Speaking against the Silence: An ethical analysis of Censorship practices within China today

  1. Introduction

        Had this essay been published in China, there is a strong chance you would not be reading it right now, and an even stronger chance that we would be in prison. Had this essay been published in China, the writers would have needed to download special software in order to circumvent a virtual army of censors 30,000 strong in order to upload this essay to the internet. But even if you were somehow to get a hold of it, most of the words on this screen would be blacked out. And had this essay been published in China, these writers would go to sleep every night with the thought that tomorrow morning an official from the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television would come to take one of us away to be questioned and arrested if not beaten. From there, we would be interrogated and sent to a reeducation camp for ten years; all for writing this essay. Our crime would not involve murder, rape, embezzlement or anything of a violent or harmful nature. Our only crime would be for writing an essay that spoke out on a subject that many have been forced into silence about. And for this we would have gone to jail, had this essay been published in China.

         In writing this essay then, these are some of the challenges we have had to circumvent and overcome. Our names are Qing and Brian, and we are college students living in China and the United States. We are publishing these words from the safety of the United States, a country whose founders set in paper the right of its citizens to have freedom of expression 237 years ago.

      We express the idea that the greatest ethical challenge facing the United States and China is the Chinese government's censorship of it's citizens. This remains a problem for both the United States and China because the United States supplies the technology that allows China to continue its current practices with censorship. It is impossible to say how many have been imprisoned due to China's censorship laws; primarily because that information itself is censored. Various sources place the number anywhere from 50-500.

          This essay is dedicated to those who believe that freedom of expression should be a fundamental human right. It is dedicated to those who have been harassed, beaten and imprisoned for this belief, and to those who still persist in believing in it despite these transgressions. We write this essay in the hopes that while it may not free those who have dissented against the government, it will give voice to an issue on which 1.3 billion people on this Earth remain voiceless.

II. Background

       The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines censorship as “the act of censoring, or examining materials for objectionable matter”; and it seems that China has had a long history of censoring its opposition. During the cultural revolution, China's infamous Red Guard targeted items that were of foreign or historical value because they thought that these objects represented the old ways of thinking. They believed that any person that thought in a way that undermined their power was simply wrong. For this reason, countless artifacts of historical or sentimental value have been destroyed for the sole purpose of preventing ideas that undermined the ruling party from taking root, and this is a practice that continues today.

      Since the inception of the internet into China in 1994, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has strongly regulated the flow of information that passes through China. According to a Time Magazine article on March 7th, 2009, all internet traffic passing in and out of China is routed through a central databank of servers, at which approximately 30,000 members of China's internet police sort through to delete any material deemed subversive.

       This massive filtering system has been dubbed “The Great Firewall of China”. It seems ironic then that whereas the Great Wall of China was used to keep invaders out, the Great Firewall is used to keep Chinese citizens...in the dark. This has become an ethical quandary for both the United States and China because US companies supply China with the technology needed to build the Great Firewall. Internet companies operating within the United States have agreed to censor themselves as they enter China, with Google creating Google.cn in order to conform to the Chinese government's regulations. While these companies argue that supplying citizens with some information is better than none at all, the fact remains that the United States is aiding the Chinese government in censoring its people.

III. Morality

           But one must ask the question of whether Chinese censorship (and by default, American companies who knowingly obey censorship regulations) is ethically justifiable. By operating with the consent of the Chinese government and doing business in China, these companies have essentially agreed to follow censorship regulations while in China. Some could argue that governments should have the right to censor things that would harm people. The United States does this to a degree when it restricts sexuality and violence. However, one must take into account that it does so with the intent that it does not traumatize or expose children to this negative imagery. But when an American company sells products that aid censorship with the goal of simply making more money, this greatly damages the company's reputation. According to a May 20th, 2008 article by Wired, Cisco sold approximately $100,000 dollars worth of routers to China by marketing it as “tools of oppression” that could target Chinese religious minorities. Since then, Cisco has faced two lawsuits as well as been denounced by human rights groups worldwide.

          In light of the stiff punishments and harassment that come with speaking out against the government, one is forced to realize the notion that the motive behind censorship in China is simply to keep the ruling party in power. There can be no moral basis for silencing and harming those who criticize the government for the sake of holding onto power. And by extension, through providing the government with servers that stifle opinions, and websites that run within the censorship framework, the United States is also at fault as well.

        Wired on Nov 7th, 2013 reported that in 2002, a pair of Chinese reporters named Tian Shi and Wang Xiaoning were sentenced to prison for simply emailing a Chinese humanitarian group based in New York. In 2012, Mr. Wang was released after being imprisoned for 10 years, while Mr. Shi still remains in prison today. What is alarming is the fact that it was the American corporation Yahoo! that voluntarily handed over information that led to the arrest of these reporters. Had Yahoo! refused to hand over Mr. Shi and Mr. Wang's email accounts, these men would not have been subject to the harassment and suffering that they endured.

         In 2009, after ethnic riots by people in the remote Xiangjiang region left 140 people dead, China blocked Facebook, Twitter and Youtube in an attempt to staunch the flow of information. According to IDG news service on Jul 6th, 2009 videos of police and paramilitary troopers in the area went viral. Governments censors immediately cut off internet in the area, and began blocking social networking sites. It is worth noting that during the Arab Spring movement in 2011, President Hosini Mubarak, in an attempt to quell protestors, also cut off all internet in region. Twitter played a huge role in this protest, by helping to organize protests that would eventually overthrow Mubarak.

          To this day, China has banned Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube with the fear that these social media platforms would be places to organize protests. Because of this, Chinese platforms have sprung up that mimic the functionality of Facebook and Twitter, such as Weibo and Renren. The downside is that these sites censor themselves and have expressed little intention of loosening these restrictions. But while the intention of these sites regarding censorship unclear, American companies such as Google has made it well known that it intends to move towards a freer China and bring uncensored information to everyone.

       The penalties for posting content that makes the government look unfavorable on the internet can be severe, inciting harsh punishments. People who post articles that the government has deemed “subversive” could potentially face fines of up to $1800 and jail time. According to a Human Rights Watch report in 2007, Chinese journalists are intimidated to write positive things about the government by thugs in government pay.

          Even foreign journalists who work in China have to be wary. According to David Barboza, a New York Times correspondent based in Shanghai, “in areas where people are nervous about foreign journalists, you will be harassed and detained.” Internet users in China are required to use their real names when logging on, with all keystrokes recorded and monitored by government systems. What is frightening is that with the weight of these punishments hanging above every keystroke in China, people have begun to censor themselves. According to James Fallows in a March 18th, 2009 Atlantic article "The idea is that if you're never quite sure when, why and how hard the boom might be lowered on you, you start controlling yourself, rather than being limited strictly by what the government is able to control directly."

IV. Defiance

             But as powerful as government censorship within China is, the stories of people who have defied these rules have been equally as powerful. One of the most inspiring stories came in 2005, when a blind self taught lawyer named Cheng GuangCheng began exposing tales of the 130,000 horrendous abortions forced upon pregnant women by the Chinese government. For daring to expose an issue that the government did not want attention drawn to, he was sentenced to 4 years and 3 months of prison. According to indexoncensorship.org on October 24, 2011, from there he was placed in house arrest, and his daughter was banned from going to school. Under Chinese national law, by this time he was supposedly a free man. However, the local government ignored these rules and surrounded his house with guards. According to an April 30th, 2013 Reuters report, more than 60 million yuan ($9.5 million USD) was spent on security and web cams to keep Cheng under house arrest. Those who tried to visit him were severely beaten and robbed.

           On April 22nd, 2012 the blind activist made a daring escape out of house arrest by climbing over his wall, and meeting with activists at a rendezvous point who escorted him to a U.S. Embassy. The night the Cheng escaped, censors lost control over the topic, and comments on Cheng blazed through Chinese social networking sites and blogs rapidly. The Washington Post on March 5th, 2012 reported on how after local papers published editorials attacking Cheng, Chinese netizens swarmed to the comment section in defense. This reached such a frenzy that the Beijing Daily, a Chinese newspaper controlled by the government, became a blocked search term. After being offered a position as a visiting scholar by New York University, Cheng was able to take his family into the United States.

         One other tale that emerges from the blacked out print of Chinese media is a censor named Zeng Li. According to the Chinese Media Project (a project by Hong Kong University) on April 4th, 2013 Zeng worked as a media censor for the newspaper Southern Weekly. His primary job was to act as a buffer between government propaganda censors and reporters. After a editorial at the Southern Weekly was rewritten to advocate government propaganda, writers at the paper held a strike for 3 days. Zeng's anonymous post on a blogging platform “Who revised the New Year's greeting at Southern Weekly?” brought to light many previously unknown censorship techniques that were being used.

           On March 28th, 2013 his farewell letter detailed some of the regrets of his career saying “in the end I woke up, I would rather not carry out my political message than go against my conscience. I don't want to be a sinner against history.” Zeng's story is remarkable in that it represents the idea that not even censors are comfortable in silencing the voice of the people, and that these people know that what they are doing is not right. Zeng died three days into his retirement from intestinal bleeding. As one reporter at Southern Weekly put it “Zeng died from overdrinking. You can only imagine why he drank.”

          But even though it is the Chinese people who are suffering from the government's crackdown on censorship, it is important to remember that it is companies based in the United States who are responsible for this technology. When such companies defy the Chinese government though, it sends a symbolic message that American companies do not have to be silent on an issue that silences and oppresses billions. On Jan 13, 2010 CNET news reported that Google had been the victim of a sophisticated attack by Chinese hackers who gained information and email addresses of human rights activists within China. Google was understandably outraged, and announced that it would cease following Chinese government regulations and stop filtering its own search engine. The Chinese government, in essence, had gone from passively disallowing citizens to access the internet to completely making an offensive against human rights activists. Google then decided to move its Chinese headquarters to Hong Kong, which carried special jurisdiction that allowed Google to allow unfiltered searches to everyone who accessed the website without violating Chinese government rule. These days, it is the Chinese government that filters the search engines of its own people. While Google's move to stop self censoring didn't end censorship in China, it was a move in the right direction; and served as a precedent reminding companies that they did have the power to give people a voice.

V. The Future of Censorship

          The future of where Chinese censorship will go from here is uncertain. The fact remains that China is committing what some would deem human rights violations by censoring the media and oppressing its people. It is also undeniable that by selling the technology that makes up the Great Firewall, the United States is also responsible for the oppression of the Chinese people. In 2007, Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey attempted to pass a bill that would force US internet companies follow American laws regarding censorship even in other countries, or else not operate. Unfortunately, the Global Online Freedom Act failed to pass in Congress that year. But even if the United States stopped companies from operating within China, China would still manage to find other ways to censor its citizens into silence, presumably by purchasing technology from other countries such as Japan and Germany.

           According to an Atlantic article on April 22nd 2013, Chinese internet use have gone up to 560 million people and will continue to rise in the coming years. As the Great Firewall evolves, so has the technology to circumvent it. Today, a quiet industry has sprung up that allows Chinese citizens to bypass the Great Firewall via proxies and other special programs. But as long as the Communist Party of China continues to become the ruling party, and freedom of expression is outlawed, the Chinese can never truly speak their mind without fear of reprisal. Many governments that have censored the media of its people were eventually overthrown by people who tired of having their voices silenced. This happened in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and most recently in Egypt. But because it would bring instability to 1.3 billion people, overthrowing the Chinese government would not be the answer. The only viable solution would be for the government itself to decide to untie the gags that bind China and get rid of its censorship laws of its own accord.

        Unfortunately, that day has not arrived yet. On April 24, 2013 the New York Times reported that although Cheng GuangCheng was in the United States, he feared that his extended relatives in China would suffer severe consequences. That same day Chinese officials ordered the official questioning of his relatives under the charge of harboring a fugitive. The grim reality of this situation is that these family members will be harassed and face punishment for harboring someone who dared to seek the truth.

       In 1949, Chairman Mao chose to isolate China from the rest of the world, turning it into an isolationist communist country. During that time many people suffered and starved, and the Great Wall, once a symbol of what the Chinese could build if they came together, became a prison to hold them in. In the past 80 years, China has gone from a completely closed country to one of the largest and most prosperous economies in the world. But as prosperous as it is, it's people are still starving for information, and suffering for it. The Great Firewall serves no purpose but to keep the ruling party in power, incinerating everything that says otherwise.

        We live in a connected world, and the simple matter is that by silencing their own people, China is disconnecting itself from this world. In an age where the internet has brought ideas, information, and people together from all corners of the globe onto a screen that can fit in the palm of your hand, the Chinese government still has the ability to screen and censor the internet. It carries the power to harass, intimidate and jail anyone that it finds to be a dissident. The government would have censored this essay too, had it been written in China. But while the Chinese government carries the ability to censor words, there remains one thing that the government cannot censor: Hope.

Brian Yu

Mt. San Antonio College


Qingchuan Lv

China Youth University for Political Sciences


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