Taking on the "Great Firewall of China"

This week we are producing a digital version of the New Statesman in Mandarin, to evade China's internet censors. Here's why.

China has tried to obliterate the existence of Ai Weiwei from the internet: search for his name there, and you'll find nothing. His blog has been shut down, his passport was confiscated, and his communication with the outside world from his studio near Beijing is monitored.

In a profile of the artist, written after a visit to China this summer, the NS's Features Editor Sophie Elmhirst wrote:

Ai might be celebrated in the west and a hero to his fans in China – those who are able to skirt the Great Firewall – but the vast majority of China’s 1.3 billion people, the ones living in the cities you’ve never heard of, in the factory towns making our iPhones and in the remote rural villages with no access to running water, have no idea who he is. And they have no means of finding out.

The issues on which Ai has spoken out are vital ones: the shoddy construction standards which led to needless deaths in the Sichuan earthquake; the censorship of the press; the limitations placed on the internet by the "Great Firewall of China".

So the New Statesman decided to do what it could to help. This week, we have produced the magazine in Mandarin, in PDF format, which we are uploading to file-sharing sites (here's the .torrent file and here's the magnet link – please share both widely). Internet-savvy people in China have learned how to get round the censors using private networks and encryption, and they will be able to access the digital version of the NS - and give it to their friends.

What will they find inside? A story very different to the one they are told by the state-controlled press. Inside the issue, the former newspaper editor Cheng Yizhong speaks about how the Southern Metropolis Daily exposed the brutal "custody and repatriation" procedure used by the government on those without the correct ID, and the confinement and fatal beating of Sun Zhigang in 2003 (and subsequent cover-up). In 2004, Cheng was detained in secret for more than five months by the Guangdong authorities in 2004 for “economic crimes”, before being released.  

In an exclusive essay, Cheng recounts the stifling conditions of media censorship in China, opening up about a media culture bombarded by “prohibitions” and riddled with informers who report directly to the government, in which only a minority of journalists are brave enough to fight the system. He writes:  

After 2005, the system enacted the strategy of “demoralise, divide and conquer”. The central publicity department started sending ­censors directly to major media organisations to carry out censorship prior to publication. The central government was therefore not only passing comment on news after publication, but had a pre-publication checkpoint. The dual system formed a pincer movement and provided a double safeguard.

Another policy was even more effective: the direct appointment of publicity department officials to leadership positions in major media organisations. Between 1996 and now, three news section directors in Guangdong’s publicity department have been promoted to senior positions in the Southern Newspaper Group. In other words, three news police chiefs took up editor-in-chief positions.

Censorship happens secretly; it is silent and effective. By forbidding any paper evidence, and by phoning or sending text messages directly among different levels, only one-way communication takes place between the publicity department and the media leadership, and between higher- and lower-level media leaders. The only rule for subordinates is to be loyal to the higher leadership and not cause trouble for them. 

China's government has been quick to exploit the latest software in order to repress freedom of speech online, too. In the Observations section this week, Cheng Hua notes that foreign media companies must have a licence to operate inside China, requiring "the State Council Information Office to evaluate their safety". If they criticise the government, they mysteriously become inaccessible in China, and disappear from Chinese Google results. 

Internet comments are also censored. Cheng writes:

Internet companies have developed software capable of automatically filtering and censoring comments . . . they include words and phrase such as CCP, Jiang, Li, Hu, Wen, central publicity department, democracy, freedom and multiparty system.

In the magazine, Ai Weiwei interviews a member of the "50 cent party" - a commenter paid half a dollar every time he derails an online debate in China. Essentially, these people are paid internet trolls; their job is to stop any meaningful discussion online about the government.

After we’ve found the relevant articles or news on a website, according to the overall direction given by our superiors we start to write articles, post or reply to comments. This requires a lot of skill. You can’t write in a very official manner, you must conceal your identity, write articles in many dif­ferent styles, sometimes even have a dialogue with yourself, argue, debate. In sum, you want to create illusions to attract the attention and comments of netizens.

In a forum, there are three roles for you to play: the leader, the follower, the onlooker or unsuspecting member of the public. The leader is the relatively authoritative speaker, who usually appears after a controversy and speaks with powerful evidence. The public usually finds such users very convincing. There are two opposing groups of followers. The role they play is to continuously debate, argue, or even swear on the forum. This will attract attention from observers. At the end of the argument, the leader appears, brings out some powerful evidence, makes public opinion align with him and the objective is achieved.

Elsewhere in the issue, we hear about how Tibetans are routinely treated as second-class citizens; how human rights lawyers are persecuted; and how artists and film-makers learn to self-censor if they want to be successful. 

Some bright spots exist. Although Ai's blog was shut down, he is a prolific user of Twitter. For his guest-edited issue of the NS, he asked his 170,000 followers for their thoughts on the future of China, providing a unique portrait of the country through the eyes of its citizens.

There are also many in China who are dedicated to speaking the truth, despite the often-dire personal consequences. In the magazine, Tsering Woeser - whose 2003 collection of essays was banned for being "politically erroneous" - writes about Tibet; the lawyer Li Fangping writes about "re-education through labour"; and political lecturer Teng Biao writes about the death penalty. We also have lyrics by two dissident rock stars, and an interview with the artist Zhou Zhou, Ai Weiwei's protege, who has also been arrested on trumped-up charges. 

So there you have it. Most weeks we are very keen to have people pay for the magazine - it makes all our work possible. But this week, we want to give it away for free. 

Here is a direct link to the PDF, here is a link to the torrent file, here is a magnet link for the torrent, and here is a mirror of the torrent on Kickass Torrents. Please share.

Protests against the detention of the artist Ai Weiwei. Photo: Getty

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Getty
Show Hide image

What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the alter of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot