary of the popular China Youth Daily were demoted without an explanation; it is believed that the paper was being seen as “too liberal”. And the People’s Daily reported the arrest of a low-level official on charges of disseminating a satirical poem that made fun of officials via e-mail and text messages.[14]

Faced with the murkiness of these regulations, media editors rely on verbal instructions for deciding how to write about particular issues. Periodically, GAPP and SARFT leaders hold special meetings for the top leaders of television and print media companies and give them detailed instructions on covering current issues. At such a meeting held in January 2007, ahead of the half-yearly session of the National People’s Congress, attendees were given such diverse instructions as “Don’t publicize speeches affirming privatization,” “Avoid exposing internal stories of the judiciary,” “Don’t comment, speculate, and question important national projects from a Western standpoint,” “Stories about women shouldn’t exaggerate multiple relationships,” or “Don’t publicize the independence of universities.”[15] Those in attendance summarize these points – those cited here were leaked onto the Internet from such privately taken notes – and either pass them on verbally to their employees or issue them within their organisations as internal memos. For instance, according to a senior news reporter at CCTV, senior staff receive detailed written briefs every week containing what not to say or cover in their work. They are then responsible for passing this information on verbally to their subordinates.[16]

But since these points are still – deliberately – vague, large media such as television stations reportedly employ personnel whose main responsibility is to interpret the circulars and contact the Propaganda Department if in doubt.[17] As a professor of law at Tsinghua University wrote in his blog:

Those who work in media circles all know that ‘getting in touch,’ going to meetings to ‘find out where the wind is blowing from’ (通风会) and ‘ban orders’ are their requisite curriculum before their everyday work. All of these are conducted through verbal announcements (宣读), phone calls, or word of mouth. No document, no text, no recording.[18]

In most cases, whether to seek permission for the publication of a book or article or not is ultimately up to the publisher. But if the book, once published, is banned or draws criticism from the Propaganda Department – this happens on a regular basis – all of those involved in the process are punished. Room for this is provided by Article 8 of the Propaganda Department’s rules, which makes publishers responsible for putting in place procedures for “post-publication approval and pre-republication approval, approval of advertising … and pre-distribution approval”, but does not outline when or how they should be implemented. Such sanctions are rarely applied, however, because the professional socialization of editors ensures that they screen out any potential trouble, usually at the very first level of vetting. For example, when we sent the Chinese translation of a chapter of this book to a first-line editor at the People’s Literature Publishing House, we immediately received a reply – on MSN Messenger – saying there was no way for it to be published. Even upon cursory inspection, the chapter contained too many sensitive words, and a more detailed look confirmed that we were indeed asking for trouble (找麻烦).

GAPP regularly gathers publishers’ representatives to give an update on the yearly list of publication approvals. These conferences serve to let publishers know what GAPP officials consider “sensitive” and what they are displeased with. For example, at the January 2007 conference, GAPP’s deputy director Wu Shulin announced a ban on eight books and “vowed to impose severe punishment on their publishers.” The books, which include one on Peking Opera and one on SARS, “are reflections by intellectuals on historical and social events of the past six decades.”[19] Following this, GAPP circulated a notice to local propaganda departments instructing them that websites should “promptly clear those posts that are using the news to attack the country’s press and publication systems. … Please dispatch special persons to supervise and immediately implement this notice.”[20]

Films and broadcasts have to be submitted to the State Radio, Film and Television Administration (SRFTA), whose “film approval centre” (审片中心) hands them out to committees that include some senior retired cadres. This makes for even more erratic decisions if the cadres find a production “in vulgar taste” or “of a problematic direction” or “divorced from real life” (they found all these to be the case with the television series Yixiao dafang [Make a fool of yourself], for example, which was banned in 2001[21]). As a poster on the popular blog of Wang Xiaofeng, a former editor of the popular Sanlian Lifestyle Weekly, wrote:

today they are anxious so they don’t let you film anything about criminal cases, tomorrow they get anxious and don’t let you film any historical dramas, the next day they get anxious and don’t let you broadcast any foreign cartoons.[22]

This comment refers to the ban on the broadcast of foreign cartoons on television between 5 and 8 pm. The ban, introduced in September 2006 out of concern for the potential effects of “foreign culture” on children, also protects the domestic animation industry. Simultaneously, the SRFTA was rumoured to be drafting rules to ban Internet broadcasts satirizing historical figures of the Communist Party, other cultural heroes and approved films – in other words, that which is commonly referred to as the “five-thousand-year-old superior Chinese culture”. In early 2007, the SRFTA announced that television stations would have to submit all soap operas and all satellite programmes would have to be subjected to “four levels of approval” up to the Central Propaganda Department one month before broadcast.[23]

Often, the decision to ban a film is officially justified by technical shortcomings. Thus, when the SRFTA blocked Lou Ye’s film Summer Palace – a love story in the days leading up to Tiananmen – from being aired at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006, it cited unsatisfactory sound and lighting. (When Lou nonetheless showed it, the government banned him from making films in China for five years, and announced that copies of Summer Palace would be confiscated and income from it seized.) On the other hand, Mission Impossible III was banned from airing in China for showing “backward” neighbourhoods in Shanghai and portraying Chinese police as inept. And the year before, Geisha was banned – in the wake of Internet protests – for offending China’s national dignity by having a Chinese actress playing a Japanese geisha during the days of Japanese aggression in China. (The actress, Zhang Ziyi, was, on the other hand, praised for getting awards for the film.) From the standpoint of access, these measures are symbolic, since most Chinese watch films on pirated DVDs, and copies of all three films are available. But it does have a negative effect on directors, both in terms of revenue and possibilities of state funding. Thus, the weapon of censorship is used strategically: Zhang Yimou, whose earlier films had repeatedly been banned, was rewarded with a premiere in the Great Hall of the People when he produced Hero, which many interpreted as an endorsement of dictatorship for the sake of national unity.[24]

Perry Link writes that China’s censorship operates on a vague fear like that instilled by an anaconda in the chandelier. “By ‘fear’ I do not mean a clear and present sense of panic. I mean a dull, well-entrenched leeriness that people who deal with the Chinese censorship system usually get used to, and eventually accept as part of their natural landscape.” [25]

The anaconda is usually invisible, and no one knows clearly when it will be provoked to move. Although everyone feels that certain phrases are taboo, no list of such phrases exists, except a 2003 announcement by the Party that, in academic conferences and the media, no one is to mention three subjects: “political reform,” “constitutional amendments,” or “the June Fourth incident.” As for opinions, one generally feels where the limits lie, but those who push them are not punished according to a predictable system. As the blogger wrote, it probably matters whether you are calling for action or merely expressing thoughts. It also matters whether you write in a small-circulation scholarly journal or a highly popular blog (so that the Internet may in some cases be more restrictive than a printed medium!) Even more, it matters whether you are addressing a domestic or international audience. If you are suspected of serving “anti-Chinese” interests, then you can get arrested even for divulging information that has been published in a newspaper in China, but has not been picked up abroad, or for suggesting action that the government is in fact planning to take. This was the case with the Southern Metropolis journalists; with New York Times researcher Zhao Yan who was charged with leaking the news that Jiang Zemin would step down as head of the Central Military Commission; with Jiang Yanyong, a retired army doctor who blew the whistle on SARS to Western media; and with Lu Jianhua, an academic who wrote four articles for the Singapore Straits Times on China’s international relations. In other words, one may be punished not for expressing a particular opinion, but for having done so without authorization and thus evaded the Centre’s discipline. The anaconda system, Link writes, works because when the targeting seems arbitrary and no one knows exactly what is allowed and what isn’t, people tend to curtail a wider range of opinions and activities.[26]

Apart from a few editors known for their political risk-taking, most choose to err on the side of caution. describes the way An article by an American professor teaching journalism in Canton, written for the campus newspaper but not published, provides a number of illustrations of this situation. One of his students wrote about Americans coming to Canton to adopt Chinese children. The editor rejected the story, saying that the authorities did not want such stories – sensing, no doubt, a chance that some might see them as “insulting China”. Another wrote about a gay bar. The editor declined to publish it, saying the figure it quoted for the ratio of homosexuals in China differed from the official estimate. It is unlikely that either had received specific instructions on these topics. (A third student wrote an article about Bali and had the part on religious rituals excised: in line with the Propaganda Department’s guidelines, the editor decided that religion was a “sensitive” topic.)[27]

Foreign investors are not allowed to own media or publishing companies in China, and in the 2000s, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television introduced new regulations that restrict foreign ownership in cinema and television production (to a minority stake in joint ventures for the former, and to one new joint venture per year in the latter)[28]. GAPP even stopped the sale of OpenBook, a company specializing in book market research, to Germany’s GFK in 2007, saying that such important information as sales data on books may not be controlled by foreigners.[29] The first joint-venture television, initially agreed with Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp, was also called off in 2005. This was despite Murdoch’s far-reaching accommodation of the Chinese government’s “sensitivities” in the satellite broadcasts of Star TV, which, in addition to Hong Kong-based Phoenix, have made its signal widely available in China. Phoenix News Channel’s contents and style are practically indistinguishable from state television. This is, again, not the result of published guidelines but of diligent adaptation to the anaconda. CNN is available only in some hotels, BBC in none.

Similarly, although there are no published rules that say that Chinese media are not allowed to purchase news articles from foreign news agencies, they only buy business news directly; the rest come filtered by Xinhua, the main state-owned news agency. But in 2006, no doubt to shore up its positions in this lucrative market against competition from Bloomberg and Reuters, Xinhua announced that Chinese companies were not allowed to buy news stories, photographs or graphics from foreign entities. All foreign agencies must sell their items to Xinhua, which then resells them to domestic clients. The rules prohibit foreign agencies from distributing any content that – in the usual vague phrasing – “harms China’s national security or dignity or “destabilises China’s economy or public order,” “promotes superstition” or “hurts the feelings of nationalities”. Xinhua, which acts as both regulator and market actor, can revoke the licence of any agency found distributing news with such content or had direct contact with a client.[30]

[Go to next chapter]


[1] See the ranking here.

[2] 出版管理条例, State Council document no. 343/2001.

[3] See text here.

[4] Quoted in David Bandurski, “Old party press control buzzword takes a back seat in more subtle censorship approach,” China Media Project, 2 February 2007. 

[5] Zheng Xiangdong 鄭向東 “正確指導意識形態和輿論導向是社會和諧的重要因素” Renmin Ribao, 7 March 2007. Adapted from translation by David Bandurski at the China Media Project: “Correct Guidance of Ideology and Public Opinion is an Important Factor in the Harmony of Society.”

[6] Propaganda Department of the CCP Central Committee, 關於重申嚴格執行有關出版管理規定的通知, document no. 7/2004.

[7] Summary of instructions by SARFT Deputy Director Li Dongsheng and GAPP Deputy Director Wu Shulin at a Special Meeting of the Publishing Industry, in Xiao Qiang, “Memo Reveals Propaganda Instructions to Publishers and the Media,” China Digital Times, 5 May 2007.

[8] See Chinese text here

[9] “圖書﹑期刊﹑音響製品﹑電子出版物u重大選題略案辦法” GAPP document no. 860/1997. See Chinese text here.

[10] “關於嚴格執行期刊三審制度和三校一讀保證出版質量的通知” (Notice on strictly upholding the “three vettings” system and the “three correctors, one reader” system for periodicals in order to ensure publication quality), GAPP document no. [2001]142, 22 February 2001. See Chinese text here

[11] Interestingly, many unauthorized books written about political leaders, including Hu Jintao, are available from street stalls, along with pornography and thrillers. These so-called “counterfeit books” (偽書) have no ISBN number or official publisher, and do not reveal the real name of the author. (Some are published under the names of established authors or publishing houses.)

[12] Ashley Esarey, Speak No Evil. Mass Media Control in Contemporary China. A Freedom House special report, February 2006.

[13] Quentin Somerville, “Media explosion tests China’s control,” BBC News, 25 October 2006. See article here

[14] “News Roundup,” China Rights Forum, 4/2006, p. 7.

[15] Xiao Qiang, “Memo Reveals Propaganda Instructions to Publishers and the Media,” China Digital Times, 5 May 2007.

[16] Conversation in Sydney, 11 March 2007.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Jia Xijin, “思想審查的規則還要繼續嗎? — 兼為 ‘我反對’ 作書評” (Will the rules of thought censorship continue? – with a review of “I oppose”), 24 January 2007 on Jia’s blog, http://xijinjia.blog.sohu.com/. The entry was still up on 4 February but had been deleted by the time we attempted to access it again on 7 June 2007. Excerpt in English in China Digital Times here

[19] South China Morning Post, “Eight books banned in crackdown on dissent,” 19 January 2007.

[20] “关于删除所谓新闻出版总署查禁八本图书相关贴文的通知” (Notice on removing posts related to GAPP’s so-called ban on eight books), cited by Xiao Qiang, “Despite Official Censorship, More Netizens Are Speaking Up To Support Zhang Yihe,” China Digital Times, 3 February 2007. See his post here.

[21] “王朔举报广电局审片组:每轮每人收3到5万” (Wang Shuo denounces SBRFT approval committee: everyone gets 30 to 50 thousand per film), MSN China, 13 June 2007. See news item here

[22] Dai san ge biao 带三个表, “广电总急” (Radio and Television Anxiety), 15 August 2006. See post here and English translation by Jeremy Goldkorn here.

[23] See translated excerpt from Jia Xijin’s original post here

[24] Sharon Hom and Hu Ping, “Viewing Hero: A Conversation about History, Art and Responsibility,” China Rights Forum 2/2005, pp. 91-98.

[25] Perry Link, “The Anaconda in the Chandelier: Chinese Censorship Today,” New York Review of Books, vol. XLIX, no. 6, April 11, 2002.

[26] Perry Link, “The Anaconda in the Chandelier: Chinese Censorship Today,” New York Review of Books, vol. XLIX, no. 6, April 11, 2002.

[27] Arnold Zeitlin, “Letter from Guangzhou,” China Rights Forum, 2/2006, p. 56.

[28] James F. Paradise, “China’s media pendulum swings again,” AsiaMedia News Daily, 20 February 2007. See article here

[29] GAPP has no legal authority over a private market research company, but its officials told OpenBook’s owner that they “hoped” the sale would not take place. Because OpenBook’s business depends on publishers, all overseen by GAPP, they had no choice but to cancel the sale, although large sums had already been spent on employee training, audits, technological upgrades, certification and so on.

[30] Mure Dickie, “Chinese news agency to restrict foreign rivals,” Financial Times, 11 September 2006, p. 7.

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