A million-word novel got censored before it was even shared. After a writer was locked out of her novel, before it was published, for including illegal content, Chinese web users are asking questions about just how far the state’s censorship reaches.
Imagine you are working on your novel on your home computer. It’s nearly finished; you have already written approximately one million words. All of a sudden, the online word processing software tells you that you can no longer open the draft because it contains illegal information. Within an instant, all your words are lost.
This is what happened in June to a Chinese novelist writing under the alias Mitu. She had been working with WPS, a domestic version of cloud-based word processing software such as Google Docs or Microsoft Office 365. In the Chinese literature forum Lkong on 25 June, Mitu accused WPS of “spying on and locking my draft,” citing the presence of illegal content. Several other novelists say they have had their drafts locked for unclear reasons in the past.
The news blew up on social media on July 11 after a few prominent influencer accounts belatedly picked it up. It became the top trending topic on Weibo that day, with users questioning whether WPS is infringing on their privacy. Since then, The Economic Observer, a Chinese publication, has reported that several other online novelists have had their drafts locked for unclear reasons in the past.
Mitu’s complaint triggered a social media discussion in China about censorship and tech platform responsibility. It has also highlighted the tension between Chinese users’ increasing awareness of privacy and tech companies’ obligation to censor on behalf of the government.
Even for Chinese internet users, used to tough censorship laws, this seems like a step too far. Until this month, most Chinese users believed that their own files, circulated only among friends and family, wouldn’t receive the same attention and monitoring as long as they remained obscure.
Users might not be happy but WPS’s practice of reviewing all user documents (if that’s what’s happening) is likely permitted by China’s Cybersecurity Law, said Nunlist. All internet service providers are obligated to delete and block content on their platform “upon discovering information that the law or administrative regulations prohibit the publication or transmission of,” says Article 47 of the law.
Read more: A million-word novel got censored before it was even shared. Now Chinese users want answers, 15 July 2022
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China has for decades banned hundreds of books, artworks and any other works deemed anti-CCP, by the Communist Party’s Central Publicity Department (CPD), which seeks to enforce the authoritarian state needed to control the global narrative by determining whether books are approved, altered or outright banned.
There has always been contention on what can be published in China but in recent years the list of topics deemed sensitive has grown to almost laughable extremes, with the Sydney Morning Herald reporting that a list of “keywords to be alerted” was passed around publishers. This list includes any mention of so-called political incidents, including pro-democracy protests, independence movements or the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests along with “anything relating to Chinese political icons in recent history.” Any book that breaks these strict rules will be subject to “prohibition” by the CPD. This is not including the list of sensitive items that require vetting before production, including any mentions of most major religions, sexual subjects and many Chinese locations – current or former.
The New York Times, Sydney Morning Herald and Foreign Policy all report that while these restrictions have in theory existed for decades, there has been a sudden and violent escalation by Xi Jinping’s CCP.
Read more: Chinese Escalation of Literature Censorship, 29 December 2019
Regulations on the Administration of Book Quality
On 1 March 2005, New Regulations on the Administration of Book Quality became effective. According to a People’s Daily report, one significant change from the previous rules of 1997 was that the new Regulations specify that publishers not only must not reprint books that do not conform to government-mandated quality requirements, but authorities must also confiscate copies already sold.
One of the factors in determining whether a book meets quality standards is whether or not its contents violate Article 26 of China’s Regulations on the Administration of Publishing. That article includes vague prohibitions on publishing books with content that:
- oppose the basic principles confirmed in the Constitution;
- harm the honour or the interests of China;
- propagate evil cults or superstitions; or
- disturb social order, disrupting social stability.
Provisions such as these have been used to imprison dozens of writers, journalists, and people attempting to practice religions not officially recognised by China’s government, and generally encourage self-censorship among Chinese citizens.
People in China may only publish with government authorisation, and under the Regulations, anyone directly responsible for producing three non-qualifying books in a single year, or any non-qualifying books for two consecutive years, will have their government authorisation revoked by their local press and publication office, and may not engage in publishing for three years.
Read more: New Book Censorship Regulations Take Effect in China, 13 March 2005
China’s Cybersecurity Law
China’s Cybersecurity Law also requires network operators to prohibit content along similar lines to the Regulations on the Administration of Book Quality.
Network operators are officially required to censor content and remove any prohibited material. The law states that “any person and organisation shall, when using the network, abide by the Constitution and laws, observe public order and respect social morality”.
It further expands to what is considered illegal content to be circulated online: “activities harming national security, propagating of terrorism and extremism, inciting ethnic hatred and ethnic discrimination, dissemination of obscene and sexual information, slandering or defame others, upsetting social order, harming the public interest, infringing of other persons’ intellectual property or other lawful rights and interests”
Read more: China Cybersecurity Law: 5 Things You Should Know, 10 November 2021
Like Mao Zedong, Xi Jinping has continued many of the practices put in place to censor media and literature by the Cultural Revolution. Xi has continued to ban books in mainland China and Hong Kong that are considered “politically incorrect”.
Like Mao, Xi has specifically targeted libraries to censor pro-democracy books and textbooks used in schools, all to promote “patriotism and ideological purity in the education system.” In 2020, as schools reopened in China after the “Covid outbreak” an October 2019 directive from the Ministry of Education called on elementary and middle schools to clear out books from their libraries including “illegal” and “inappropriate” works. From western Gansu province to Shanghai, the review of publicly announced measures pointed to books being cleared by the hundreds of thousands. Censorship in China has been intensifying under Xi, but analysts said this was the first national campaign aimed at libraries in decades.
In 2019, Xi Jinping came under fire for resuming the practice of burning books, when a library was caught by the local press burning books in North Western China. Laws put in place by Xi’s Ministry of Education gave libraries permission to “cleanse” books that promoted “incorrect global outlook and values,” leading to book burnings around China.
Now, it seems, books are being burned, with the help of internet service providers, before they are even published.
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