Thursday, 19 January 2017

Trickle-down Censorship

As a personal account of the daily realities of censorship in China, JFK Miller’s book Trickle-down Censorship is an excellent read, although Amazon only seems to have it in Kindle format. This is not a book about the big censorship stories which gain worldwide attention, but the endless personal restraints all are required to abide by.

It is not a tale of hard-faced enforcers either. Miller's main censors were part-timers, educated and personable party members apparently willing to do the job with barely a hint of the iron fist behind their polite requirements.The blurb is a good summary.

A Westerner's inside look into the workings of Chinese society.

For six years, from 2005 to 2011, Australian JFK Miller worked in Shanghai for English-language publications censored by state publishers under the aegis of the Chinese Communist Party. In this wry memoir, he offers a view of that regime, as he saw it, as an outsider from the bottom up.

'Trickle-Down Censorship' explores how censorship affected him, a Westerner who took free speech for granted. It is about how he learned censorship in a system where the rules are kept secret; it is about how he became his own Thought Police through self-censorship; it is about the peculiar relationship he developed with his censors, and the moral choices he made as a result of censorship and how, having made those choices, he viewed others.

Although censorship in China is extremely pervasive and thorough and far removed from our Western experience, the situation depicted in Miller's book does not feel entirely alien. It is not difficult to envisage how it has been made to work and if Miller's experiences are any guide, it is not about to break down anytime soon. The book is very quotable too. Here are a few.

Every word, every story, every photograph, every advertisement, every classified—indeed every square inch of column space in our magazine—will be pored over, not by one censor, but by a team of five, to ensure we adhere to Minitrue’s guidelines. Guidelines that are, at least officially, known only to Minitrue and our censors. This is part of the game, to keep us guessing and second-guessing as to the whereabouts of that forbidding red line.

It would be a little too dramatic to say that I betrayed my conscience or sold my soul by submitting to censorship. If I did then it wasn’t in a single transaction, but a series of tiny installments: my acquiescence to a word cut, a paragraph excised, a story deleted, a headline changed.

Every informed Chinese knows the state media is censored, the horrible truths redacted and the unpalatable facts sanitized. This doesn’t make them unpatriotic or anti-establishment, just discerning readers.

Guanxi is the oil that lubricates China. You cannot get anything significant achieved in the country without it. This is a country run by men, not law, as sundry others have observed. Guanxi has no Western equivalent; “relationships”, “connections”, “network” don’t quite cut it, and this tangled web of favors paid and repaid, of relationships cultivated and nurtured, is simply, wholly, exhausting to our linear Western minds.


Sam Vega said...

I've just had a quick look at the wiki page on "guanxi". It's a term I hadn't heard before, but the basic outlines are fairly simple. One important question comes to mind. Is guanxi more efficient and effective than Western bureaucracy as described by Weber? The impersonal, fact-driven, rational process which separates its functionaries from their kin and community and personalities in the service of efficiency.

Were the West able to restore this in its full glory (think German industrial bureaucracy, or the British Raj at its best) how would they fare in a straight fight?

A K Haart said...

Sam - I don't know the answer to that, but it may be that neither is stable in the long term. Perhaps the evolution of new ideas has to flourish in order to keep stagnation at bay. There is no system to promote evolution other than evolution itself which isn't a system.

Roger said...

I suspect Donald and Theresa look at the way China is governed and think - if only..... The way of the future, you know it makes sense.

Demetrius said...

In the UK going to the right school or college seemed to help.

A K Haart said...

Roger - I'm sure many senior bureaucrats see China as a possible model for the future. The EU certainly seems to be going that way, assuming it survives.

Demetrius - mixing with the right people from an early age seems to be the golden key. The right school or college is a good starting point.