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.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.