Rethinking Censorship

I’ve long been intrigued by the issue of censorship in China. I think it’s an issue that’s often over simplified here in the states. We tend to think of Chinese censorship as a blanket redaction of certain so-called heretical thoughts, when in fact there’s much more nuance to examine. But there was research published in 2013 that indicated that Chinese censors crack down on calls to assemble and protest more than incendiary words against the government.

I also find some merit to the argument that since the Chinese know the materials they ingest are censored, they evaluate information with a more critical eye than even those members of a free society do. It’s also widely known that there are various clever ways around the restrictions.

This recent New Yorker article, Travels with My Censor is a thoughtful and personal account of an American author whose work is available for purchase in mainland China. The author, Peter Hessler, went on a week-long book tour with the man who censors his work for publication in that country.

The following excerpt is especially illuminating:

[…] Western commentary about censorship often turns inward, portraying limitations in other countries in a way that celebrates our own values. One of the most striking qualities of foreign portrayals of censorship in China is the apparent lack of interest in Chinese readers and editors. Two of the most prominent recent feature stories about the censorship of foreign books—long pieces in the Times and in the South China Morning Post—fail to include a single comment by a reader in China. Neither quotes a Chinese editor by name. The articles have not been censored, of course, but nevertheless each has a gaping hole at its center. As long as Chinese readers remain unknown, and editors appear shadowy and symbolic, it’s difficult to understand them or to feel much sympathy.

In the West, there’s a tendency to approach censorship with a high-handedness that would seem inappropriate if applied to other issues of development, like poverty. There may in fact be more similarities than we realize. The drive for improved access to information, which includes education, contact with new ideas, and freedom of expression, is at least as complex as everything that it takes to improve living standards. A term like “self-censorship,” which is a favorite in the West, puts the blame on individuals in ways that may not be right. There’s no economic equivalent—we don’t have a neat two-word phrase that describes the things that poor people supposedly do to perpetuate their own poverty.

I realize that I lack the first-hand experience to speak on this issue with any authority, much like the aforementioned writers for the Times and South China Morning Post. But I can at least point out our contradictory credos and gross over simplification on the topics of free speech and censorship in China.

Behind the Great Firewall

New research uncovers {npr} what may at first seems like a counterintuitive finding about censorship in China—but when comparing to tech-fueled uprisings like the Arab Spring—seems shrewd and obvious:

[Harvard University social scientist Gary] King has just completed two studies that peer into the Chinese censorship machine — including a field experiment within China that was conducted with extraordinary secrecy. Together, the studies refute popular intuitions about what Chinese censors are after.

The censors actually permit “vitriolic criticism” of China’s leaders and governmental policies, King and his colleagues — Jennifer Pan and Margaret Roberts — found. But the censors crack down heavily on any move to get people physically mobilized to act on such criticism.

That ain’t smart that’s creepy: destroying e-books edition

A cautionary tale from Maria Konnikova over at The Atlantic about the ease with which e-books can be recalled and effectively un-published:

And what happens when there actually aren’t any physical books behind those electronic versions—and then a publisher or retailer not only removes all links to the book in question, but then proceeds to remove the already purchased book from your reading device? Imagine: When all of your books are in digital form, what is the backup system if they are of a sudden removed?

{via andrew sullivan}

This issue will become only more pronounced as more and more of us move our books, music, and other media into the cloud. It even weirds me out that the iPhone version of The New Yorker is occasionally updated, with no announcement as to what has changed. Call me old fashioned, but I’m sticking with paper.