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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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.