“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. 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 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. 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.
It was a clumsy tool at first, only capable of blocking websites, but now it can block individual pages and even strip out controversial results from search queries, tricking users into believing their search wasn’t tampered with.
Of course, the Chinese government isn’t only worried about what people see. There are more than 500 million internet users in the country, and their every online post is automatically compared to a list of 4,000 keywords, including old chestnuts such as “democracy” and “corruption”.
Posts that raise a red flag are shot up the line to one of a rumoured 5,000 censors, who make the final decision on whether a comment is worthy of deletion, preservation or the writer’s imprisonment. Heaven help you if it’s the latter. According to civil liberties watchdog Freedom House, the Chinese authorities detained dozens of activists and bloggers in 2012, “holding them incommunicado for weeks and sentencing several to prison”.
More troubling was the case of artist and blogger Ai Weiwei – one of the designers of the Beijing Olympics’ “Bird’s Nest” stadium – who was abducted and held without charge for 81 days in 2011.
“During 2012, he was barred from travelling abroad, his appeal in a politically fraught tax case was rejected, and the licence of his art company was revoked,” adds Freedom House.
Despite the threats, Miao and her friends remain stubbornly political, lambasting the government and politicians at every chance they get – although only one of the students admits to doing it online.
“There are lots of ways of getting around it [the censorship],” says fellow computing student Wei Long. “The Chinese language is very rich, so if there’s something you want to say that’s censored, you use the phonetic spelling of the word, or a pun. It’s like another language now.”
Unfortunately for our internet pioneers, even speaking in code isn’t enough to keep the
censors off their backs. The Communist Party pays ordinary people to spout pro-government
propaganda in chatrooms and on social networks. At other times, they’re tasked with deflecting attention from the stories the government wants stifled.
Members of this professional trolling network are called the 50 Cent Party, and they’re as popular as a razor blade in a blueberry muffin.
“Everybody’s heard of them,” says Xu Guan. “They try to pretend they’re not working for the government, but it’s obvious who they are. You can be talking about how good the England football team is, then somebody will say ‘Hey, what about the Chinese football team? They’re very strong this year.’ That’s them. When one appears, the forum empties. It’s like somebody with a bad smell has just walked into the room.”
The common perception in the West is that the internet is a tool of democratisation, capable of spreading ideas and unshackling people from state control. When I make this point to Chinese journalist Jing Zhao, better known as Michael Anti, he just laughs.
“Weibo was founded exactly one month after Twitter was blocked,” he tells me over the telephone from his home in Beijing. “That means from the beginning Weibo convinced the Chinese government it won’t become a stage for any sort of threat to the regime. So, anything you post like “meet up” or “get together” is automatically logged, data mined and reported for further analysis. If you plan a large gathering in China, by the time you get there, the police will be waiting already.”
If anything, Anti believes the government has an even tighter grasp of the internet than when I left in 2002, thanks to its policy of “smart censorship”.
Services such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube offered relative anonymity, thanks to their offshore servers, but when they were banned, their Chinese equivalents set up shop in Beijing, happily throwing open their data-centre doors to the government. But just because the firms are complicit, don’t assume the people are.
In 2011, a high-speed rail crash in Wenzhou – a city of three million in the south-east of the country – left 40 people dead and 190 injured. The event embarrassed the Communist Party, which blocked state media from reporting the incident – utterly failing to account for social media, which produced ten million outraged posts in five days, forcing the government to jail a senior official and double the compensation payment to the families.
It’s a spirit-lifting tale, with a typically Communist Party conclusion.
Following the incident, a new policy was introduced, forcing Weibo users to register their ID card details – essentially their passport number – alongside their username, effectively stripping away any notion of anonymity.
It’s a scheme that will shortly be rolled out across all social networks, and there’s only one thing that can stop it: good old-fashioned greed.
“Only one ministry has the database of the ID cards, and that’s the Public Security Bureau [PSB], but the real-name policy has been set by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology [MIIT],” explains Anti, laughing down the phone. “The PSB won’t hand out the database information to MIIT without being paid, and MIIT doesn’t have the money to check so many names. Purely from a bureaucracy point of view, it will never work.”
Speaking to Anti, I can see why he’s become one of China’s most important voices, reporting on the country’s censorship even as his colleagues have been carted off to jail. This culminated in a TED talk he gave in 2012, which sought to explain the “cat-and mouse game” being played by the government and China’s netizens.
It’s fascinating and worth watching. You won’t be able to enjoy it in China, however, since it’s banned.
“You know, when I first made that video, [the government] didn’t care,” he says. “They don’t really care about English – very few Chinese people can understand English. But this year, since more and more translations of my TED talk appeared on Chinese websites, my video was officially banned by the propaganda department – meaning every website had to delete it.”
Whatever you think of the ethics of such an uncompromising move, you have to admire the bravado of it. Overnight, the government simply decided to eradicate something from the internet, and 500 million people complied. If I had that power, there’d be digital Kardashian genocide, but with the Chinese population growing exponentially, I wonder how long the government can continue to exercise such unyielding control.
“The internet is not the key question here, the economy is,” says Anti. “The ability to censor such a large society, run the Great Firewall and control local government and propaganda costs huge amounts of money. As long as the central government has the money, they can do it, but if they have no money – if GDP growth were to fall below 6% – I’d say a crisis would occur. At that point, they’d easily lose the ability to control the machine they’ve built.”
In his cosy flat in Shanghai, Matt Clarke is pouring me a cup of tea. His cat is curled up in my lap, and his girlfriend is pecking away at a laptop in the corner. Matt used to be a teacher like me, but he stayed in China after I left and is now a television producer.
I ask him about the internet and how it’s changed over the past decade. “Well, it isn’t much faster,” he says with a smile. “To be honest, most people I know have a VPN – if they want to get on an international site, they can. Sometimes, [the VPNs] go down for a few days, but they always come back up. Nobody knows if the government’s responsible, though.”
Like most people I’ve talked to, Matt believes China’s censorship is aimed at the masses, the dissidents and critics – not expats or those educated abroad. The feeling across China seems to be that those with everything have the most to lose, while those with nothing… well, that’s where trouble lies.
“People are more aware of the censorship now,” he adds. “My girlfriend used to live in a village; she didn’t even have the internet, she didn’t know what she wasn’t being told. Now she’s a student, using a VPN to access international sites. Life here is changing, and quickly. If tools such as VPNs began to slide out to everybody, they’d crack down, but for now, they’re not really bothered about us.”
Stroking the cat and drinking my tea, I think about everybody I’ve met in the past few days. When I lived in China, censorship was funny, untenable and unsophisticated – a self-defeating system aimed at propping up a regime comically obsessed by what people said about it.
Nowadays, the government is spreading its message from the inside, and on the whole it seems to be working. Somehow, they’ve struck enough of a balance between censorship, fear and the perception of freedom to keep it ticking along.
Ten years ago, I left China thinking it couldn’t possibly last. Now I’m not so sure. More to the point, I’m not sure too many people in China actually care.
[Some names have been changed]