TV

Self-censorship: the 2,000 pound rhinoceros on the dining table

Below is an essay by Ann Condi that has been previously published on various websites in slightly different versions. Now seems like a timely moment to republish it:


Changing the Subject: How the Chinese Government Controls Television

By Ann Condi


In sum, the Chinese government's censorial authority in recent times has resembled not so much a man-eating tiger or fire-snorting dragon as a giant anaconda coiled in an overhead chandelier. Normally the great snake doesn't move. It doesn't have to. It feels no need to be clear about its prohibitions. Its constant silent message is “You yourself decide.”
— Perry Link, “The Anaconda in the Chandelier”

Foreigners who live and work in China on an extended basis eventually become accustomed to the distinctive way that information is controlled and presented in the Chinese media. Those of us who actually work within the Chinese media system itself or interact with it professionally become, willing or not, a part of that process of control, either as props, foils, unwitting accomplices or just befuddled bystanders. Though few of us ever come to fully understand the process, most of us have had at least one seminal experience that serves to put the issues in stark contrast.

In October of 2001, I was invited to be a part of the audience of a CCTV talk show called Duihua, “Dialogue”.

The guests were to be Zhao Qizheng, the Chairman of the State Council Information Office of the PRC and director of the Foreign Propaganda Office, and Sun Jiazheng, the head of the Ministry of Culture. As an occasional TV performer and English consultant, I had already participated in many CCTV talk shows as a guest, but this was the first one featuring such high-ranking Party officials, so I was rather curious as to how it would turn out.

I had been invited to the event by an old friend who was now working in a management position at a multinational IT firm. CCTV had contacted her along with several top-ranking people in various high-tech companies, and she was allowed to bring along an additional guest to the event.

The CCTV building in Beijing is guarded like a military base, its only two entrances manned by armed military personnel. As usual, the audience for the show had to line up at the west gate of the station, and be escorted into the main building through another checkpoint at the door. Once seated in the studio, I could see this was a rather special show. Compared with the usual sneakers-and-jeans CCTV audience, this group, in their suits and ties, looked more like an audience for opening night at the opera. At least a third of the audience were foreigners, among them ambassadors and embassy people, journalists, scholars, high officials from large multinational corporations, and representatives from organizations such as the American Chamber of Commerce. Scattered around the room were many “China hands”, people who had lived in China for decades and were intimately familiar with the language and culture.

The topic was “Showing Modern China to the World.” The show was to be conducted in Chinese, but interpreters were on hand so that non Chinese-speaking foreign friends could ask questions in English if they wished. With such a powerhouse audience, and two such high-ranking PRC officials, it seemed like a promising show.

When the taping began, Zhao and Sun came out onto the stage to the standard peppy talkshow music and applause. Brief laudatory video clips were shown on the screen behind the stage, the voiceover intoning brief biographies of the two officials and their curriculum vitae. The moderator, a CCTV host named Shen Bing, engaged them in some perfunctory chit-chat, noting that they shared a character zheng (正) in their names. Sun Jiazheng seemed to me a typical wooden bureaucrat, while Zhao Qizheng came across as more humorous and personable, though hardly scintillating. The host assured us that this was to be a “frank, open exchange, with no holds barred.” Sun and Zhao reaffirmed this, saying they welcomed “open and candid opinions” and they were here to open a “real dialogue”. I was struck by how absolutely relaxed and serene they seemed on camera, legs crossed and arms folded as if waiting for a plane.

Shen Bing began by asking the audience “What is China to you, in one sentence?” This struck me as an inauspicious beginning. All this frankness and openness, limited to one sentence? But of course, this sort of thing makes good TV. And quite a few audience members actually complied with this request, coming up with bland phrases like “A country changing very fast,” “Like jasmine—elegant but full of power,” “A very old and a very young country,” etc.

Both Sun and Zhao set the tone of their remarks quite early on, displaying the usual mixture of self-deprecation and flattery that Chinese often bring to formal situations:

Sun: Today, we have many foreign friends, including some ambassadors. They have special opinions about China because they are knowledgeable about our country and are very friendly to us. I often travel abroad, and I make self-criticisms when I come back. Shen: Self-criticisms? Why? Sun: Because sometimes I find foreign countries know so little about China. As a minister in charge of cultural exchange, I feel that I have not done a good job in introducing modern China to the world. Zhao: Our foreign guests here are all experts on China's issues or know a lot about our country, but most foreigners are not like them, and know little about China. Take our trip to Germany for example: When we asked a taxi driver about his impression of China, he said it was a country with a vast area. Then he added that he did not know much and the country seemed quite mysterious to him.

This was the first use of a tactic that would be employed throughout the evening. The first step was to flatter us, to elevate us above the mass of ordinary foreigners, implying in the process that foreigners who criticize China simply do so out of ignorance (“…they are knowledgeable about our country and [therefore] are very friendly to us”), and finally to adopt an affected modesty in order to garner sympathetic support for their difficult task of introducing the glorious true face of China to the biased world media. This tactic, transparent as it was, actually seemed to work quite well as the evening wore on.

Zhao had brought along several translated versions of a Chinese cultural promotion brochure that his office had produced. He held up the different language versions for us to see, and pointed out that the cover for each one was different. They had discovered, he said, that they needed to design different covers for the different language versions to render them more appropriate to the “national psychology” of the target country:

Shen: You have just mentioned that we should take into account the point of view of others when presenting China. I remember that you had different introduction brochures printed by the various publishing houses in the foreign countries you visited; for example, you produced an American edition when you launched the Chinese Culture Tour in the United States. Right? Zhao: Yes. [He holds up several different versions for the camera.] This is the French edition, edited and published by the Hachette Filipacchi Publishing House, and that is the American edition by the US International Data Group (IDG). The cover page of the French edition features a regular photo alongside its negative image, in black and white. This gives the cover a provocative quality, and a pronounced romantic flavor. The American edition is comparatively plain because Americans like clarity. You see the three little girls on the cover page — they are pretty, and that's all. There is also a German edition, which has no cover photo at all. You find the cover picture only after you turn the page. Shen: Why is this? Zhao: It has to do with philosophy. Germans think one cannot fully comprehend something at first glance, so they leave a blank cover page. Shen: Let’s see if Mr. Zhao is correct about these national differences. [To the foreign audience.] Do you agree with Mr. Zhao? Foreign audience member #6: I think Mr. Zhao is too polite with the Germans. I’m afraid that the real reason is that they simply could not find a suitable picture.

The host, Shen Bing, had been rather nervously restrained up to this point. Her duty was to breezily keep the ball rolling, maintaining the appearance of a freewheeling, open dialogue while steering the topic in positive directions. Here at last was a fun, “lite” topic— something that makes for good TV—and so she began to explore it in excruciating detail. Is it true that Americans are all carefree, transparent, and childlike? Are Italians really passionate and artistic? And of course, French people are romantic and sensual, right? Each time she would seek out an audience member of that particular nationality and ask them to confirm if the stereotype was true, the person would squirm a bit and provide some perfunctory words of agreement. As I looked around I could see some wincing and strained smiles on the faces of the people. Most of us balked at these blatantly simplistic stereotypes, but given the valiant attempts of the host to keep the atmosphere convivial, who would exhibit the bad taste to come out and say so? Shen Bing doggedly continued to milk this topic, getting increasingly half-hearted and embarrassed responses from the audience, until Zhao Qizheng finally said to her gently “I think we can get off of this subject now.”

Zhao then mentioned that the State Council Information Office had carried out an analysis of all the newspaper articles about China during the year 2000, and found that 50% of them were negative or critical of China, 25% presented facts in a neutral fashion, while only 25% painted China in a positive light. Zhao again adopted the “self-criticism” tack, saying this showed that he had failed in his job, since he had not made the truth about China known to the world. If this had been a true dialogue, of course, members of the audience might have asked some obvious questions about the criteria for the survey. Who had done the analysis and how objective was it? How would this ratio compare with reporting on other countries? And of course, how does this ratio compare with news articles in the indigenous Chinese press from the same period? But again, tasteful decorum reigned, and the matter went unquestioned.

At one point Zhao said, “I constantly have to deal with questions from foreign reporters and officials that are critical of China.”
Shen Bing, in gently probing Barbara Walters fashion, asked “Oh? What kinds of criticisms do you hear?”
Zhao replied “Oh, for example, they wonder if we are educating our kids. They accuse us of polluting the environment, or say our economy is not improving fast enough and say we have too many poor people. Things like that.”

I blinked in astonishment. I saw a few sideward glances exchanged in the audience. This remark, delivered in an offhand fashion, suddenly cast a rather sinister chill over the whole proceedings. Every single person sitting in the room was well aware that, rightly or wrongly, by far the most common complaint about China in the foreign press was human rights—the harassment and jailing of dissidents, the suppression of the Falin Gung movement, censorship of the press and the Internet, the problems of Tlbet, Xlnjiang, the Tiannannmen massacre, and so on. Yet with a casual shrug, Zhao had effectively placed invisible barbed wire around these topics. In a sense, his blatant sidestep did not come as much of a surprise to us “China experts”, but even so, in the context of a free and open discussion about China, the omission had a surrealistic quality, like a group of guests at a dinner party failing to even mention the 2,000-pound rhinoceros standing in the center of the table.

The tactic seemed to work. During the entire course of the taping, the very words “human rights” were never uttered. Somehow the topics tended to steer toward issues such as the 2008 Olympics, or communicating the positive aspects of Chinese modernization to foreigners. Someone raised the question of how to promote Chinese films overseas:

Shen: Can anybody give us a suggestion on how to more effectively introduce China to the world? Foreign audience member 9: We have talked about many channels through which we can explain or showcase China, but we have forgotten one very effective way—the film industry. I am now working in this field, and I think it’s an important outlet. When I was studying in the United States, I began to take an interest in China and learn more about the country by watching Chinese films. Shen: So you began to take an interest in China by watching Chinese films? Mr. Zhao has said that Chinese people get to know the United States through its films, but the opposite was not the case. [To Zhao] Do you still think this is so? Zhao: Yes. There are actually very few Americans who watch Chinese films, and he is one of them. He also would seem to be an observant and resourceful person, since watching these films led to a fascination with Chinese culture. Such people are rare, so I would like to salute him.

All very nice and flattering, of course, but in the course of the discussion it was never mentioned that the Chinese government’s usual response to the overseas success of a Chinese film is to ban it domestically, as was done with movies like Zhang Yimou’s Ju Dou and To Live, and Chen Kaige’s 1994 film Temptress Moon.
And so it went. Other harmless topics were raised, all skirting around the sore points and sensitive questions that everyone in the room was fully aware of. Zhao made more stereotypical characterizations of national differences: “British humor is like wine: to be taken in sips but with a lingering aftertaste. American humor is like Coca-Cola: everybody likes it, but it leaves no aftertaste; German humor is like whiskey: not everyone can take it, but it leaves a strong impression on the consumer.” He seemed to be fond of such comparisons. The atmosphere was cordial, friendly, upbeat—and quite bizarre.

By the time Sun Jiazheng informed us that “self-confidence, frankness and sincerity” were their paramount principles in foreign exchange activities, the atmosphere had already become dizzyingly paradoxical. Here were two high-ranking officials at the very seat of Party power. If anyone were to blame for perpetuating the system of media censorship, it would be these two. Yet didn’t it strike anyone as odd that these two key figures in charge of controlling information weren’t mentioning the control of information? And that the audience was hesitant to even bring up the coercive effects of media control—precisely because of the coercive effects of media control?

Looking around at the members of the audience, I saw several acquaintances, both Chinese and foreign, who I had met at various meetings or activities in Beijing. I remembered many lively and enlightening conversations with some of these people, during which they displayed much insight and awareness of the Chinese situation. I could even recall many of our discussions that touched upon issues of censorship, and all of these people had a clear understanding of the issues. Yet here we all were, sitting on our hands, either remaining mute or merely making polite suggestions, despite the host’s explicit and repeated invitations for “frank comments and questions”. What were we expecting when we agreed to participate in this event? How had we become co-opted into this charade in which we were essentially just foreign props in a staged skit, designed to communicate a painfully obvious, self-serving propaganda message: “See? Contrary to our reputation, the Party is quite willing to frankly admit our problems and engage in open dialogue about them with foreigners.” Zhao and Sun made this point several times:

Audience member: From the cultural perspective, should we promote cultural transparency to a higher level through cultural exchange and communication? Zhao: I feel this program is very transparent and sincere. Indeed, we should show foreigners both our good and bad sides and give them a complete picture of China.

And what were these “bad sides” of China that we could talk about? From Zhao and Sun’s remarks that evening, it was clear that there were only about three “safe” areas of criticism: the economy, the environment, and corruption. These are longstanding problems that the Chinese government has chosen, for various reasons, to tackle openly in the public arena, and throughout the taping of the show Zhao and Sun almost proudly trotted these issues out as examples of China’s “openness” and “frankness” in dealing with its problems.

Sitting there as this farce played itself out, I began to feel increasingly uncomfortable. The question in my mind, “Why isn’t somebody speaking out and challenging their hypocrisy?” slowly changed to “Why am I not speaking out?”

It wasn’t for lack of something to say. For much of the show I sat there mentally composing clever “emperor’s new clothes” speeches like: “You know, as a foreigner, it disgusts me when CCTV puts on shows that purport to be open and spontaneous—like this one—but in reality are actually tightly controlled, total shams—like this one—and yet the audience—like this one—docilely plays along.” And I kept waiting for the right moment to slip one of these gems in.

So why wasn’t I saying anything?

Looking back, my Joycean stream of consciousness as I struggled with myself was something like the following:

If I speak out, will my Chinese be up to the task? I’m not a public speaker to begin with, and so what if I just embarrass myself, or come across as inarticulate and incoherent?

Worse, what if I come across as belligerent and crass? After all, the atmosphere has been so blandly civil up to this point. Do I really want to drop a grenade into this sunny chitchat?

And anyway, if one of us were to cross the line and level some frank criticism, the remarks will simply be edited out of the show, so what would be the point?

Ah, but what about strength in numbers? This audience is filled with some of the most visible and influential foreigners in Beijing. If all of us en masse were to stage a little media coup, slicing through the veneer of openness to expose the blatant hypocrisy of those on the stage, what could they possibly do to us? Surely China during these relatively calm days of 2001 is not likely to take excessively draconian measures against a group of “friends of China.”

Yes, probably true but in the end, it wouldn’t matter. If the studio indeed erupted into a no-holds-barred discussion that raised exactly the issues they were avoiding, the taping would simply be stopped, or the show cancelled, or at least all the offending sections discarded on the cutting room floor. In the end, such a move would accomplish nothing, except to sharpen the resolve of those in power to never let it happen again.

Also, some of my friends are TV hosts, and I’m sympathetic with poor Shen Bing up there, walking an invisible tightrope. Why make her job harder?

On top of it all, sitting right next to me is my longtime friend, who is also an acquaintance of Sun Jiazheng. Since I am her invited guest for this event, any negative comments I make will surely embarrass her, regardless of whether or not she agrees with them. In trying to be some kind of hero, I may only end up by being a jerk.

All these rationales were going through my mind, and similar thoughts no doubt echoed in the heads of many others in the audience. But in the end—if I may speak for the other foreigners there—I think our ultimate reason for keeping our mouths shut was the same pressure that keeps the Chinese in line: fear. A vaguely-defined fear, but fear nonetheless. And our fear was directly related to our special status as “friends of China”. A good number of us were here in China for the long haul. And many if not most of our colleagues and friends were Chinese. More than a few of us had Chinese spouses and relatives. Our jobs, our careers, and even our own sense of worth and identity were bound up in this country and culture. Unrestricted access and easy passage to the country were essential to our lives and livelihoods. Why risk all that by speaking out? We had all witnessed or heard about horror stories in which some foreigner crossed an unwritten line and had to leave the country forever. (I had just that week heard about a Brit who was expelled merely for innocently printing the Chinese flag on a T-shirt celebrating Sino-British cooperation.) The first audience for this TV show would be the censors and Party officials who ensure appropriate media content. And these functionaries had a direct line to the people in power who could directly affect our lives. This was enough to create a chilling effect on all of us. No direct threats were necessary; only the vague but real chance of some kind of reprisal.

Thus Zhao and Sun had great leeway to set the limits of the discourse, cherry picking peripheral or face-saving examples, finessing the issues to present themselves as guileless champions of total information transparency, and all without a peep of challenge or dissent:

Zhao: I would like them [foreign reporters] to write accurately about the facts. For example, in China some people do not follow traffic rules and cross the street at will. They can write about such facts, but they are wrong if they say China has no cars. I don't mind how the foreign media comment as long as they keep the facts straight… Sun: I once talked with some foreign friends who told me they knew much about China since they had traveled to a number of cities around the country. But I told them that they had taken a one-sided view. I said to them: “Before the winter comes, the Chinese government has already taken into consideration whether tens of millions of people can make it through the winter; whether they can dress warmly and have enough to eat. Hence, while elsewhere in the world 10 million more people fall under the poverty line every year, 10 million people come out of poverty in China.” This is a great achievement. But we still have 30 million people who face the problem of passing the winter. To me, poverty is not a humiliating thing. How can we change our impoverished fate to promote sustained development and enjoy a higher standard of living? This is a question of our dignity. We should not hide our shortcomings. Every day, many of our TV programs point out and criticize such shortcomings; why can't we tell our foreign friends frankly that we still have many things to accomplish? Communication actually means exchange between hearts.

This notion—that the Chinese media daily broadcast criticisms of China, and that these internal criticisms should be frankly shared with the outside world—is one that neither Zhao nor anyone in the studio could have taken seriously. There is by and large no true criticism of China on Chinese TV; any information China finds embarrassing is much more likely to be aired outside of the PRC, as evidenced by Zhao’s own complaints earlier about negative foreign press. Zhao and Sun knew all this, of course, because part of their job is to ensure that the system remains this way. Far from being beleaguered champions of glasnost, these two are comfortably situated at the very center of the control apparatus that keeps the Chinese media sanitized and free of negative comment. The more obvious this role-playing was, the more I realized: We foreigners were not the audience that day. Rather, we were merely bit players in an Orwellian TV drama, whose laudatory theme and plot had very little to do with reality.

There is a very basic aspect of the Sino-foreign media dialogue that is so obvious that it is seldom commented on. It involves a common dynamic in human interactions where hypocrisy, deception, and issues of “saving face” intersect. It is this:
If I find myself in disagreement with another person about something, and yet I sincerely believe in the correctness of my own position, I will seek to highlight our differences and show decisively why my position is sound and that of the other person is flawed. If, on the other hand, I am painfully aware that the other person has a point, and I am in the wrong, I will change the subject.

The strategy of the Chinese government is to change the subject.
When complaints are lodged about the imprisoning of dissidents, the Chinese do not forthrightly proclaim “Indeed, we do put them in prison. We are justified in doing so. They are a threat to our security.” Instead they change the subject to “No country should interfere in the internal affairs of another country.” When America attacks China’s human rights record, the Chinese do not say “You are mistaken about our human rights problem, and here’s why.” Rather, they change the subject: “What about your human rights problem?”

All governments—all human beings—are guilty of this move, which in American parlance is called “spin”. But in China the technique has been reflexively applied for so long, it is now simply the default official approach to any awkward information whatsoever. A government that blocks any open discussion of its problems while tacitly admitting to them in this way cannot help developing pathological patterns of interaction, becoming both fiercely proud and profoundly embarrassed, as each act of blatant denial painfully highlights the stubborn reality. And sitting before us on the stage was the embodiment of this mentality.

Given the obvious context and the special participants involved, the topic that cried out for discussion was precisely the authoritarian control of information in China. In some sense, that was the very subtext of the whole event, and we all knew it, including the two guests of honor on the stage. Yet Zhao and Sun had simply changed the subject. And the result was that each dynamic took on a new meaning, in a “newspeak” sense. “Censorship” became construed as “effective communication”; “informed criticism” was redefined as “ignorance”; and the message “Give us your advice” morphed into “Give us your silence.” We all heard the message and obeyed.

Or almost everyone. There were only two minor expressions of negativity throughout the evening. The first was from a BBC reporter who stood up and, in flawless Chinese, took issue with Zhao’s statistics about the negative foreign press coverage of China He noted that “Tony Blair would be delighted to have percentages like that”, and reminded everyone that it was not the role of the press to praise. The reporter nevertheless backpedaled, softening the focus of his rebuttal by suggesting half-jokingly that world leaders are happy if the press pay any attention to them at all, and thus do not care whether the publicity is good or bad. Zhao, somehow missing the humor, said “This represents a cultural difference, I think. It still bothers us Chinese to get such bad press.” And he still maintained that a 50% criticism rate was too high and surely biased.

The reporter’s comment was not expanded on by the host, Shen Bing, who skillfully segued into another topic without seeming to avoid any further discussion of this one. She was surely dreading precisely this kind of question, and was prepared to gently nudge the topic back into neutral territory. Yet it was surprising how little she needed to apply this skill during the taping of the show that evening. The audience, me included, was overall well-behaved, cooperative and uncontroversial, like a class of obedient uniformed Chinese middle school students.

Ironically, the show’s second negative comment—the one and only pointed barb of the evening—was provided by a native Chinese man. He got up and, in a fearlessly antagonistic tone that popped the bubble of civility, said:

I know you two are in the business of trying to present China to the outside world. One of the ways China does this is by its publications such as the China Daily and the English version of the People’s Daily, the Beijing Review, and so on. But my impression is that among foreigners, no one reads these things. They find them dull and irrelevant. Foreigners are more fascinated with the real China, warts and all, and they see these publications as just mouthpieces for people like you. Everyone knows they don’t represent the real China, but just put forth an antiseptic, rosy fantasy world. Is this true? And if so, what can be done about it?

This was an electric comment. The change in the atmosphere was instantaneous and palpable. There was a lot of intense nodding, and shifting in the seats. At last! A word of truth, a sentiment that spoke what was in everyone’s minds. It was a comment that should have been said by one of us foreigners, and yet a Chinese had said it. For the first time, the two officials squirmed a bit. Zhao deflected the question, saying that yes, we were all in agreement that the true face of China should be presented. But, he maintained, the publications mentioned did not really do such a bad job, since one could often find in them articles about problems like (again!) the environment, the economy, and corruption. Unfortunately, this gentleman’s question came too late in the show to have much effect on the overall timbre of the event. But it did give me and everyone there a moment of moral clarity, and made me feel that I, too, should open my mouth.

But I didn’t. I sat there glumly realizing that this was why the world had so few Nelson Mandelas and so many cautious compromisers. The more I realized how small my risk in speaking out would be, the more I realized my reasons for remaining silent were just an excuse. I could say something, on principle. Sure, it would be cut from the show. Sure, it might embarrass my Chinese friend and inconvenience the hapless host. Sure, someone sinister might take note of me. But I could have said something. Never mind the fact that everyone else was silent; all the more reason for me to speak out. Yet in the end, I could not muster the courage to shatter the atmosphere of respectful civility.

I left the studio that night disgusted with myself and profoundly troubled.

***

I’m not sure why I wrote this article; it is embarrassing to show it to others. Perhaps it is just an attempt to understand what happened that night. I wish I could say that the above was an isolated incident, but it is not. To a greater or lesser extent, the type of queasy dynamic described above is a fact of life for me and for just about any foreigner living here. And it is especially common for those of us who work for or interact with the Chinese media in some way. For the control mechanism now exerts itself in increasingly subtle and unpredictable ways.

First, the scope of censorship has narrowed to such an extent that entire domains are now almost a free-for-all. It is often remarked that as long as you steer clear of politics, you can pretty much say whatever you want here in China. Indeed, the Chinese media has seen a dramatic opening-up in terms of content, and topics such as sex, divorce, organized crime, drugs, AIDS, mental illness, and domestic violence are now the subjects of talkshows, TV series and tabloids. This tends to give uncritical viewers the strong impression that there are now virtually no restrictions at all on media content in China. It is only by compiling a list of what is not covered in the media that one can see the actual extent to which control is still exercised. The result is a kind of negative discourse space, in which even the total absence of politics betrays the influence of the censor, like the chalk-drawn silhouette on the floor of a crime scene

Second, there are fewer explicit top-down guidelines. The implicit background control mechanism—perhaps we should call it the “anaconda mechanism”, to borrow Perry Link’s metaphor—works well precisely because it is so nebulous. More often an annoyance than a danger, it seeps into everyday consciousness and becomes an acceptable part of life, like aging and traffic jams. One can almost forget at times that the restrictions are there.

I was once a guest on a mini-talkshow called Jingcai Shifen (精彩十分) or “Brilliant Ten Minutes”. The topic of this installment was the Internet. Just before the taping, the host said to me “Okay, just relax, say anything that comes to mind about the topic, and it should go fine.” I was struck by his nonchalance. Anything that comes to mind? Did that include how the government blocks sensitive sites and news sources such as the BBC? How the Falin Gung movement and other underground organizations use email to reach millions of people with their messages? Could we freely discuss Internet pornography? Or how chatrooms are closely monitored and content censored? How about the fact that many people have been jailed merely for setting up Internet democracy sites? Could we discuss the fact that the government had recently tried to block the Google website, and replace it with a Chinese website? Could I mention the geeky fact that even though Google has now been restored, the government has figured out how to disable the search engine’s “cache” feature, a feature that would allow users to access to blocked homepages stored in Google’s own library of sites? Could I complain that the Chinese authorities can monitor anyone’s email activity with impunity? And so on. When I pointed all this out to the TV host, he merely grinned and said, “Yes, well, almost anything.”

His reaction is telling, because it reveals to what degree he has internalized the blurry boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable content. With no list of explicit taboos to go by, he must develop a kind of sixth sense for what might meet with disapproval, and the criteria is often maddeningly subtle and mercurial. But an experienced TV talkshow host can eventually learn to deal comfortably with a broad range of topics in spontaneous interviews with both Chinese and foreign guests, smoothly avoiding problem topics with the unconscious skill of an experienced driver avoiding bumps and other road hazards. In my experience, 99% of media censorship in China is of this preemptory, self-imposed variety.

If I’m right about this, the psychological mechanism involved in the process is quite mundane. All of us unconsciously adapt our conversational tone and content to suit the occasion, in certain situations avoiding four-letter words, references to money, sex, religion, physical deformity, or other uncomfortable realities. This cognitive dance is probably no different in kind from that of Chinese media workers who daily manage political program content. While there are obviously countless cases where information is explicitly pruned, oftentimes the process is so reflexive and automatic that the term “censorship” almost no longer applies.

But whether consciously felt or not, the shackles are quite real. Which brings me back to the uncomfortable point I must confront: Chinese media workers routinely acquiesce to the wishes of the shadowy figures in power because their careers depend on it; what choice do they have? But we foreigners do have a choice. How can I justify my occasional participation in TV shows, especially knowing full well that at times my foreign status is in part being used toward some political end? Doesn’t agreeing to play the game entail a basic acceptance and approval of the rules?

As with any decision in life, and especially in regard to life in China, the answers are unsatisfyingly messy. Certain shows such as Beijing Television’s Guoji Shuangxing Xian (国际双行线) feature a format in which foreigners and Chinese compare viewpoints in every installment, while shows like CCTV’s popular Shihua Shishuo (实话实说) or BTV’s Yinping Lianzhe Wo He Ni (银屏连着我和你) only occasionally air special programs in which the foreign point of view is needed to round out the discussion. In most situations we foreigners are merely being asked to represent the “Western” point of view on some innocuous topic such as child-rearing or buying a car. In such cases, the aspect of cross-cultural exchange takes precedent, with virtually no political ramifications. In such cases, I’m generally happy to appear as a guest, since the program’s goals are overall well-meaning and the format is merely a rather freewheeling (if banal) discussion forum.

The Central Television English channel, CCTV-9, also airs straightforward news and information programs in which prominent foreigners are interviewed (such as the American ambassador, or visitors such as Bill Clinton). Such shows obviously include a much broader range of political content, which is allowable since the language barrier excludes most of the broad masses, but even so, the content is always heavily edited.

But there is another kind of show that we foreigners are often invited to take part in (or co-opted into), one in which the foreign faces on the screen are there to send an overt political message. For example, when control of Hong Kong reverted to the mainland in 1997, Chinese-speaking foreigners were relentlessly called on to take part in variety and talk shows in order to convey implicit international support for the “one country two systems” propaganda. Many of us, including me, refused to take part in such programs, simply on principle. But where does one draw the line? Does one refuse to offer supportive remarks for a show celebrating the International Year of the Child, or a documentary on the preservation of the Great Wall and other cultural relics, simply because the government is funding and promoting the cause? If I am opposed to Bush’s war in Iraq, do I refuse to air these views in a Chinese TV interview on the subject, simply because—or in spite of—the fact that the Chinese government’s position happens to coincide with mine? And what if, as often happens, a sensitive topic simply arises unexpectedly in the course of an otherwise neutral show? Do I keep my mouth shut? Voice an unwelcome opinion and make the directors fear for their jobs? Or go along good-naturedly feigning agreement or ignorance just to make life easier for everyone?

These are questions every foreign who appears before a camera here must consider. Everyone makes their own decision based upon the context, the level of freedom or coercion, the goals of the participants, or just a gut feeling about the whole activity. In my above account of the “Dialogue” show, one can see what resulted in this particular situation from the various pressures of intimidation as filtered through group psychology. Who knows what might have happened in a slightly different context?

I can’t speak for anyone else, but my decision has been that it is worthwhile to remain a participant, despite the pitfalls and compromises. I am perhaps more optimistic about the ultimate effect of these cross-cultural media exchanges than the above account might suggest. The reason is that, despite the boundaries and restrictions, the control is not and can never be absolute. The system “leaks”, constantly and everywhere. Despite the presence of the Chinese censors and the intrinsic shallowness of the TV medium itself, there are very often refreshingly genuine, very human, and even revelatory moments of interaction between myself and the Chinese participants. When the show is taped in the studio rather than a live broadcast, the atmosphere is often much more relaxed and accepting of frank truths. I have even prefaced remarks with “I know this will be cut from the show, but I want to say it, anyway…” And although such remarks indeed never make it to the airwaves, hopefully they create a certain resonance in the minds of the audience. And I am often surprised and enlightened by what the audience members have to say when they let their guard down.

In addition, it must be recognized that the Chinese audience is more sophisticated than the government sometimes gives them credit for. Even the most passive Chinese couch potato is at some level aware that they are being manipulated, and they are able to read and decode a great deal of genuine meaning amidst the bleached content and hypocritical blather. When I criticize the U.S. or the West, as I am usually free to do, I can often detect in the nods of the audience an awareness of the unspoken negative flip side of the argument that includes China; they are quite able to fill in the blanks. After a Beijing Television show in which I mentioned America’s gun control problem, an audience member came up to me and said “We agree with you that the gun lobby in your country is a detrimental force, but you know, most of us in the audience were thinking that at least you have mechanisms by which some people can put pressure on the government to do their bidding, even if the result is skewed. Your remarks made me realize more about China than America.”

Of course, there is increasingly less need for such indirect, multi-leveled decoding. With the Internet and satellite dishes, the current Chinese information environment is so porous that government attempts to control it have become increasingly pathetic and silly. In fact, the utter futility of many of their measures shows that they may have other goals in mind besides thought control.

I am continually reminded of an observation by my mentor at the University of Michigan, Kenneth DeWoskin, who noted that the Party could not possibly expect anyone to truly believe the fantasies they promote; rather, the sheer ability of those in power to force everyone to repeat the bare-faced lie is simply a way of demonstrating and thus reinforcing their level of control.

Finally, there is an issue I must mention, though it is beyond the scope of this article to address. In China now, all the information on the planet is now at the fingertips of anyone with a computer. As with the rest of the world, government control of information, to be truly effective, must now be carried out by distraction and misdirection of attention spans away from the offending issues. The Party is catching on to this fact. In 1989, nobody in China knew who Wei Jingsheng was because the government could erase him from the Chinese information environment. Today nobody knows who Wei Jingsheng is because Britney Spears is so cute and fascinating.

The anaconda may just be one stage in the evolution toward a much more terrifying beast.

There are currently 9 Comments for Self-censorship: the 2,000 pound rhinoceros on the dining table.

Comments on Self-censorship: the 2,000 pound rhinoceros on the dining table

I agree with your view to certain extent. However, to goven such a big population is really a tough task for Chinese govenment. Especially when most of the population still remain un-educated, media will misslead them to act stupidly. At the moment, all what Chinese need is maintain in peace and develop. Only when civilization spreads wild enough, meida can gain its freedom (actually, even in developed country like US, media is under certain control ).

I believe you've got a point there,but compared with 20 years ago,media in China has got more freedom and this is a kind of advance,isn'it?

i commend ur honest appraisal of ur feelings about self censorship,and brave enough to come to an honest conclusion that fear is the one that stops u and others from speaking up. Dont be too sad about it, it is self preservation at work. if it is any consolation to u, know that u can enjoy observing history in the making, u r in the middle of it, and with posts like this u r contributing in a substantial way to its recording as it unfolds. i, for one, find this first person observation of ur feelings and events of history being played in my lifetime, fascinating. Dont worry about the outcome, some people will gain and others lose, and that has always been so in human history.

Spot on, Ann. Wonderful post.

I've only been here 3 or so years and speak virtually no Chinese and currently travel to China from Hong Kong via a bogus biz visa as to avoid the journo tag but I worked for a state owned paper in Shenzhen.

Everything you said rang true from your own reluctance to speak out and thereby embarrassing/endangering your Chinese friends, to the sense that they mostly all know what the score is but keep-on-keeping-on despite it all in order to maintain a living.

Very interesting and very recognizable!
If you can't speak-up freely for all the good reasons mentioned, maybe a boycot to participate in this kind of "events" would be better in order not to be an unwilling accomplice?

Hi Ann,

I was in the CCTV studio for the taping of the show, too. And I understood very well how you must have felt to go through the whole thing. Those participants there, no matter how sofisticated they might be in terms of their knowledge level, can hardly present the silenced majority in today's China. And the lack of a clean conscious of the intellectual community as a whole can be spinned into different stories for propaganda purpose but can never speak for the quiet but angry Chinese.

I have been asked to participate in various shows about different topics, none politically related. But during the vetting process, when I talked to the program producers, I always made it clear that I would present only my opinion, and that I would not represent the stereotypical view of a subject. After discussing these points, both the producer and I would usually come to the conclusion that I wasn't what the show was looking for. These shows already know what they want their foreign guests to say, and they will manipulate or edit in such a way so that only the show's views are truly expressed. Shows that bring on foreigners to discuss issues should have a disclaimer: the views expressed by the participants of this program are not necessarily the views of the participants.

I wonder when it will resonate in the Chinese public's mind FDR's often quoted; "There is nothing to fear but fear itself". The Chinese media is so opaque that even I can see right through their BS.

Thank you, good article!

China's Nelson Mandelas go to prison, and those who remain silent and let it happen deserve to feel the guilt expressed in this article. Guilty of conformity!

Of course, guilt doesn't really help. Only if the numbers of individuals that stand up and speak out increase beyond the capacity of Chinese prisons or help us transcend our hideous and insidious willingness to conform will there be change.

As far as the role of 'foreign friends' is concerned, true friends have always been a rare breed, whatever nationality.

@John: Not all of us are interested in attending or watching silly shows on TV. One thing missing in the article: Some people may be afraid of the anaconda or of what it's become. Some may go the path of least resistance, pursue whatever benefits them. But others (a silent majority?) are merely hesitant and shy. And I sense that their disgust against BS narratives is growing.

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