I received this e-mail recently from a Chinese writer: “I just found out you’re from Perfect Sound Forever! Kudos for your work! I love the Vinyl Anachronist column. Sadly, the site is blocked in mainland China so we can only access it via proxy.” I’m gratified that someone overseas likes my work and maybe I should even be flattered that an authoritarian government thinks that my work is “dangerous” enough to be banned. But it also opens up a few unanswered questions.
Why, I wonder, would I get banned in the first place? As far as I know, the Chinese government only provides general rules to the outside world as to why a site is unacceptable. Usually, it’s the excuse that it’s ‘political’ and will lead to ‘instability’ (which means that it’s outside of the Party doctrine and might make people think or act independently).
Also, another less obvious reason that some material isn’t acceptible to the Chinese govt is economic: see China hardens censorship rules on TV news, dramas. If a company or publication wants to be there, they have to play ball with investment and ownership so that the money flow doesn’t just go out of the country (which is understandable to some degree). A popular theory is that this is one of the things that did in the Chinese version of Rolling Stone.
I also wonder about companies like Yahoo that say that the price of doing business in China is that they have to follow their laws, no matter how morally repugnant they may be. Lately, Reporters Without Borders have rightfully taken them to task for this, basically telling Yahoo that they are directly responsible for the fate of several reporters whose information was handed over to the Chinese government by the search engine people.
As for someone like the Chinese writer who contacted me, he’s not entirely out in the cold but pretty close to it. He might have to jump hurdles to find my site or other music sites but how long is it going to be before the authorities plug up that option? And how many millions of Chinese don’t know how to get around censors in the first place? Their lives is limited to what their government decides they should see or hear, including five Rolling Stones songs that the band were banned from planning there (as Mick quipped, that left 100’s of other depraved Stones songs for them to play).
But before we feel all high and mighty about our own free societies, Jagger also reminds us that the Stones were also banned at the Superbowl broadcast for some of their lyrics. And with a President and Attorney General who think civil liberties are subject to their own interpretations and an FCC that cowers networks and stations into self-censorship thanks to heavy fines and unclear standards, we ourselves should also be vigilant about how much we’re able to see and hear.