The fine mesh of China’s ‘net

China’s efforts to control the internet were described in a recent Harvard University study as the biggest attempt to suppress human communication ever undertaken. Three new books reveal this epic cyber-struggle in the most populous country on the planet in different ways, writes Jamie Kenny

Comments on the Weibo website, China’s version of Twitter, can be heavily censored, which has sparked usage of an imaginative lexicon that uses synonyms, homonyms and double entendres to communicate. Nelson Ching / Bloomberg
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Far, far away in the Mystical Country lived a creature called the Grass-Mud Horse. The Grass-Mud Horse roamed the desert of Mahler Gobi, eating the Fertile Grass and keeping a wary eye out for its natural enemies, the River Crab and the Watered Weasel Ape.

Let’s put it another way. Internet users (Grass-Mud Horses) in China (the Mystical Country) surf the Chinese internet (the Mahler Gobi) while putting up with constant interference (Fertile Grass) from censors (Watered Weasel Apes) undertaken in the name of projecting a “harmonious society” (River Crab).

When we think of censorship in China, the Great Firewall naturally comes to mind. This barrier between the Sinosphere and the general internet is not only the main thing most people know about how the internet works in China but also sums up what we tend to believe about how censorship operates generally – as a strict binary, in which certain things are allowed to be said and others banned.

In fact, the fun really begins when you get on the Chinese side of the Firewall into a regime of complex information management intended to shape public perception and discourse in manifold ways. Certain things are banned outright. Certain other things are emphasised. In many other cases, discussion is partly squashed or muffled: censorship may kick in after interest in the topic has reached a certain level. An issue or event may be discussed, but certain words may not be used to discuss it. Other words may be used but not searched for. Blogging, or “weibo-ing”, on China’s enhanced version of Twitter may be allowed; but comments may be blocked and forwarding prevented – there are, in fact, believed to be six levels of censorship on Weibo designed to make conversation increasingly difficult until the object of the attention gets the message and changes the subject.

It’s a system that is both comprehensive and constantly updated. A recent study by Harvard University described it as the biggest attempt to suppress human communication ever undertaken in human history. Think of a protean struggle between the desire of the largest group of internet users on Earth to read and write as they please and the desire of a Leninist power vertical with the equivalent population of Germany to channel the conversation in ways helpful or harmless to itself.

In partial response, the Sinosphere has taken to the considerable potential of the Chinese language for homonymy, double entendres and sarcasm, as detailed entertainingly in the Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon, a collective product of the University of Berkeley’s China Digital Times website.

The Grass-Mud Horse him or herself is an excellent example of how the genre works. Like many authoritarian regimes, the Communist Party of China partly justifies censorship under the not entirely artificial pretext of banning pornography. The phrase “cao ni ma” is a homonym of the Chinese characters for “brace yourselves, mother[expletive]”. In self-defining in this way, internet users mock the official characterisation of themselves as pornography addicts and generally unclean influences, while simultaneously returning the compliment, since the Communist Party stylises itself as the “mother of the people”. A similar point is made by the phrase Mahler Gobi, an even franker version of the above. Likewise, “Fertile Grass” bears a strong resemblance to the Mandarin for “[expletive] me”, and expresses the exasperation one feels at having one’s blog post deleted, such “fertile grass” being a staple of many Chinese internet users’ diet. The River Crab, meanwhile is a homonym for “harmony” and so the enemy of the average internet user.

Some phrases in the GMH lexicon are stacked with intricate layers of meaning.

Others are more straightforward, There’s nothing like reusing one of the party’s slogans or catchphrases in the right place to indicate utter disbelief. Or why not simply affix the passive tense prefix to an official report to convey the depth of your scorn? Did you see that great, glorious and correct article in Xinhua about the unfortunate person who was committed suicide in police custody?

The Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon is a sampler of an ongoing project by the editors at China Digital Times to map out “the dynamics of domination and resistance in Chinese communication networks” and in so doing reveal the extent of an “alternative political discourse”.

In Blocked on Weibo, Jason Q Ng, a Google policy fellow at the University of Toronto, takes a complementary approach. Mapping the universe of “sensitive terms” blocked from user searches by China’s leading Weibo provider gives a real-time, constantly updated insight into what’s on the mind of a famously opaque regime.

Sex and violence feature prominently. If you’re interested in searching the Sinosphere for either cannibalism or incest, you’re out of luck. Senior leaders share with high-profile dissidents the privilege of unsearchability. Worth noting here is that senior leaders about to get the chop suddenly become searchable once more. It’s a good rough guide to who’s in and who’s out.

Blocked on Weibo is also an excellent guide to China’s official memory holes – historical incidents best left to official interpretation or suppression – and forbidden political concepts. There’s also a valuable censor’s shorthand. Block searches for terms like “organiser”, “unnatural death” and “persecution” and a lot of problems are nipped in the bud. And, just as the first rule of Fight Club is to never talk about Fight Club, all terms relating to censorship mechanisms are permanently search-blocked.

Until very recently, China’s internet censorship regime was remedial, in the sense that it was based on the assumption that, left to themselves, people would use the internet in ways uncomfortable for the authorities. A certain level of opposition is therefore integral to the system.

As such, it shouldn’t be a surprise that China’s – and by extension, the world’s – most popular blogger built up a following of millions through elegant and occasionally incisive mocking of the authorities. Han Han was already a best-selling author when he took up blogging, specialising in slightly edgy tales of the travails of urban youth, the kind of people lumped together as China’s emerging middle class.

This Generation offers a selection of his blogposts translated into English, and if your taste runs towards the pompous being subjected to pin-sharp assaults on their self-esteem, then it’s most certainly the book for you: Han Han has an especially good line in sending up the absurd official patriotism ladled out in massive helpings by the authorities at every conceivable opportunity. Taken as a whole, we have a useful guide to what you can get away with in China, at least if you happen to be a celebrity – and also if you limit your dissidence to bohemian smartness.

In the last chapter of This Generation, Han explains that for all his cheek, he does not favour a change in the Chinese system – at least not yet. His reasons are various, but they basically boil down to the idea that the “quality” of the Chinese people is “too low” to sustain ­democracy.

This is a fairly common opinion in China, especially among people who westerners tend to believe will lead the charge for change. But it also perhaps shows the strategic value of extensive censorship: it pushes the territory of resistance entirely into personal space: it’s remarkable how often a burst of outrage in the Sinosphere about some gross official abuse of power drifts over time into a story about internet censorship. And it promotes a kind of universal distrust: the government should get out of my face, but those people – the millions of peasants, the hordes of migrant workers – they need to be controlled.

So if Beijing has deliberately picked a fight with its internet users, it has done so on territory of its choosing. And now it seems to be going over to the offensive. Weibo’s “Big Vs”, users with millions of followers who often serve as an aggregating point for dissident opinion or suppressed news, have been subjected to a campaign of intimidation. It’s now illegal in China to make an unfounded factual claim on a Weibo post if it is viewed 5,000 times or reposted 500 times. And researchers have detected an ominous shift in official information policy from “guiding public opinion” to “winning the public-opinion struggle”.

It’s still too early to tell whether or how much this changes the dynamic of the Chinese internet, in which, on a day-to-day level, the censorship hierarchy usually prevails over the user network but can never entirely beat it. It’s clear that the hierarchy has decided to criminalise online behaviours it was once happy to ignore. But given the protean nature of the Sinosphere, it’s also highly likely that the Grass-Mud Horses out there will find a way to strike back.

Jamie Kenny is a UK-based ­journalist and writer specialising in China and its growing interaction with the rest of the world.