Chinese Censorship is More Complicated Than You Think

Roundup: Historians' Take
tags: China

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at UC Irvine and author, most recently, of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, a new edition of which, updated in collaboration with fellow Dissent contributor Maura Elizabeth Cunningham, was published in July.

One Chinese subject that even those Dissent readers with no special interest in China know a good deal about is Beijing’s obsession with controlling information. Given the news coverage of the topic they’ve encountered over the years, few were likely to have been shocked to learn last spring that the government was circulating a list of “Seven Don’t Talks,” describing a set of topics, including past mistakes of the Chinese Communist Party, that Beijing didn’t want discussed on campuses. Similarly, I doubt many were taken aback to find out late last month that the so-called “complete transcripts” of disgraced official Bo Xilai’s trial that Beijing released turned out to be redacted documents, with some statements excised—or were surprised by the most recent headlines out of China relating to freedom of speech, which tell of harsh new penalties to be levied on those who use the web to disseminate “rumors,” a word that sometimes seems to mean any information that annoys the government.

By now, as I say, they think they know a good bit about Chinese censorship.

But the questions about limits on free speech in China that people ask me at public talks have convinced me that when even very well-informed Americans with no special concern with Chinese affairs consider the topic, what fills their minds is a mixture of solid pieces of information and notions that are, at best, only partly true. The subject is actually quite a bit more complicated—and more interesting—than many of them imagine....

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