Media regulation

Apathy -- Glimpses Inside the Chinese Media
by Ann Condi

Guest contributor Ann Condi returns to Danwei with a short report about apathy and Internet censorship. Condi's previous contribution to Danwei is the article Changing the Subject: How the Chinese Government Controls Television.


Scenes Behind the Scenes No. 27

Glimpses Inside the Chinese Media by Ann Condi

Those outside of China often imagine hordes of Internet savvy Chinese Web surfers scouring the Internet for cracks in the Great Firewall, avidly downloading precious snippets of information blocked by the government to disseminate among the circle of politically-aware Chinese cybernauts. The hope is that the Internet is having a transformative effect on China by allowing The Truth – or at least some essential truths – to seep into this tightly controlled information environment. And surely (the assumption goes) the vanguard in this process of “peaceful evolution” would be young, English-speaking urban professionals.

This image is largely a myth.

An anecdote can illustrate this: A few days ago I was at a multinational company in Beijing doing some translation work. I had just discovered a site called Proxzee.com, which is a rather useful tool (along with Anonymouse.org) for bypassing Chinese Internet blockage. There were about 20 young Chinese people in and out of the office throughout the day, some of whom were former students of mine, and I made a point of recommending Proxzee to most of them. I was interested – and bit disheartened – by the range of responses I got. Here are some representative samples, with my own rough categorizations:

Ignorance:

Zhao: This site is for what?

Me: Accessing blocked Internet sites.

Zhao: There are blocked Internet sites? I never noticed that.

Apathy

Xu: Thanks, I’ll check it out. But I don’t really care about surfing blocked sites. I’ve got better things to do with my time.

Denial

Zheng: What do you mean, you can visit blocked sites with it? If you can visit them, they aren’t blocked!

Me: No, the sites are blocked. You can’t access them directly in China. This site enables you to access them indirectly, through their own server.

Zheng: Well, the government must know about this. And since they don’t block Proxzee, it means there actually aren’t any blocked sites. If you can visit them, they aren’t blocked. Maybe the sites you think are blocked are just down from time to time. Maybe you don’t have your browser settings right. Don’t jump to conclusions.

Paranoia

Wei: Oh, no, no thanks. You must be kidding. If I get onto such a site, there’s surely somebody monitoring it, watching every keystroke. This is bound to be some trick. I wouldn’t use such site if I were you. This is just a sure-fire trap to find people who are visiting illegal sites.

Downplaying

Cao: Oh, great, thanks. But I don’t think this is so useful nowadays. Sure, ten years ago it would have been helpful. But there are so few blocked sites these days, right? They just block the most radical or dangerous websites. Such fringe stuff doesn’t interest me.

Me: Well, the BBC has been blocked. That’s not exactly fringe stuff.

Cao: But you can get the same news on CNN or whatever, so what’s the big loss? The BBC probably did something to piss the government off. I don’t think this is such a big issue now.

Nationalism

Liu: What do you expect me to do with this? Get on a bunch of human rights sites that curse China? I already fully understand Western propaganda against China, I don’t need to read any more of it. Thanks anyway.

Mild Interest

Du: Really? That’s good to know. I haven’t looked into this kind of thing, but I know that Internet censorship exists. I guess I could learn about a lot of things they don’t tell us about. Thanks for the recommendation.


Most of the responses I got could be characterized as “Polite Apathy”. What Internet activism there may be in China, it is not coming from the upwardly-mobile Chinese white-collar workers. One sometimes wonders why the government bothers to censor the Internet at all.

UPDATE:Rebecca MacKinnon adds to the debate: Censorship, apathy, and free thinking or lack thereof...

There are currently 27 Comments for Apathy -- Glimpses Inside the Chinese Media
by Ann Condi.

Comments on Apathy -- Glimpses Inside the Chinese Media
by Ann Condi

Corruption in China doesn't exist. Prostitution doesn't exist. Blocked sites don't exist. But unblock them, and their existance suddenly might seem possible.

The other response that I've gotten is them just ignoring me completely.

Me: I can't access Wikipedia again, it is really annoying.

Qiu: Where do you want to go for dinner?

"One sometimes wonders why the government bothers to censor the Internet at all."

I never thought about that. It does seem pretty pointless. The only people I know personally that the blocks actually affect are westerners.

Corruption in China doesn't exist. Prostitution doesn't exist. Blocked sites don't exist. But unblock them, and their existance suddenly might seem possible.
Posted by: Rog | December 1, 2006 04:58 PM

I used to try to use attacks on other people's country as a talking point, but I found that this was highly counterproductive. I made an arse out of myself in front of an Australian and a Japanese in this way.

What I mean is, the response the article writer received has nothing to do with the absolute reality that China has a censorship regime, and everything to do with the fact that the respondent thinks you're trying to attack his or her country.

"I made an arse out of myself in front of an Australian and a Japanese in this way."

You always make an arse out of yourself though. We're used to it.

It's sad that the locals aren't more enraged about govt censorship. Ignorance is bliss I guess.

This is the same response you get from Chinese people living overseas. They don't say 'Wow I never realised there was so much stuff on the internet ...' MOre like - 'I can still get access to the Amway website here so who cares. All that human rights stuff is for shenjingbing.'

Haha, Jenn... highly recognizable!

@Inst: you might've made an arse out of yourself, at least you tried to accomplish the unaccomplishable. Somebody's gotta do something, or am I a fool stating this?!

(1) It's easy to get into a usage pattern where the blocked stuff just doesn't matter. The first three years I had a computer in China were without proxy solutions, and the only headache it caused was that I had to substitute the WashPost for the blocked NYTimes. If you don't know what's out there, dead links are just dead links. And proxy software is just a tool; it doesn't instantly lay out a glittering wealth of unrestricted information - you still have to know where to look (unless you use the activist-in-exile solutions, but then it's easy to dismiss it all as crackpot propaganda).

(2) How to get around the firewall was first shown to me by a professor at one of the universities in Beijing - several of my classmates were quite intrigued and started using it in their dorms, but it took me a few months to go from "mild interest" to actually using the software.

Being an arse or not, Inst is also absolutely correct.

The responses to the anecdotal situation have next to nothing do do with the purported subject, ie. "blocked websites and apathy about same".

They have absolutely everything to do with the hypersensitivity to "criticism of my mother/father-land by damned furreners" that is exhibited, globally, by almost everyone.

I can discuss Australia's terrible record on Aboriginal issues with another Australian freely -- but hearing Australia criticised for same by foreigners, especially when they don't seem to be taking into account the painful steps the country _has_ made, is almost unbearable.

To the topic at hand: I've heard Chinese citizens discussing internet censorship, the Yasukuni Shrine, and other issues maturely, freely and fully -- amongst themselves. But then moment I attempt to join such a discussion, one of the responses that Ann Condi accurately summarizes is on everyone's lips.

If you want to hear an overheard Yasukuni conversation go from tolerance to racism in no time flat -- watch a foreigner join in.

Where can Americans get the "blocked" photographs of dead and wounded soldiers returning from Iraq? If you live in the USA, you wouldn't even know that a war is going on unless you really make an effort to look for information. Every country blocks what they don't want their citizens to see.

I teach Certificate IV Written and Spoken English at a university here in China for the New South Wales Department of Education and Training, with the purpose of preparing Chinese undergraduates for the possibility of postgraduate studies in Australia, and one of the essential skills that I need to help them to develop is the ability to produce a research essay. I was surprised at the beginning of this semester when I first came here to Hangzhou. All of my students are aged 20, and are second year university students, yet not one of them had ever researched and written a single essay in their entire lives - not even in their native language! The entire experience, which they did surprisingly well at by the way, caused them considerable anxiety, as it was all so new to them.

The simple fact is this: few people here in China use the internet for serious academic research purposes, and this may go some way toward expalaining the apathy. Who cares about Wikipedia, except maybe for a few foreigners? Walk into any internet cafe here in China, and you will see that the vast majority of users are aged between 19 and 30, and just about all of them will be either watching downloaded movies, chatting to their freinds usng qq, or playing those violent shoot-em-up video games. Usually when male university students are late to class, it's because they have found it difficult to drag themselves away from their computer games!

I have written a little about the media in China in an article I wrote on "China's goverance and society" (see my blog) and according to the studies I quote, radio is the most free form of media in China, followed by magazines. In regard to the BBC, well, its website might be blocked, but its television World News Service is available in China on satellite TV. Many hotels here provide it.

As I said in my article, I think that the blocking of web sites and the censoring of television footage relates more to issues of face. I used to live in Shenzhen, and so I could pick up two Hong Kong television channels that broadcast in English: ATV World and Pearl TV. Every night advertisements would suddenly appear over news stories that the censors didn't want us foreigners to see. More often than not, however, the exact same stories were not censored on the Chinese language version of the same news broadcasts. For example, earlier this year a man here in China had much of his face ripped off by a bear, and had to have a face transplant. The Chinese version of Pearl TV's evening news showed the entire story, complete with graphic scenes of the man having his operation. An hour later, when I watched the English language version of Pearl TV's evening news, I was surprised because almost the entire story was censored.

The same applies to CCTV. The English channel, CCTV9, provides only good news stories about China, but watch the Chinese language CCTV channels, and you will see that they report all of the bad news stories - the corruption cases, the executions, the mining disasters, etc.

So much comes down to the issue of preserving face. The Chinese want to present to the world a positive image of themselves. The EXACT same situation exists in South Korea where I lived for two years back in 1997 and 1998. All bad news about South Korea are censored from the English version newspapers and television stations, and for exactly the same reasons.

GW: Doing a search for such pictures in the US will allow one to find the pictures. If the US had blocked them online as China blocks various internet sites, then one would only get a network timeout.

projecting a positive image of one's own country and for one's own citizens in the mainstream media is commonly done throughout the world.

http://crookedtimber.org/2006/09/26/cover-stories/

caring enough to go beneath the covers and find infromation on your own to come to your own understanding depends on personal engagement and knowledge of where to look... and, the autonomy to look where one wants/knows to. no timeouts allowed.

But really, why they don't block Proxzee and Co?

To the author:

And why should Chinese people be interested in looking at the BBC website ? Is it written in Chinese ?

And ignoring the language issue: if you don't read the People's Daily, or Al Jazeera or Pravda, should I be upset ?

You argue this is a censorship "issue." I assure you: most of us ignorant/nationalistic/apathetic etc. Chinese could care less we don't get the BBC or many other English language websites (yes, we actually have lives). And unfortunately, what you consider to be an issue (be it gay marriage, French foreign policy, Brazilian rain forests, censorship, etc.) doesn't have to be my issue.

Then try any number of labour movement sites in Hong Kong, written by Chinese people for Chinese people. Han Dongfang gets plenty of mainland callers to his radio show, but they'll have to jump through hoops to read his website.
I think it's basically an issue with the 'educated' middle and upper classes. Many are smug fools, but then that's not a uniquely Chinese problem either.

Google.com is blocked "on demand" which is often enough so that it's unusable, so most Chinese people use google.cn, baidu or other Chinese search engines.

With these, not only do you get mostly Chinese hits, you also don't even see sites that are blocked.

This would also explain the ignorance; blocked sites are "out of sight" in search results, so they'll also be more "out of mind".

Reference link to the BBC's Chinese site.

in all fairness, how realistic or representative is anecdotal accounts of office talk truly representative of how politically aware the chinese youth are? i'd be willing to bet that at any large multinational office the chatter ranges from monday night football to the latest paris hilton escapades, and not on human rights and international relief efforts in the darfur. really, if average young americans talk about MTV and LV handbags, then what right does some wannabe china-hand has to criticize that the average chinese youth is indifferent? when the voting records of US youths are abysmal like 20%, then why expect anything higher for chinese youths?

other than the fact that china's government has a tighter and more blatant state control of its media than the US more corporate-based censorship and bias, there's simply no difference between what youth people want to spend their internet time in the US or in China. the posters above got it right that chinese youths mostly use computers for games and entertainment. one good thing that those old china-hands out there can thank the internet for is that western culture won't be as popular in china without it, and to this extent the chinese government has been generous with the internet's bandwidth. as more and more western culture seeps into china, more youths are doing drugs, sex and rock-n-roll too. (not that i'm against drugs, sex and rock-n-roll) to demand china becomes mentally colonized into western political and media influence smacks of neo-imperialism in some sense by those china-hands wanting to make something out of their limited china experience back home.

in short, this danwei article is again high on hype and low on the know; not much substance or thought these days with the expat community... read the that's beijing forums for example...

Skeptic - you're a breath of fresh air! I couldn't agree with you more - especially with all that you say in the first paragraph of your comment. I look forward to reading more of your comments here, and I hope you will also find the time to visit and contribute to my humble little site too.

>>not much substance or thought these days with the expat community...

The only error in that sentence is "these days".

>>read the that's beijing forums for example...

Ugh. I wish I hadn't gone there to take a look. Ugly foreigner alert!

To keep this on topic, from the original article: "... activism ... in China ... is not coming from the upwardly-mobile Chinese white-collar workers"

Since when has activism of any kind ever come from "upwardly mobile white collar workers" anywhere!

Is porn blocked in China?

The educated in China just do not care about the loss of freedoms as long as the status quo is maintained. They are all trying to work within the system that is to grab what they can. All the accoutrements to that possession-grabbing, the mindless nouveau riche extravagance, is just a culturally influenced demonstration, a celebration of property. You have to take into account that most Chinese had nothing until a few years ago, and the intellectuals who are now reaping the benefits of China's new open-ness were a despised and distrusted part of society. I was talking to a guy who owns a factory and has heaps of money and cars and a young wife and a few maids about the plight of the Chinese factory worker, how it would be very difficult to improve your lot working such a job. He told me that he also had had it tough when he was a kid; his father was an engineer and his mother was a doctor and they had no money...no thought that the capital they had was learning or the emphasis placed on education for him. It was just that, since he had suffered as a child, this situation where he was grossly profitting was right and good and just. Vilifying the intellectuals was a way for the communists to ensure that the poor would not have leadership if when they no longer could endure the poverty after WWII. The current situation now has bought off the intellectuals. And you can't really fault them, they grew up in a time that was similar to growing up in the American depression only it lasted generations. Can you blame them for wanting all the pretty toys and jewels, for wanting to eat endangered animals and to display wealth so that everyone can see and admire them?

Skeptic:
I agree with you in part, particularly about anecdotal proof. That would mean that, though I agree with your statements about ex-pats, I take them with a grain of salt since you are using anecdotal evidence for your beliefs. You're an apologist for the CCP, however, and I would suspect you work someplace like China Daily or some other "throat of the Party" establishment. The extent to which American youth does or does not vote has nothing to do with the situation in China and does not condone the suppression of truth. That is the main issue, not that China should be like the West, just that it should not prevent the truth from being disseminated.

agree with skeptic wholeheartedly. i'm amused at the holier-than-thou tone woven throughout this article. what type of response was the author hoping to get (particularly one directed to a foreigner?) “gee whiz! now I get to find out what your beloved bbc really thinks about our politburo!” what type of response would you get in the US workplace if someone suddenly announced there was a solution to get around the previously blocked portions of al-jazeera and xinhua? a quizzical shrug, at best.

I'm not sure how the sample of people used in this article could possibly be representative of the general population. The people that walk through Ann's office are going to be mainly drawn from a generally local area and from a general social/financial background.

It's the old mistake of using personal experience to draw general conclusions. If one has lived somewhere for 20 years, lived all over a country and through work or whatever interacted with people from all levels of society, then maybe they can start to draw general conclusions about the whole. Otherwise you can only talk about what you have actually experienced.

For example, I have yet to meet a Chinese ultra-nationalist (in person). Yet it is quite obvious they exist - and in large numbers. Similarly there are many young Chinese that do want to get past the Chinese government's controls. If they didn't want to, the State wouldn't spend so much money and resources policing the internet.

I'm not sure that people really do believe all Chinese internet users are looking to get past the Great Firewall to learn about Tiananmen Square and the likes. But there are many who are genuinely interested and do think outside of the box. To make stereotypes about them being disinterested just to make a point for one's own ends is either lazy or selfish.

The PC mob are getting a little boring. Ann Condi's observation will ring true to anyone who has spent enough time in China.

China Media Timeline
Major media events over the last three decades
Danwei Model Workers
The latest recommended blogs and new media
laomo2010x80.jpg
From 2008
Front Page of the Day
A different newspaper every weekday
From the Vault
Classic Danwei posts
+ Culture and corporate propaganda in Soho Xiaobao (2007.11): Mid-2007 issues of Soho Xiaobao (SOHO小报), illustrating the complicated identity of in-house magazines run by real estate companies.
+ Internet executives complain about excessive Net censorship (2010.03): Internet executives complain about excessive Net censorship at an officially sanctioned meeting in Shenzhen.
+ Crowd-sourced cheating on the 2010 gaokao (2010.06): A student in Sichuan seeks help with the ancient Chinese section of this year's college entrance exam -- while the test is going on!
Danwei Archives