I can’t help thinking that some of this is all my fault. You see, having been one of the few people in China who stayed awake all night last Friday, I was (I think) the first person to report that China was censoring the news about the protests in Egypt, kind of. What I said was this:
Word of the revolutionary protests is spreading on Weibo and through BBS forums, but appears to be being scrubbed just as quickly. Attempts to link to Al-Jazeera’s live coverage of the story resulted repeatedly in Sina’s Weibo service displaying an error message about “forbidden” content. Some Weibo messages have mentioned Egypt, but the topic appears to have been scrubbed from the trending topics on Weibo, where it hasn’t appeared in the top 50 all night.
I believe I beat the AP on this by several hours, in light of the fact that they were probably sleeping, like sane people, at the time I posted it.
In the days since then, of course, the situation in Egypt has worsened, and comparisons to China are becoming rather difficult to avoid. And the springboard from 1989 to now is pretty apparent. If a pro-democracy movement is spreading across North Africa, in this global age, could it spread to China? And what is China doing about that?
“They’re censoring it,” is the obvious answer, and while that’s true, it’s also complicated. Has that complexity been reflected in the coverage?
First, let us start with the Straits Times, whose coverage is (perhaps unsurprisingly) appalling:
China has continued to censor online discussions of the protests in Egypt, wary that images of tanks in Cairo would evoke memories of its own bloody Tiananmen struggle in 1989.
Keyword searches of the word ‘Egypt’ are blocked, and foreign news websites reporting on the ongoing uprising have been disabled and remain inaccessible.
As much as I like to joke, the Tiananmen comparison is entirely apt here. But then things go downhill quickly. First of all, what the hell is a “keyword search”? Is it the same thing as a regular search (yes)? Because searching for “Egypt” isn’t blocked on any Chinese search engine I know. And in fact, Baidu.com’s auto-suggest feature currently suggests “Egypt riots” as soon as you type in Egypt. It’s also the second response on the results page when you search for Egypt.
Searches for the term “Egypt” are blocked on Sina’s Weibo microblogging service. But, as I reported originally, people are still perfectly free to talk about Egypt and the riots on Weibo, “Egypt” just can’t be searched for and is blocked as a trending topic.
Similarly, the Straits Times reports that “foreign news websites reporting on the ongoing uprising have been disabled and remain inaccessible.” I wish this was more specific, because I can’t find a single foreign news website reporting on the uprising that has been disabled. Even Al Jazeera, with its 24-hour live video coverage, is accessible, as it has been since the protests began.
Again, the Straits Times folks may be talking about Sina Weibo, where links to Al Jazeera’s site are currently blocked. But that is absolutely not something that’s true of the Chinese internet as a whole. Moreover, it’s important to remember that private companies like Sina generally censor themselves preemptively. It’s possible the decision to block the Al Jazeera site was made without input from the government itself. In fact, that seems likely, since the Al Jazeera website is still totally unblocked.
Of course, not everyone is doing as terrible as job as the Straits Times. But lots of people have been making this mistake, seen here in TIME’s coverage but widely available in a variety of Western media outlets:
As the unrest in Egypt stretches on, China has blocked the country’s name from micro-blogs and is scrubbing related comments from the web.
No. Sina has blocked searches for Egypt, and disabled it as a trending topic. But the word Egypt is not blocked, as evidenced by this post I made last night. It says the word “Egypt” seventy times. It went through fine and has been there for over a day without being deleted. Note also tweets like these, actual information about the riots in Egypt, that went through without a problem and a day later, still haven’t been deleted. And here are a couple posts I made on Jan 29th about Egypt. Those weren’t deleted either.
This may not be a significant distinction for everyone, but I do think it’s important. Simply saying “China censors news about Egypt!” is easy, but things are not that simple. In fact, China has created a much more elaborate system to deal with the unrest in Egypt, which seems to be focused more on misdirection than direct censorship. Sina and other web portals are scrubbing Egypt-related content from their front pages, search functions, etc., which makes it less likely to become a big story. At the same time, though, people are still allowed to tweet about it, and even read news coverage about it (both foreign and domestic), which decreases frustration.
Of course, Chinese coverage has predictably focused on the destabilizing effect of the protests, the violence, and the heroic government effort to rescue Chinese citizens in Egypt (although there was an ugly rumor going around on Twitter that the first plane they sent left behind a group of schoolchildren so as to ensure that all the “important” government-connected folks could be rescued first). The message is generally: what’s happening in Egypt is bad and no good can come of it. Not a big surprise.
But everyone seems to be ignoring the most significant thing about the Egypt-in-China story: no one cares, because it’s Spring Festival time ((Imagine, for example, that on December 25th, China sentenced a highly visible pro-democracy dissident to a harsh prison term. How many Americans would be paying attention? It’s happening in a far-away country, it doesn’t have immediate ramifications for US foreign policy, and it’s Christmas, goddamn it. No one would care (well, almost no one).)). When the protests got serious on Friday, many people were already on their way home. When things got really violent last night, almost everyone in China was busy either watching the horrible, horrible spectacle that is Chunwan or burning down expensive buildings with fireworks. The government holiday lasts for another week, and most people won’t begin returning to their regular lives until at least a few days after that. If the riots in Egypt are still going by then, it could pose a danger to the Chinese government. But so far, there’s no big threat.