Exploring the relationship between Chinese art and censorship fears

Critical Overview:

The Chinese government’s control of online content is backed by a sophisticated infrastructure of laws and censors, as exposed by Wen Yunchao. Censorship falls into two categories: public security authorities and internet police censor unlicensed websites, while propaganda authorities oversee those with a licence to carry news. All news sites operate using a combination of self-censorship and instructions from the authorities. Such instructions may range from an order to delete content to an order not to publish certain content or not to exaggerate a news item. Successfully published articles may still fall foul of new instructions issued later. There is no unified system of key words, meaning that all websites use different standards for approving or deleting content.

Website managers establish a range of “filter words” in accordance with these instructions, ranging from “key words” to “sensitive words” to “safe words”. Generally speaking, articles containing “key words” are deleted, those containing “sensitive words” require reading by the censor before publication, and those containing only “safe words” will be published immediately, although they remain subject to review. If a forum user or blogger publishes an article containing “key words” for that website, it will be removed immediately and not even seen for review. If it contains only “sensitive words”, it will not be posted until approved by a censor. If it contains only “safe words”, it will be published but is still subject to review.

The propaganda authorities use a points system to monitor the implementation of their instructions for news sites. Points are deducted if the site is found to host “undesirable information” (even if it is not listed as such – there are numerous categories of “undesirable information”) or news from a non-approved source. In serious cases, a fine may be imposed. Points gained and lost over the year will affect the result of the website’s annual review. Sanctions on websites run by newsgathering agencies may also be imposed via the Party’s own system of control – for example, by instructing an agency to discipline website personnel.

The oversight exercised by the public security bureau’s internet police is more straightforward – automated or manual checks identify “undesirable content”, and instructions for deletion are issued. If instructions are not followed, the case is referred to the telecommunication regulators, who will have the website shut down. The public security authorities also have jurisdiction over news websites and often issue instructions to delete content not listed in legislation as “undesirable” – for example, anything that shows the public security authorities or the government in a bad light.

Rules of the game:

China’s internet censorship primarily targets news and discussion of current affairs. It relies on two pieces of legislation: the Measures for the Administration of Internet Information Services (the Measures) issued by the State Council on 25 September 2000 and the Provisions on the Administration of Internet News Information Services (the Provisions) jointly issued by the Ministry of Information Industry and the State Council Information Office (SCIO) on 25 September 2005.

The Measures established three systems: website licensing and registration, pre-approval for certain types of website, and special approval for certain website functions. They include a list of nine types of “undesirable information”, which has come to form the basis for online censorship. Departments of the local public security authorities are responsible for policing the internet, while administrative enforcement is carried out by bodies such as telecommunications regulators. The authorities followed up with a range of complementary regulations, such as the Administrative Provisions on Internet Audio-Visual Programme Services, which required providers of online audio-visual services to obtain a licence from broadcasting regulators. In December 2009, several online video sharing sites were forced to close as they had not obtained a licence.

By implementing this system, the Chinese government can maintain its control over online news publishing through their established power over newsgathering. China’s propaganda machine has a firm grip on news production, including a licensing system, pre- and post-publication content review, influence over management and personnel decisions, and a day-to-day system of propaganda regulations and notifications.

“The Provisions” identify 11 categories of “unwanted information,” two more than “the Measures,” and this serves as the basis for a large portion of China’s internet censorship. Local propaganda authorities usually enforce these regulations, while provincial news or telecommunications regulators carry out administrative enforcement.

Not only can news and propaganda authorities censor newsgathering content, but they also maintain control over websites that republish news articles through annual reviews of news publication licenses and a points system that assesses internal content management. Websites that do not comply with content censorship are likely to lose their license to publish news during the next annual review.

Wen Yunchao is an internet observer in China who advocates for freedom of speech and works to eliminate information restrictions. He was one of the second group of signatories of Charter 08.