Life behind the Wall: Censorship in China

“Have you heard about the tea-house police?” asks my friend Huang Miao, her face obscured by the steam rising from the bubbling hotpot we’re eating at a restaurant in Shanghai.

“They’re local policemen. If you post something online that the government doesn’t like, they’ll knock on your door and invite you to come drink tea in a local teahouse. They’ll give you a choice: stop doing what you’re doing, or go to jail.”

I can’t imagine such a conversation taking place in a tea house. Mostly, they’re filled by ancient Chinese men playing mahjong and complaining about their wives.

Miao’s story sounds like an urban myth, but then most stories about China do. I discovered this in 2001, when I was teaching English in Shanghai and slowly coming to terms with the oddities of life in China.

People were convinced the internet would see off censorship in a blaze of free speech – it didn’t

Far from being sinister, the censorship was funny – the BBC homepage once disappeared for three days because it dared to report a heatwave the government flatly denied was happening, even though most of us were stuffing ice packs into our pockets before going to work.

Back then, people were convinced the internet would see off censorship in a blaze of free speech. It didn’t. If anything, the web has turned informer, happily complicit in the Communist Party’s attempts to control its people.

More than ten years after leaving, I’ve come back to investigate China’s strange relationship with the web, its effect on the friends I left behind, and whether censorship is really as bad as the Western world makes out.

The great leap forward

The internet café is the creepiest place I’ve ever seen. Doused in a dim blue light, hundreds of young Chinese men sit on high-backed chairs, their faces lit by monitors, their ears engulfed by oversized headphones.

Staying safe in China

In general, there are three broad rules for avoiding trouble when posting online in China: don’t post anything criticising the Communist Party; don’t upset social stability; and don’t plan any mass gatherings – even really big parties.

The posts will almost certainly to be taken down, and it’s likely somebody with a badge will come knocking on your door. More than one person I talked to said that even jokes about coups were dangerous, with the government taking an extremely dim view of anything promoting social upheaval. One such incident in 2011 led to six bloggers being arrested, simply for repeating the original post. Tread lightly, because the Chinese government carries a really big stick.

They’re all playing video games, and there isn’t a woman among them. It’s like a George Orwell novel inspired by my adolescence.

Beckoning me inside, Miao weaves between the booths, gathering her cohorts until five of us are gathered in a snack room at the back of the café. Explaining my purpose, I watch their expressions flicker through curiosity, excitement and nervousness. Suddenly, I find myself glancing at the door, waiting for the tea-house police to arrive. It’s not that I expect something bad to happen. I just get the feeling it could.

This is strange, since censorship in China is pretty much the cutest thing in the world. Visit a banned site and two cartoon policemen pop up with a gentle warning, like you’re a child who’s accidentally wandered into a strip club.

“Most people I know don’t worry about the censorship,” says Xu Guan, a portly computing student who wrings his hands together as he speaks. “They just want to play video games and watch TV. We know which sites we can’t go to. We know that if you make a post on Weibo [the Chinese equivalent of Facebook] that mentions the name of the president, or a political leader, the post will be taken down, so you just don’t post about those things.”

If it wasn’t all so dastardly, the scale and efficiency of censorship in China would be worthy of applause. All pornography sites were banned in 2002, and the following year the government flicked the switch on the Golden Shield Project – more poetically known as the Great Firewall of China – which blocks access to international services including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

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