China bans “civil society”

Last week, Radio Free Asia and other media reported that Chinese media had received a propaganda directive instructing them not to use the term “civil society,” or gongmin shehui (公民社会), in news reports, or to build up stories around the topic. Our sources confirm the existence of a directive, but it remains to be seen just how effective such a ban might prove.

Beijing Film Academy professor Cui Weiping (崔卫平) told Deutsche Welle’s Chinese-language news service late last week that rumors of a possible ban on the term had been tossed about since last October, but added that it was impossible for the word to really disappear simply because of a ban. The service also quoted scholar Li Shun (李楯) as saying: “If indeed there is a ban, it will be impossible for the authorities to enforce. Among intellectuals in China today, the term ‘civil society’ is common coin, and this is not something that simply handing down a directive can change.”

It is true that banning a term such as “civil society” outright is a difficult proposition, and there are still plenty of examples to show that it is sticking around in China’s print media — even in those trouble-making Guangdong newspapers cited in a number of reports on the directive.

A search of the WiseNews database, which includes hundreds of mainland Chinese newspapers, returned 271 results for articles including the term “civil society” over the past month (since December 1, 2010). Since January 1, the term has been used in 50 articles in the mainstream print media. Of these 50 articles making reference to the term, 18 were from media in Guangdong province.

The term has appeared only once in a headline since the beginning of this year, however. That was in Wuhan Evening Post on January 2, and the editorial was called, “Equal Opportunity is the Foundation of Civil Society.” Interestingly, the body of the editorial, which urged against allowing local administrative bodies to set up their own official examinations for government jobs, did not include the term “civil society.”

And what about the Party’s flagship People’s Daily? No references have appeared this year. In fact, the last reference to the term in was on April 17, 2009. Several provincial-level party dailies, however, have made use of the term since December 1, including today’s edition of Gansu Daily:

The development process of modernization is a process of “familiarization,” and it is also a process of the building and maturation of civil society . . . .

As traditional media have pushed gingerly against the limits of this latest ban, the term “civil society” and the ban itself have been shared through domestic microblog services, demonstration again of the potential power of these new media.

On January 3, celebrity blogger Wu Yue San Ren (五岳散人) wrote through his microblog at QQ:

Around the time I’d been in this field of journalism for just a couple of years, you couldn’t raise the concept of the ‘taxpayer,’ and now we can’t say ‘civil society’ anymore. If we say ‘the ordinary people’ that seems like a term we shouldn’t be using in a modern society. And if we say ‘the masses’ instead, then it always has the words ‘who don’t know the truth’ tacked on to it [by government officials].

Constitutional scholar Chen Yongmiao (陈永苗), also an experienced journalist, wrote through his QQ microblog on January 5:

Recently, Southern Metropolis Daily, Southern Weekend and the 21st Century Business Herald, all of the Nanfang Group, received a notice from the propaganda department prohibiting media from mentioning ‘civil society’ in their reports, and from building up this issue. It is said that media all over the country have received this notice, and under pressure all media must carry it out.

Liao Baoping (廖保平), a columnist at Wuhan’s Changjiang Commercial Daily (长江商报), wrote on his microblog today: “Since ‘civil society’ is disallowed, some media have been using the term ‘public society’ instead. I think this is even stronger. The method of keyword banning cannot possibly eliminate ideas.”

Liao, of course, was addressing another low-tech way the directive against “civil society” will probably prove less effective than propaganda authorities hope. And journalists are in fact already blazing the way forward with other terms.

In one of the year’s first apparent circumventions of the ban, the main editorial in the 21st Century Business Herald on January 1 discussed the importance of civil society in reviving China socially and culturally. But through the slight of hand of replacing a single Chinese character, the article (just as Liao Baoping said today) replaced the term “civil society” with “public society,” or gonggong shehui (公共社会).

In the following passage the concept of civil society does but doesn’t quite appear exactly three times through the proxy “public society”:

If we can say that the principle achievement of thirty years of economic reform and opening is the development of market freedom and personal freedom, well then, right now the building of public society and the protection of freedoms are just as important. The development of public society is a supplement and support for market freedom and continued prosperity. If there is no way to build up public society, and no way to make space for the resolution and release of social tensions, there will be no way for individual demands to coalesce into any sort of public consensus . . .

Naturally, this most recent ban should be taken seriously as an indication of the prevailing mood of China’s propaganda leaders, and it could have some effect in turning bolder media away from deeper coverage of a whole range of issues that fall under the umbrella of “civil society.” But ideas about a more engaged and more connected public have, as Li Shun said, already taken root — and they will be difficult to turn back.

4 Comments to “China bans “civil society””

  1. King Tubby says:

    David. Great reality check piece. I’m very interested in how the Chinese media is reporting on the Tunisian people’s revolution. What are your moles clandestinely reporting to you. Cheers.

  2. Wales says:

    These sorts of bans on society-related terms issued every day or so by the regime’s “Ministry of Truth” (Ministry of Propaganda) are a sign of the increasingly frantic and insecure mood within the interest group at the pinnacle of the Chinese Communist Party’s pyramidal hierarchy. No wonder almost all of the cadres in the Politburo have at least one Swiss bank account just in case their authoritarian regime hits an unexpected bump in the road and its officials start to join up with their relatives and cronies overseas.

  3. tiffert says:

    Banning quotations from Marx’s “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” probably puts the authorities in an uncomfortable spot. Also, time to pull that February 14, 1957 article from 人民日报 entitled “介绍“马克思恩格斯全集”第一卷.” All in all, reminds me of a cat chasing its own tail.

  4. Interestingly, the 2011 special issue of the New Century Weekly (新世纪周刊)has a whole section titled “civil society” in English, but in Chinese it says 民生 (civil life).

Leave a Comment