Blurred Lines: Chinese Censorship and Its Effects on State Control

By Jae Chang


Abstract image.

For three months, Chinese actress Fan Bingbing vanished from the public eye. She attended no promotional events and was silent on social media. Worried fans took to social media, expressing concern and speculating about her retreat from the public eye. During this time, netizens discovered that keywords regarding her situation and disappearance were censored by the Chinese government. Fan Bingbing later cleared the air; she revealed that she was arrested for tax fraud and publicly apologized for all the commotion.[i] While the situation has since been resolved, the Chinese government’s actions highlight its ability to crack down on controversial social media posts and speculations.[ii]

Such instances of censorship are common in Chinese social media. The Xi Jinping administration has greatly expanded censorship in order to increase political stability and align internet discourse with central government ideology. Whether it is Chinese hip hop artists producing “low taste content” or Winnie the Pooh images bearing too great of a resemblance to President Xi, targets for censorship are wide-ranging and difficult to predict.

Censorship tactics are developed to block out information and ideas that reflect poorly on the central government and to establish the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as the primary authority and gatekeeper of information. There are no formalized guidelines to determine what content is objectionable and runs counter to party ideology. These vague, blurred standards are intentional tools for political crackdowns. The absence of strict content standards forces netizens to draw back from any form of criticism or potentially controversial material out of caution, leading to self-censorship.[iii] The CCP’s, and specifically Xi ’s, long-term goal is to create a culture of loyalty to state ideals in Chinese media. Rather than a specific, transparent set of standards enforced through a highly standardized legal system, the party’s controlled yet decentralized approach spreads the effects of censorship more pervasively.[iv]

Chinese censorship on the internet and social media, as well as state influence on foreign technology and internet companies, serves crucial roles in maintaining the CCP’s central authority. Sweeping action across social media reveals Xi’s goals to not only centralize power within the party but to amass personal power as well.

Social Media Censorship Mechanisms and Their Effect on Society

The government and companies are provided with a number of technical strategies and mechanisms to regulate content. The Great Firewall of China, a massive internet control system, allows the government to automatically crack down on select keywords and subjects s.[v] All content posted on popular Chinese social media sites such as Baidu and Sina Weibo pass through the Great Firewall. If a post contains keywords considered to be objectionable, it is immediately removed.[vi]

In order to circumvent these automated censorship mechanisms, Chinese citizens have developed some tricks. Keyword regulation and technology can be bypassed through VPNs (virtual private network, allowing a user to mask their location when accessing public data), Chinese homonyms, and implicit messages.[vii] Recognizing this vulnerability, the CCP has added a more personal touch to the system; companies are now required to use human censors, and public computer-use areas must be monitored by their owners.[viii] These tactics allow the government to catch more nuanced attempts at subversion as well.

To further spread the effects of censorship in the private sector, the CCP has given individual companies autonomy in how they carry out censorship and execute their agreements with the government. This decentralizes the enforcement of censorship beyond the already expansive government effort with over a dozen government agencies involved. As the Chinese Propaganda department works directly with media agencies to distribute guidelines and forbidden topics.[ix] Therefore, the companies receive the directives but are free to develop and utilize their own technology to enforce these guidelines.

Although Chinese social media exists on a singular platform that is easily monitored by a mass surveillance system, the efficacy of Chinese censorship still depends on self-censorship rather than direct content removal. Denial-of-service attacks and online harassment compel Chinese citizens to self-regulate speech.[x] Fear of active censorship and its repercussions cow bloggers and activists, stopping potentially inflammatory content from spreading in the first place.

China Digital Times, a California based website that monitors state censored news items and topics, maintains an archive of sensitive words. According to the website’s archive, seemingly innocuous jabs at Xi are taken seriously enough to be censored, with internet memes suggesting a physical similarity between Xi and Winnie the Pooh resulting in the censorship of “Winnie the Pooh” and “Disney.”[xi] Terms such as “incapable ruler (昏君),” “named emperor (称帝),” and “my emperor (吾皇)” are censored.[xii] In June, political satire commentator John Oliver and his show Last Week Tonight were censored after criticizing the Chinese government’s persecution of Uyghurs, attacking its restriction of free speech, and mocking Xi’s appearance.[xiii] In this joke, Oliver compared Xi to Winnie the Pooh, which he described as highlighting “a deep insecurity” of Xi.[xiv] Ultimately, there is no solid legal basis that explains why Winnie the Pooh or these broad phrases are banned. The government’s less than transparent guidelines for which topics are off-limits and the prospective punishments induce an expanded sense of caution, restricting content even further. Solid rules may establish control, but ambiguity creates uncertainty and ultimately, self-controlled action.

Foreign Impacts of Chinese Censorship

China’s massive economy encourages American companies to enter the Chinese market.[xv] But, in order to gain access to the Chinese market, international communication companies and internet search providers must first agree to follow Chinese information distribution rules and censor politically damaging content. In 2007, the Chinese government required Yahoo to turn over information on two of its Chinese users; they were ultimately sentenced to 10 years in prison.[xvi] The unlimited financial potential in China allows the government to use market access as a bargaining chip.

However, Google’s entry into--and ultimate exit from-- the Chinese market displays the consequences of failing to cooperate with the CCP’s demands. In 2006, the establishment of Google China seemed promising for both sides. In 2010, however, Google ultimately decided to leave the Chinese market after refusing to be complicit in the government’s censorship tactics.[xvii] Ultimately out of the second largest technology market, Google’s exit signifies the Chinese government’s powerful ability to influence business through political mechanisms. China’s burgeoning market will only expand the power it holds over companies, both domestic and foreign.

Chinese control is not dependent on overt wrangling and showdowns. The pure size of the Chinese market has established the “my way or the highway” without the need for any active suppression.

Censorship and Xi

Chinese censorship reflects the changes in individual and party leadership. Xi’s amassing of individual authority, compared to his predecessor Hu Jintao, illustrates how presidential power has deviated from the norm. In an era where Xi is personally involved with major economic decisions--a departure from the norm of collectivized leadership--maintaining personal power is necessary.[xviii] Thus, the “new normal” of China has witnessed a centralization of power and top-down nature of authority, and the focusing of large scale developments into the hands of the CCP.[xix] China’s political transition to “governance by process rather than rules”[xx] has permitted the central government to maintain its broad control through oversight. The absence of bright-line rules that dictate censorship allows material to subjectively be deemed as offensive, leading to self-censorship; this ambiguity also allows broader government control over information. Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power and legitimacy depends on these censorship techniques. Control over both domestic and foreign communication networks highlights how the Chinese government views ideas in relation to regime power. Xi does not view only controversial and critical ideas as damaging against the regime. Instead, all ideas are potentially destabilizing, and establishing the party as the sole and final source of authority on information prevents critical ideas from manifesting and spreading.[xxi] Not all criticisms directly challenge Xi and his administration, but the CCP’s censorship practices illustrate how Xi views his power over information as the cornerstone to his own personal power.

Illustration by Samantha Malzahn


[i] Meixler, Eli. "Chinese Actress Fan Bingbing Is Missing. Here's What to Know." Time. September 17, 2018. Accessed November 29, 2018. http://time.com/5394782/fan-bingbing-missing-china-chinese-actress.

[ii] "Fan Bingbing: Missing Chinese Actress Fined for Tax Fraud." BBC News. October 03, 2018. Accessed November 29, 2018. https://www.bbc.com/news/business-45728459.

[iii] Chaya Hirucharoenvarate, "Understanding and Circumventing Censorship on Chinese Social Media," (PhD diss., Georgia Tech, 2017).

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Eleanor Albert, and Beina Xu. "Media Censorship in China." Council on Foreign Relations. February 17, 2017. Accessed November 29, 2018. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/media-censorship-china.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Hirucharoenvarate 2017

[xi] Sensitive Words: Xi to Ascend His Throne (Updated).” China Digital Times CDT, https://chinadigitaltimes.net/2018/02/sensitive-words-emperor-xi-jinping-ascend-throne/.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] May, T. and Ryan, O. (2018). After John Oliver’s Jokes About Xi Jinping, China Blocks HBO Website. [online] NY Times. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/25/world/asia/china-hbo-john-oliver-xi-jinping.html [Accessed 28 Jan. 2019].

[xv] Waddell, Kaveh. "Why Google Quit China-and Why It's Heading Back." The Atlantic. January 19, 2016. Accessed January 06, 2019. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/01/why-google-quit-china-and-why-its-heading-back/424482/

[xvi] Kahn, Joseph. "Yahoo Helped Chinese to Prosecute Journalist." The New York Times. September 08, 2005. Accessed November 29, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/08/business/worldbusiness/yahoo-helped-chinese-to-prosecute-journalist.html

[xvii] Mozur, Paul. "China Presses Its Internet Censorship Efforts Across the Globe." The New York Times. March 02, 2018. Accessed November 29, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/02/technology/china-technology-censorship-borders-expansion.html

[xviii] Naughton, Barry. “The General Secretary’s Extended Reach: Xi Jinping Combines Economics and Politics.” Hoover Institution , 11 Sept. 2017.

[xix] Wallace 2017

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Kroeber, Arthur. China's Economy: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford University Press, 2016.