The Diminishing Returns of Tricking China’s Censors

The linguistic gymnastics used to evade censorship by China’s more politically inclined web users are often celebrated. At MIT Technology Review, though, censorship researcher Jason Q. Ng argues that the resulting messages are often so obfuscated and fragmented that they cannot reach those who don’t know how or why to read the codes.

In the case of the Tiananmen Square anniversary, after mostly transparent morphs like “May 35” and “8964” were exhausted, newer codes like “VIIV” (6/4 in Roman numerals) and “six quatre” (6/4 in French) were invented. Over time, these various keywords gradually splinter the topic into separate clusters, making it harder for people to easily find and collect information and eliminating any cohesive hashtag that large numbers could rally around. In time, even these semitransparent keywords are caught by authorities as they become too well-known, and soon activists are down to the slimmest of cracks—for example, codes like 2的6次方 (“two to the sixth power,” i.e. 64, for June 4), which itself is now occasionally censored.

This process also divides potential audiences into haves and have-nots: those with the knowledge necessary to decode an obscured post, and others who are left out. For any activist who hopes to spread a message, finding a meme or coded language that is both capable of circumventing censorship and intelligible to large numbers of people is increasingly difficult. [Source]

Ng refers to a recent Nieman Reports piece by Chinese journalist Yang Xiao. Yang explained his fear that “the venerable Chinese tradition of chunqiu bifa, expressing critical opinions in subtle linguistic ways,” has become little more than another form of self-censorship.

At first, I enjoyed the cat-and-mouse game with censors. I thought, ”There will always be someone who can read between the lines.” But now, I worry that this kind of expression will create in me a vicious circle of complacency, in which I know my efforts to speak freely will be fruitless but can console myself with at least having tried. I fear that, in China’s increasingly complicated and ambiguous media environment, chunqiu bifa may be changing from a means of dissent into a tool of inadvertent self-censorship that may ultimately deprive us of the ability to face the truth.

[…] As restrictions—and anxieties—grow, I have more doubts about the tactics I’ve used in the past to get my meaning across. Using chunqiu bifa now feels like scratching my itchy foot from outside my boot. Plus, as social media increasingly insulate people from information with which they disagree, journalists’ subtle linguistic tricks are too superficial for the well-informed and too sophisticated for those who just don’t care.

Next time, before using chunqiu bifa, maybe we should ask ourselves: Is this the best way to express myself? Am I doing enough? Am I pushing the line rather than just flirting with it? Speaking truth to power is the media’s reason for being, nowhere more so than in China. [Source]