Unmasking Chinese Censorship in the Age of COVID-19

Illustration by Gabriela Sibilska. Photo credit: Tauno Tõhk

In Chinese folklore, there is a saying that “every nine will lead to chaos.” On 4 May 1919, the May Fourth Movement emerged from the student protests in Beijing; on 1 October 1949, Mao Zedong announced the foundation of People’s Republic of China from atop Tiananmen; in March 1959, the Tibetan uprising erupted; and 1989 witnessed the development and failure of Tiananmen Square protests. Just as people in China thought that 2019 would leave them peacefully, COVID-19 began to surface as a powerful new pathogen.


Censorship in mainland China often eludes definition because it is so pervasive. The government’s control of free speech and public information is deeply integrated with so-called “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and thus permeates all facets of people’s daily lives. The constant reinforcement of the censorship regime shapes the subjectivity of the Chinese people, who in turn come to support the version of reality presented by their government. The circular nature of the system gives it strength but also makes it far more noticeable—and potentially destabilizing—when cracks emerge.


The emergence of the coronavirus and subsequent suppression of information regarding its spread is one such crack. But China watchers hoping that the virus will bring fundamental reforms to the system underestimate the ubiquity and malleability of Chinese censorship. Despite the failures of the government in addressing the spread of COVID-19, censorship in mainland China remains a culturally acceptable practice—even and especially in times of crisis.


The Dynamics of Censorship in Mainland China


Censorship in mainland China takes on a number of different forms. Consider the example of internet censorship. The invention and establishment of “the great firewall of China” was a significant watershed, marking the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) authoritative victory over the technological democracy of the internet. The project began with the 1998 banning of the China Democracy Party and took eight years to complete its first stage in 2006.


Since then, people have only been able to access uncensored information through a virtual private network (VPN). After Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, however, fiercer attacks against VPNs were launched one after another. In one instance at the end of July 2017, at the request of the Chinese government, Apple removed dozens of VPN applications from the App Store in mainland China. To remain connected with the outside world, citizens have had to constantly keep up with the availability of different virtual proxy protocols. This explains why “climbing over the great firewall” or “circumventing the internet censorship scientifically” have become two of the most widely-used expressions for getting uncensored info in China, which has become an increasingly tedious obstacle to overcome on a daily basis.


Why Is Chinese Censorship Culturally Acceptable for Many?


It’s complicated. Developmentalism, consumerism, paternalism, nationalism, Confucianism...they all form the cultural context of censorship in mainland China. While all of these factors contribute to the dynamics of censorship, paternalism is a particularly critical component because it lies at the core of the authoritarian regime‘s relationship with its people.


It may sound stereotypical to say that the legacy of paternalism in an East-Asian Confucian society is still alive, but it does persist, at least in mainland China. Beyond the example of COVID-19, look at how Sally Hawkins was portrayed in The Shape of Water on Chinese screens. The black dress added to her naked body during the bathroom scene surprised many cinephiles. But consider how relieved culturally conservative Chinese parents would feel if they were watching the film in a cinema with their “innocent” and “susceptible” children.


The relationship between paternalism and censorship is complex. Imagine China as a huge family and the government as its parents. In fact, the literal meaning of the word “country” in Chinese is “Nation-Family” and governmental officials are called “Parental Officials” in spoken language. Chinese people tend to see the relationship between themselves, their families, and the country as indivisible, as encapsulated by the saying “if there is no nation, there is no family.” Citizens are somewhat accustomed to the so-called “Parental Officials” making decisions for them. Since officials are like fathers and mothers, people are inclined to think that the officials will do them good, by nature. The censorship of The Shape of Water may sound unreasonable, but considering the matter from a parental point of view made it acceptable, at least to some Chinese citizens.


In an authoritarian political environment that denies individuality and autonomy, the Chinese government has exploited paternalism to justify the existence of censorship. Just as the vertigo of nationalism and collectivism replaced the pain of individual thinking and the cruelty of answers to those universal questions of life and community, paternalism covered up the lack of personal choices and the absence of individual rights in the name of love.


The year 2019 marked the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Due to the special nature of the celebration, there was heightened government sensitivity during this period, which led to a peak in censorship in order to ensure all related celebrations proceeded smoothly and according to party standards. For example, the 2019 film The Eight Hundred—which many believed had potential to become a blockbuster—was banned due to its positive portrayal of the the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuo Ming Tang), the CCP’s historic rival, and their fight against Japan's intrusion in China during the Second Sino-Japanese War. One TV drama changed its name from Cry Me a Sad River to Flowing Good Times to avoid irritating the authorities, who saw the former title as too negative. Even more absurdly, reality TV programs are required to blur the tattoos and earrings of the artists on the shows for unstated reasons. Still, many argue that this is merely related to the governmental concern that such things may “contaminate” the audience’s mind.


The Emergence of COVID-19


The escalation of the coronavirus in China coincided with the Spring Festival in January 2020, the most significant festival in the country, which marks the longest holiday for wage-earners and the largest population migration on Earth annually. It is comparable to an extended version of Christmas for Western countries. Many activities in China, including censorship, are suspended during the celebration. This year, the holiday was prolonged due to the unexpected outbreak of COVID-19.


The absence of censorship, combined with the development of the epidemic, led to a resurgence of non-official public media between January and February of 2020. The prompt and in-depth reporting on the novel virus from institutional media such as Caixin and Sanlian Life Weekly affected the nerves of both society and the state. Though the professionalism of the journalism received wide applause from certain Chinese intellectuals and elites, it also stepped on the toes of the officialdom. Therefore, when the “internet police” got back to work after the extended Spring Festival holiday, they launched a particularly stringent censorship policy to suffocate dissenting voices. Countless civilian complaints about the government’s misconduct, which were posted on social media, and specialized reports on the sudden chaos were erased from the highly-monitored public sphere.


The crackdown was clearly demonstrated with the now famous case of the coronavirus whistleblower, Dr. Li Wenliang. Upon his death, a netizen uploaded a clip of someone playing a tune on the trumpet to commemorate the doctor. The short video touched many Chinese people's hearts and made so many of those in isolation weep as a community, yet it too was ruthlessly deleted from the internet. There was no official statement to explain why it was deleted, and this lack of justification is precisely characteristic of censorship in China. Maybe it was perceived as too negative from the viewpoint of the internet police, or perhaps they feared the potential and power within the sadness. Even an act so intimate as grieving—because it was seen as autonomous—was deemed intolerable.


Kill That Hero! Then Enshrine Him


A closer look at what happened to Li Wenliang before and after his death presents insight into censorship’s flexible nature and ability to make swift adjustments when necessary.


Long before COVID-19 was identified, based on their professional judgment, eight doctors, including Li Wenliang, told their friends and relatives about their findings regarding the new coronavirus. Challenged by netizens and interrogated by the police, they were asked to provide written testimonials promising that they would not spread the information about the virus to avoid causing public panic. Not only did this type of censorship intervention suppress early warning signals, but it also limited possibilities to combat the virus at an early stage.


Li Wenliang has since become a civilian hero who simply spoke out when the government wanted to silence him and his fellow doctors. He completed his heroic act and was treated as a subversive before the fight against the epidemic became part of China’s national agenda, and he passed away when the entire country was thrown into a state of anxiety during the historically unprecedented lockdown. Rather than being a spokesman of the state’s will or the collective, Li Wenliang’s heroism lies in the simple and everyday nature of his behavior. He was so admired by the public that the sympathy expressed when people learned of his death shocked even the authorities. The central government announced it would investigate the last days of Li Wenliang in order to ease the indignation online; meanwhile, information pertaining to him remained censored.


The results of the so-called investigation into the case of Li Wenliang eventually came to light. The official document highlights Li Wenliang’s identity as a member of the Chinese Communist Party—it is rare for a young Chinese citizen who has completed a Master's or doctorate in mainland China not to have joined the CCP. The Chinese government also denied that Li Wenliang’s actions negated its governance in any way, contradicting their original accusation of rumor-mongering against him.


Currently, the public is facing much more severe censorship than it did when Li Wenliang died. There has been little questioning or criticism surrounding the official document that appeared in the public sphere. The Chinese government nullified the character of Li Wenliang—not by silencing him, but by co-opting his memory to fulfill a national narrative.


What Does the Pandemic Teach Us About Chinese Censorship?


The authoritarian government in China sees only their own agenda as legitimate and relies on propaganda to shape individuals into carriers of the will of the state. Outside agendas, especially those that may bring out a wide range of connections between citizens, are not permitted. In this way, society’s role as an error correction mechanism against the nefarious side of governance becomes debilitated.


Accordingly, Li Wenliang was first a civilian hero, but as he began to advance an unwanted agenda, he was co-opted as a national hero. Just as Chinese critic Li Haipeng suggested at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, “The state will be interpreted, proved, and trusted as the only savior.” This dynamic is representative of how censorship broadly functions in China, as well as its application during the pandemic. What started as a catastrophic public health emergency was transformed into a nationalistic rallying cry by the CCP. “They start with the failure of the state,” Li Haipeng predicted, “and end with its victory.”


Negative voices about Chinese governance and its mismanagement of the pandemic have been “effectively” suppressed in China. Yet, as it grew from epidemic to pandemic, COVID-19 transformed from a national incident to an international event. China has struggled to return to normality, with the party trying to cover up the obvious weaknesses of nationalistic one-party rule. For instance, news broadcasts have been constantly emphasizing the aid China is providing for other countries struck by the virus.


COVID-19 has forced China to grapple with difficult, looming questions. Will the internationalization of the pandemic open up thoughts on internationalism for the Chinese public? Will nationalists, who are dissatisfied with criticism from other nations, acquire the common sense that has long been shelved—that we originally belong to the same global community, that we share disease and health, both physical and mental, and that we possess similar willpower and vulnerability in the face of a disaster? Ultimately, doubts surround the effectiveness of this line of thinking, as it is too strenuous. And in China, it has far too little room to be heard.

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INTERZINE | 2020