Censorship is one of the most well-known and detested attributes of China. Many people are already aware that Facebook, Youtube, Google, and the New York Times are blocked and that newspapers and news shows cannot report freely on many sensitive topics. But censorship goes far deeper and is more complex and widespread than that as shown in Trickle-Down Censorship, author JFK Miller’s account of his time working for That’s Shanghai magazine from 2006-2011.
Despite the long time period between when he last worked in China and the present, his book is not really outdated because the sad truth is that censorship is not just still present but also much more widespread and harsher than before. But while regular citizens can try and ignore it, journalists and editors have it the worst because it is a constant in their work. Even as an editor at That’s Shanghai, an expat mag that mostly covers food and entertainment, censorship was a major threat to each story Miller worked on or approved.
Miller also goes through aspects of modern China through the scope of censorship, which mostly works because of how ubiquitous it is. At the end of it, Miller decides enough is enough and calls time on China, as I did myself.
The main point is censorship and there is plenty of aspects to it. It can be arbitrary as there are no firm rules and the censors do not need to explain specifically what is the issue; it can be applied to everything from serious political pieces to photo-essays on pyjamas; it is futile to resist, at best, one can fight to keep a “objectionable” sentence or passage. The worst is that it becomes so prevalent and expected that not only do you get used to it, but you actively apply it to yourself, as Miller did while editing and even assigning stories. “It is frightening just how quickly you acquire the ability,” says Miller. As a reminder, Miller worked for an English-language expat magazine that mostly features food, hotel, and club reviews, not some newspaper or political magazine specializing in hardhitting exposes.
And Chinese censorship is not just resilient but adaptable and sophisticated, extending even to the online space where censors utilize software to filter keywords and resulting in the blocking of blogs and social media posts to even text chat messages on WeChat. Coincidentally, this week saw news about China’s government announcing a crackdown, yet again, on unauthorized VPN software, which lots of expats and locals in China use to access banned websites.
The only main issue I have with the book is the cover which features an outline of China, that includes Taiwan. It is a somewhat strange and perhaps cowardly decision because it isn’t like the book would be able to be sold in China, given its topic, so one wonders why he had to do that.
Experienced expats won’t be surprised at much of the content, but other readers will likely find a lot to inform themselves.
Otherwise, Trickle-Down Censorship is a fine account of Chinese censorship, a sad reminder of the power of authoritarian regimes, even in this day and age.