The Great Firewall of China

24 MB MP3

It’s the first time that the Communist party — that has tried to control information systematically — has run up against such a slippery medium. This is like trying to nail jelly to the wall. You do it here and it falls off anyway. …after all, there has never been an Internet or email before.

Perry Link, 6/20/05 on Open Source
Chris’s Billboard

Censorship in China might be compared not with a man-eating tiger nor with a fire-breathing dragon. No, says the American China watcher Perry Link, Chinese censorship is more like a giant green snake, an anaconda, coiled quietly in a chandelier in a dusky room. Normally it doesn’t even move, or spell out what cannot be said, printed, or blogged, because it doesn’t have to. It lets people take their chances. At the same time, the reality of Chinese bloggers – coming under government registration at the end of this month—is not the seething or revolutionary uprising of individual opinion that we might imagine from the blog record elsewhere. Chinese blogs are not yet very outspoken; they’re barely even political: they pass personal information site-to-site about a society they consider fragile. So what’s the meaning of the coming crackdown? We’re peeking over the great firewall of China.

Perry Link

professor of East Asian Studies

[over ISDN from New Jersey]

Ha Jin

author of War Trash

[in studio, WGBH]

Andrea Leung

blogger: T-Salon, which she publishes as a hobby

[over phone]

Related Content

  • There’s an interesting article in Forbes about this.

    Microsoft is forbidding Chinese bloggers on MSN Spaces in China from using words like “Democracy,” “Freedom,” and “Taiwan Independence” in the titles of their blogs. The idea is to reduce the flags that appear to Beijing censors, and reduce the chances that the service will be banned entirely in China.

    I like it — it’s reverse Orwell. You use double-speak not to silence freedom, but to ensure it.

  • bft

    The double-speak in “1984” was for the purpose of ensuring freedom too…

  • No, it was just nominal freedom.

    Forgive me if I’m just restating the obvious — beneath the logical reversal, this seems like it’s just common sense. Microsoft is creating a medium to help people say whatever they like. In order to protect their real freedom, they’re restricting people’s choice of words to reduce the flags that will anger the Chinese censors.

    I would much rather have small restrictions, which can easily be avoided using codewords, than have the whole medium shut down. Even Americans use these (ever come across the phrase “420 friendly” in a housing/roommate wanted ad in the classified?).

  • Potter

    I read what I think is an extraordinary article by Leslie Chang in the Wall Street Journal about a migrant worker called Min who is 18 years old . She left her primitive rural home to work in a city 22 hours travel time away. The first of the series was in November- about her leaving. The recent article, June 8th, is about her return and how she has changed and how sees her home with different eyes.

    These are too long to post here. This is the url to the June Article:

    The first article from November I can only find in a pdf file. Google “The Chinese Dream” Chang and “Wall Street Journal”

  • What about wikipedia? How active are people in China in updating and adding content to the world’s open source information encyclopedia?

  • Brendan & Chris–

    Thanks for putting this together.

    One thing that people forget in this country, the land of the free, is that we had censored movies for three decades. I can’t defend the Production Code, but I can point out that producers and artists found a way to work around it and stretch what they can do. And in a little twist of history, the Production Code did not fall because of free speech reasons, but because of an anti-trust lawsuit (another consequence was the brilliant movies after the code fell, in the 60’s and 70’s.) So I would support Amardeep’s point that there may be value in using “codewords” for the short term.

    Hmm. Can people still self-organize if they are resigned to using codewords? If history has always pointed in the direction of freedom and liberation (at least for cultures adept at codewords?) then we should be optomistic.


  • “fireworks and trains entering tunnels!” thanks Brendan.

    Yes, I was wondering how people talk in code about democracy in China. But, if it’s in code, better not say it!


  • mfeltz

    Not only is China fanatically blocking information exchange via the internet, the Chinese Communist Party has recently been enforcing a mass wave of “re-education” camps throughout the country to further engrain people’s minds in communist ideals.

    This wave has been in response the the rapid spreading of the Epoch Times’ “Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party,” which, since November of last year, has spurred the withdrawal of over 2 million members from the party.

    Check out the 9 commentaries, or Jiuping, at

  • j neil cahalane

    The show on China was passable interesting, particularly Mr.Lydon’s reaction to Ms. Lung’ recital of the off color chinese ditty.

    My real question concerns the shows’s title and radio presenters’ pronunciation. For a while now I have been listening to news accounts of what sounded like the The Rock War. I finally grasped that this referred to the unpleasntess currently playing out in and around Baghdad.

    Now my commute dulled brain has been jolted with another oddly titled phenomenon. “Open Sores” the previews appeared to promise. Sort of appropriate, I thought, find a series of festering issue like the Iraq war, and keep picking at it. A little low-brow perhaps, but catchy, as it were. Then I heard a different pronunciation- less Canadian neutral perhaps, and I realized that my brief fantasy of a vulgarly titled NPR show was nothing of the sort. Open Source is the show’s name. I cannot believe it is entirely unintentional.

  • Great show. Enjoyed being on it. By the way, remember that Chinese website the NYT’s Nick Kristof mentioned? It has been shut down. A Chinese blogger brings us the news. The link about it is here:

  • Charles

    I don’t know where you heard that Harry Potter is banned in China but a Chinese friend sent me a very nice pirate copy of HP & The Goblet of Fire which he bought in Shanghai for about a dollar. He also sent a nicely illustrated Chinese translation of The Hobbit, so it seems that the Chinese authorities, unlike some of our domestic Christians, feel unthreatened by fictional wizards. even foreign ones.

  • Chelsea

    The following liknk get you to this article . (we should have specified Harry Potter 3),,30000-13152549,00.html


    Harry Potter may have fought off Voldemort, but can he hold out against the Chinese Communist Party?  

    At least for this summer, the answer is “No”, writes Sky’s Holly Williams in Beijing.

    The third instalment of Harry’s celluloid adventures, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”, has been effectively banned for the school holidays on the Chinese mainland after a government decision to delay its release as part of an official crackdown aimed at strengthening morals.  

    The government’s morality campaign began earlier this year, and was initially targeted at the Chinese media. Around 16,000 internet cafes have been closed down, while remaining operations were told to deny access to minors and better regulate their customers’ access to sites deemed unsuitable by authorities.  

    Chinese television presenters were also ordered to clean up their act; the government has banned them from sporting dyed hair and revealing clothing. The intended effect, according to one official, is to “reduce the negative impact of queer dressing and behaviour on youngsters”.  

    Exactly how “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” might negatively influence Chinese children has not been explained by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television the government bureau responsible for the ban.  

    Also affected by the clampdown are Hollywood Blockbusters “Spider-Man 2” and “Shrek 2”, which will have their releases delayed until after the school holidays.  

    Many copies are being sold on the black market

    Chinese journalist, Shen Ting, says that the government believes that the media is to blame for a new youth culture that is alien to older Chinese leaders.  

    “The people are all calling more and more for openness in the media”, said Shen, ‘but maybe the Chinese Government has the kind of concern that if they just open the market very abruptly that will bring disruption or damage to society.’  

    Indeed, the Chinese government is struggling to come to terms with a transformation of the country’s young. China’s first ever generation of Western-style teenagers is hungry for imported pop music, video games, fashion and movies. At least in the eyes of their worried parents, many young people have rejected traditional Chinese values such as academic excellence and filial piety in favour of shopping, surfing the internet and night clubs.  

    Daniel Radcliffe – aka Harry Potter

    Meanwhile, in a tone reminiscent of conservative media in the West in the 1960s, China’s state-run newspapers abound in disturbing reports of juvenile delinquency and violence. One paper recently reported that two teenagers, aged 16 and 17, robbed a taxi driver of cash and his mobile phone after seeing car-jackings on a television show. Xinhua, the government’s official news wire service, reported that three middle school students beat up a cyclist and later told police they were simply acting out scenes they had scene on video games.  

    Many officials agree that there is a clear link between a rise in youth violence (it jumped by 12.7% last year) and foreign influence via the media. “In the past it was hard to imagine that some crimes would appear in Chinese juveniles”, said Shen Ting, “but now more and more cases are appearing, and social problems are getting more common.”  

    But Harry Potter’s young Chinese fans seem unlikely perpetrators of violent or anti-social acts. On a recent afternoon at the Xinhua Bookstore in downtown Beijing, primary school-aged children flocked around the shelves displaying all five Harry Potter books. A sales assistant attested that the books are top sellers.  

    The children all avid readers, and, according to those parents present, good students seemed confused and worried by the suggestion that Harry Potter might be a negative influence on their development.  

    Ten-year-old Yang Kun said that the first two movies were “frightening and really good” and rebutted the government’s concerns, arguing that “Harry teaches kids to be brave and helps them solve their problems.”  

    Told that he would not be able to see the new Harry Potter film this summer, 14-year-old Yan Yajun was outraged. “I think that’s wrong”, he said. “They shouldn’t stop kids from watching what they want to watch. Harry doesn’t have a bad impact on kids; he teaches us things.”

  • Charles

    You should have specified that it was the film, not the books that the government was banning. But of course banning of any kind is ridiculous.

    Let us hope that China’s future will rest in the hands of the Yang Kuns and Yan Yajuns rather than the Hu Jintaos and Wen Jiabaos.

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