2013 02 28 NYT The Many Faces of Censorship in China – NYTimes.com
OP-ED GUEST COLUMNIST
Censorship’s Many Faces
By YU HUA
Published: February 27, 2013 18 Comments
Censorship in China conjures the image of rigid, unsmiling authority, but that disapproving scowl can give way to a different expression — and not always a consistent one. A film, for example, might be banned for 20 years, while the novel on which it is based sells briskly throughout that same period.
This might seem puzzling, but the reason is simple. China has more than 500 publishing houses, each with its own editor in chief (and de facto censor); if a book is rejected by one publisher there’s still a chance another will take it. In contrast, films are not released until officials in the state cinema bureau in Beijing are satisfied, and once a film is banned it has no hope of being screened.
When it comes to censorship in China, the primary factors are often economic, not political. Publishing houses that were once government financed have operated as commercial enterprises for years now. Editors are under pressure to make the biggest profit they can. Even if a book carries some political risks, a daring editor will take the gamble if there’s a chance it will be a best seller.
To be sure, there are some limits in book publishing — the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 are taboo, for example — but fewer than in film. That’s because film censors, unlike book publishers, don’t have to worry about making profits. Each script is scrutinized, and only after it’s approved can filming commence. Review of the finished product is even more exacting. Even if they were to reject every project that comes their way, it wouldn’t affect their salaries, so they are not prepared to take on the least political risk. That’s why the Cultural Revolution and other sensitive topics are regularly discussed in print but remain off-limits on film. If you go to a cinema, all you’ll see, basically, are martial-arts films, palace dramas, love stories and comedies — and a few American movies.
Television censorship is a bit less strict. Programming directors decide what gets broadcast, but the propaganda ministry often demands changes. China Central Television, the state broadcaster, is the most carefully monitored; regional stations have more leeway. News programming undergoes the strictest censorship, while other programs — particularly sports — have more freedom.
Newspaper censorship is also relatively more relaxed than film censorship, but stricter than book censorship. Stricter because the Communist Party puts more stress on control of the press (“journalism is the Party’s mouthpiece,” the saying goes). More relaxed because the press has to make its way in the marketplace. Newspapers need circulation and advertising revenue, so they publish lots of stories about social problems and injustices, because that’s what readers want. When newspapers got government subsidies, they were politically and economically beholden. Now their subservience can’t be counted on. As the economic base crumbles, the superstructure threatens to collapse.
The newspaper Southern Weekend, based in Guangdong Province, for years published exposés on corruption and malfeasance, becoming one of China’s most popular news outlets. Shrewdly, it focused its muckraking on other provinces, with the result that local censors often cut it slack. Papers elsewhere began to take their lead from Southern Weekend, dispatching investigative reporters far afield while carrying upbeat news about the situation close to home.
The highly publicized demonstrations in January over censorship of Southern Weekend were a rarity: a “mass incident” (as China calls such protests) over the media. A propaganda chief who’d parachuted in from Beijing had meddled so crudely with a routine editorial that he triggered a revolt among editors and reporters. Other newspapers lent support to the protesters, while on the Internet the outrage was even stronger. Soon it was all hushed up. The paper has continued to publish. The authorities offered vague commitments of gentler censorship, but have quietly begun retaliating against those who took a stand. The government won in the end, but its censorship had encountered — for the first time in decades — head-on resistance from a press that has become far less docile.
On Weibo, a kind of Chinese Twitter, I recently made a joking comparison between media censorship and the pervasive threat of contaminated food, a constant source of worry:
“There’s no end to these food scares,” a friend sighed. “Is there any hope of a solution?”
“Oh, all we need is for food inspections to be as forceful as film censorship,” I told him breezily. “With all that faultfinding and nit-picking, food-safety issues will be resolved in no time.”
More than 12,000 readers reposted this. One wrote: I know what we should do. Let’s have those in charge of film, newspaper and book censorship take over food safety, and have those responsible for food safety censor films, papers and books. That way we’ll have food safety — and freedom of expression as well!
Yu Hua, the author of “China in Ten Words,” is a guest columnist. This column was translated by Allan H. Barr from the Chinese.