By Eric Abrahamsen, published April 5, 2010, 7:30a.m.
On the New Yorker blog Evan Osnos wrote a few days ago about how the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse, a website dedicated to tracking censorship and its deleterious effects, had been represented in the Chinese media as a pro censorship body, effectively reversing the truth in order to give Chinese viewers the impression that Chinese-style censorship is common all over the world. Osnos' question was: "I wonder what this says about the decision-making apparatus. Do some of China’s top technology-policy planners really misunderstand the state of play in the West?"
He invited responses, so this is mine: I think there's no question that this was done deliberately, as a part of a larger campaign to lightly confuse the Chinese people as to just how unnatural their government appears to most non-Chinese observers. Both the government and its people are deeply concerned that China should appear to be a "normal" country (never mind that it be a normal country) and much manipulation of public opinion goes into supporting this illusion. The only thing a little surprising about this case is how baldly the facts were reversed.
"Campaign" is probably the wrong word to use—like I said, everyone is invested in this fiction, and people in all social positions tend to do their bit, consciously or not, under orders or not, to perpetuate it. Facts more often die deaths of a thousand cuts than meet with the Birther Movement treatment, and it's usually very difficult to point to someone and say "this person just lied to you".
A recent example: I attended the Australian Publishers Forum a few weeks ago, where editors from Australian publishing houses spent a day meeting their Chinese counterparts. During one of the discussions, a Chinese participant posed a question to the Australians at large, asking about Australian government controls on the publishing industry at large. The answer, delivered in English, essentially went: Australian books don't have to be approved by the government at all, ISBNs can be had by anyone for a small price, and there is no censorship body (the speaker was corrected on this last point by another Australian attendee, apparently there is such a body but they only get involved in rare instances of extreme violent or sexual content).
The answer was long and the speaker didn't leave time for the interpreter, you'd expect some lacunae, but when the Chinese translation came out the gist was: Australian publishers aren't required to send their books to the government, the government comes to them, and the censorship process is "not very strict" (没那么严格). The bit about the ISBN application process was left out altogether.
Now I don't believe for an instant that the interpreter was doing this on purpose. She'd had a very long day and wasn't given time to take notes, and I think was doing the best she could. But the way "no censorship" ended up coming out as "light censorship" is a perfect example of how many people here semi-consciously adjust things so that the contrast between China and other countries doesn't seem quite so stark. And the result is that the Chinese participants (though many seemed to speak English) left with the idea that China and Australia differ only in degree, not in kind. And when they go back to their offices and a colleague asks "so, do they have censorship in Australia?" the answer will be a plain "yes".
Later the Chinese participants were asked about the practice of Chinese "culture companies" buying ISBNs from state-owned publishing houses, and when a representative of one of those culture companies said they paid around 15,000 RMB for an ISBN, a little titter of embarrassed laughter ran around the room. When state issuance of ISBNs and their subsequent resale—pretty much the salient fact of the Chinese publishing industry—is treated as dirty laundry, you can see how a series of small steps can take you pretty far from the truth.
When unwelcome facts enter into the arena of Chinese public discourse, it's as if they're met with a strong and steady headwind. No matter how much punch they might have packed, their momentum is gradually leached away by a succession of minor adjustments, small resistances, so that by the time they reach their audience their force is spent and they appear quite innocuous. This whole process has been most obviously at work with the recent Google issue—every single detail of the story has gotten a small tweaking, so that the final picture, as viewed by Chinese media consumers, looks very different from the one we see outside the country. The only unusual thing about this incident is how quickly and carefully the work has been done. Most of the time I think information control in China is just as much a social phenomenon as a government policy, but in this case I'll bet the CCTV news commentator knew exactly what he was saying.