Will China’s censorship mandate extend to dirty talk?

By David Bandurski — We wrote in our last post that Google’s row in China should be seen partly against the backdrop of intensifying Web controls in the country. The CCP leadership’s crusade against so-called indecent Internet content has gone on for months now, but grew more tense last month as China announced new Web regulations. And there are some reports that morale in the industry has been seriously shaken.

Now, several days after the Google announcement, there seem to be fewer Google-related posts and editorials in China that include across-the-bow shots at Internet censorship. This might suggest, although it is difficult to tell, that there have been directives from the propaganda department telling editors to dial it back.

One of the strongest editorials in the newspaper pages today is not directly about Google, but gives us an interesting glimpse at other aspects of China’s intensifying campaign to bring information technologies to heel.

Writing at Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis Daily, CMP fellow and People’s University of China professor Zhang Ming (张鸣) explores the implications of new measures to combat indecent mobile text messages.

As Zhang points out with no small measure of humor, even setting aside the issue of exactly what kind of content classifies as “indecent” (and, we would add, the issue of whether other types of content are being targeted as well), the mechanics of this new campaign should be worrying to the average citizen.

Guangdong’s official Nanfang Daily newspaper first reported on January 13 that new measures were being taken against “indecent text messages,” in which service would be suspended for individual mobile phone users who engaged in the communication of violating content.

The new campaign does seem to be national in nature, carried out by China Mobile in cooperation with the Public Security Bureau.

A January 14 editorial from Information Daily praised the move, saying it was about time.

But there were quickly voices of dissent too, including this look into the legal issues involved by columnist and blogger Wu Yue San Ren (五岳散人). One columnist, writing at Changjiang Daily, questioned the wisdom of entrusting a for-profit enterprise like China Mobile with censoring personal communications.

In a January 14 story, Sichuan’s Huaxi Metropolis Daily reported the case of a mobile user in Dongguan who found that his mobile phone could no longer send or receive instant messages. Hoping to resolve the problem, he changed out his SIM card, but there was still no service. Finally, when he approached China Mobile about the issue, he was told his service had been suspended because of an “indecent text message” (黄段子) he had sent out after receiving it from a friend.

The mobile user was told, according to Huaxi Metropolis Daily, that he would have to present his identification card to local police and fill out a letter of guarantee that he would no longer send indecent messages — only then would his SMS service be restored.

The reporter at Huaxi Metropolis Daily looked further into the practice and was told by someone at the service desk of the local mobile company — presumably a China Mobile affiliate — that they were working with the Public Security Bureau to control illegal mobile messages.

In the arena of information controls, 2010 is certainly getting off to an inauspicious start in China.

Zhang Ming’s editorial in Southern Metropolis Daily, which follows, fortunately adds a much-needed dose of humor to an intelligent discussion of information control and citizen’s rights.

The Anti-Indecency Sweep Must Not Sweep All the Way Under Our Bed Sheets
By Zhang Ming (张鸣)
Southern Metropolis Daily
January 16, 2010

A news report said recently that if telecom users sent out indecent, or “yellow”, instant messages, their SMS service would now be suspended. If they wished to re-activate the service, they would have to first file a self-criticism with the Public Security Bureau pledging to refrain from such behavior in the future.

These days it’s fairly common to find indecent content, a bit of dirty humor, in text messages sent between lovers, or between husbands and wives. If this ban is actually enforced, I imagine people will simply turn to good old-fashioned phone calls the next time they get the itch.

But when you think about it, can these tactics really be limited to SMS messages? What should worry us even more is exactly what is going on behind the scenes here.

If you extrapolate from this control mindset, will mobile phone conversations and idle fixed-line chatter result in service suspensions if one is careless? And further, if people sit down to dinner and the conversation gets a bit raunchy, will they be ordered to hold their tongues just because someone happened to hear?

When a husband and wife are in bed together, should they, from this day forward, refrain from playful whispering? . . . Oh, forget it. I can’t go on speculating like this. Before long, I’ll be imagining everyone from the censor to the policeman and the city inspector so busy keeping our mouths shut that nothing else gets done. The guilty, with their mouths zipped shut, will form lines outside police headquarters or the city inspectors barracks to deliver their signed self-criticisms.

The strangest thing of all is: How exactly do the relevant [government] departments find out about a dirty message texted by some young person in the first place? Does this mean everyone’s text messages are being monitored? Are human beings listening in on us, or are machines being programmed to keep watch? If keyword filtering is being used, how is it possible for technology to make the judgement call so clearly? Won’t a lot of messages that aren’t actually dirty or indecent be filtered out too? Can’t we expect to have a lot of “unjust prosecutions” (冤假错案)?

In fact, there are already numerous restrictions on the sending of mobile messages to groups. If you do send dirty messages . . . these should belong to the category of interpersonal communication. And according to our Constitution, the freedom of communication between individuals is protected. That means that government departments cannot assign guilt or exact punishment on the basis of the content of interpersonal communications. If they do not concern issues of national security, nor can interpersonal communications be monitored.

This being the case, how is it that the youth’s SMS messages are being monitored in the first place? Why is his messaging service being suspended? Why is he required to file a self-criticism in order to restore it?

Fighting indecency is a really great pretense, a banner of uprightness. What reason can anyone muster to oppose fighting indecency. But when [the government] launches a sweep against indecency, they must not sweep into our very homes, and under our bed sheets.

Ordinary citizens and sweethearts still have the right to dirty it up a bit every once in a while in personal conversation. How can people not feel [given this policy] that their personal communications are being monitored all the time? In a normal society, the government’s authority does not extend into the homes of citizens, unless they are selling or using drugs or committing other such illegal acts. Even cases of domestic violence require reporting by a family member before the police get involved. The things that people write or say, no matter how dirty they are, do not constitute mass media . . .

If the government is permitted to intrude our private space at will, punishing us in the name of battling indecency, what sort of principle is that? . . .

Acting against indecency is necessary. But if we sweep on in this way, we will achieve exactly the opposite. We will find ourselves unable to put a stop to indecency, and we will kick up great storms of anger and resentment.

[Posted by David Bandurski, January 17, 2010, 1:07am HK]

3 Comments to “Will China’s censorship mandate extend to dirty talk?”

  1. [...] Internet censorship,” David Bandurski, a researcher at the University of Hong Kong, wrote in a blog post on Sunday. “This might suggest, although it is difficult to tell, that there have been [...]

  2. [...] is full of facts, and a full translation of a Chinese op-ed piece opposing the new texting rules; go check it out! Things to do with this [...]

  3. hanmeng says:

    Even if you don’t know someone well enough to make up codewords for “dirty” expressions, how on earth will they censor something like “Honey, let’s do it tonite. (老婆,我们今晚来那个。)”?

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