When Censorship Has the Opposite Effect

Han Han — writer, blogger, race car driver, and media darling — has updated his blog again, but I suspect fewer people will be translating this post than have translated the last few, as it’s mostly an update on what he’s been up to recently. However, there is something of interest:

“Because I’ve had some articles deleted [from the blog] recently, it has occurred to some products and programs to use this as a way of advertising […] they all use “A deleted article from Han Han’s blog” as a way of promoting their own products…”

Now, if we assume — perhaps erroneously — that multiple advertisers ((We’re also assuming here that Han Han isn’t lying when he says this has happened more than once.)) would not adopt strategies that are ineffective at attracting attention, then we can assume that saying something you wrote is actually “a deleted article from Han Han’s blog” is an effective way of attracting attention.

This means there must be an awful lot of people who are just searching for deleted articles from Han Han’s blog. And, of course, this is the internet — nothing can really be deleted once it’s been posted — so they generally find them. These days, Han Han’s posts are reposted on dozens, perhaps hundreds of other blogs, forums, and other websites within hours. Hell, his last few posts have been translated into English within a few hours. If I — a foreigner with limited Chinese skills and even more limited patience for poorly-designed Chinese websites — can find Han’s deleted posts without any trouble at all, how easy must it be for the average Chinese reader?

This all begs the question of what the point of this censorship is in the first place. If “articles deleted from Han Han’s blog” are, in and of themselves, valuable enough that advertisers are using that phrase to sell things, what is the use in censoring Han’s posts to begin with? Deleting a post only makes it more attractive to many of his readers, it seems. If it’s been deleted, there must a (juicy) reason, n’est-ce pas? In Han Han’s case, it seems censorship is having the opposite of the intended effect; it is causing people — probably large numbers of people — to actively search out censored material.

In the internet age, Chinese censors have mostly counted on the fact that netizens are not willing to invest the time or effort to find deleted or inappropriate material. Pornography and unapproved political content have always been available on the internet to anyone in China with access and enough time and interest to figure out how to skirt blocks or search for reposted content. But the number of these wall-jumpers has always been comparatively small.

Han Han could change all that. His posts average around 1.5 million viewers each on his Sina blog alone (not counting any of the hundreds of places his writings are reposted, including all the country’s top BBS forums). When a post is deleted, it is likely that several million people take to the internet to search for a repost. And while these are often found easily enough within the confines of the Great Firewall, a large concentration of netizens actively seeking out censored material is not what the government wants.

Now, it’s important to note that Han Han’s posts are censored by Sina, the web portal his blog is on. Obviously, the government has directives as to what can and cannot be posted, and Han Han is famous enough that there might be direct government involvement in the case of some of his posts. But most web portals self-censor, so we can’t necessarily say the government has any direct control over what is allowed to go up and what isn’t.

Still, in Han Han’s case, censoring his posts seems a bit self-defeating. If, out of necessity real or perceived, his readers have to venture outside the GFW some day, they will find a community that is not exactly pro-establishment. And even if they don’t hop the Wall, forcing them to search for things that have been “deleted” from the web seems foolish. After all, what else might come up in their search results? On the pages where they find Han Han’s deleted posts? As far as high-profile bloggers like Han Han are concerned, it may be time for the government to cut bait, and stop censoring, or at least shift tactics.

Perhaps the extreme heat — it’s nearly 35 C here and I don’t even have a fan — has gone to my head, but I think China’s attempts to censor the internet are ultimately doomed to fail if they continue pursuing the same policies. As long as it is possible to evade the GFW, it seems probable that people will do so, they just need to be given a reason. The dissident community is relatively small, but Han Han’s readership is gigantic. Giving that community a good reason to hop the wall could be the beginning of the end for the GFW, at least as we currently know it.

Thoughts?

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0 thoughts on “When Censorship Has the Opposite Effect”

  1. Great post, C.

    I agree to this end that censorship fails. If the primary objective of this censorship is to remove content from the web, then the censors are clearly failing.

    But there are many side-effects of censorship. For example, people self-censor, as Han Han has discussed many times in previous posts and speeches he’s given.

    If the censors one day decided to stop censoring Han Han, someone who is so widely followed by the Chinese, it could send signals to others that they may too might be able to get away with very directly expressing previously censored ideas. This could very well cause a huge explosion of pent up angst.

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  2. Interesting post. It seems like you’re implying that a widespread awareness amongst Chinese internet users of censorship, in conjunction w/ the Han Han fanatacism, may result in a ‘forbidden fruit’ effect, in which internet users actively seek out censored material just because it’s been censored. I think that the censorship policy has already failed. There’s no real consistent pattern to what is censored (or self-censored) and what is overlooked. There are other blogs out there that are critical of the government. On ChinaSmack and there are plenty of reader comments mocking harmonization/censorship. As you say, it’s all about access and enough time and interest. I suspect that a surge in wall would only prompt a government crackdown (which likely would fail, cause it’s the internet and all). As it stands now, even with censorship in place, savvy internet users with enough interest have an internet that’s free enough.

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  3. @ K. E. David: Yeah, I didn’t want to write this in the post for fear of being called 五毛 for the bazillionth time, but if I were the one trying to get Han Han to shut up, I’d quit censoring the blog and start threatening him personally. Let him keep writing, but make sure he doesn’t go too far, or he loses the race car, gets blacklisted from publishers, or whatever…

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  4. “I’d quit censoring the blog and start threatening him personally. Let him keep writing, but make sure he doesn’t go too far”

    I’m fairly sure they already do.

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  5. I think you’ve missed the point about censorship – in my view it’s not that they think people can be completely prevented from seeing ideas that the authorities don’t like expressed, it’s to make sure that there won’t from that develop discussion, debate, networking of the like-minded and eventually real-world action based on shared aims in the key areas that would lead to major and ongoing social unrest, such as labour rights. As it stands the censorship by and large achieves that continued fragmentation.
    (Should add that I’m not saying Han Han would necessarily be a key actor in something very radical, just that he falls foul of a system that has that particular bottom line.)

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