Censored in China

21 February 2008

Chinese journalist Michael Anti made international news when his blog was shut down by Microsoft in 2005 at the bidding of censors. He had spoken out against the sacking of editors at Beijing’s most independent newspaper.

Born in 1975, he studied Engineering at university, but then worked as a hotel receptionist until he was taken on as a commentator in 2001. He is now a Press Fellow at Harvard, and a researcher for the New York Times’ Beijing Bureau.

Do Chinese journalists have any freedom to criticise the government?

I think it’s obviously very hard. We have two levels of government – central and local. It is easy for the media to criticise the local government, and a provincial newspaper can criticise a different province. But no one can criticise the central government, or the government in their own province. Blogs can be used to criticise the government, but it’s still very easy to shut them.

So has the Internet had that much of an impact on the situation?

The Internet has changed China a lot – because it has given the Chinese people some experience of freedom of speech. But it’s still very easy for the government to control.

The government can filter the news they don’t want to allow people to know.

There’s no space for debate – so it can make society more open, but not politically.

We all use Microsoft technology to keep in contact with each other. But Microsoft have to make some compromises with the government, like when they shut down my blog. They have done more good to the Chinese people than bad.

It’s the same with Google – they’ve given the Chinese people information, even if it’s censored. Yahoo are the worst, as they’ve sold information to the government and had people put in prison. They are the real evil for Chinese freedom of speech.

How much access to controversial information do Chinese people have? Do they know about the government violently suppressing student protests in Tiananman Square in 1989, for example?

Most of the young people have no clear information about what happened at Tiananmen square, for example. 6/4 is definitely a keyword which could trigger internet access being cut off.

When did you first find out what happened at Tiananmen Square?

I was 13 then when it happened. I supported the government then. 10 years later, I found the truth of 1989 through the Internet. I was shocked and converted to Christianity.

If young people now had access to the truth, they would be able to break through the government’s brainwashing.

Only people with knowledge and proxy software can access the critical information.

Is it dangerous to possess that kind of software? What would the penalty be for being found in possession of it?

Unfortunately this software is made by Falun Gong related company. That means a Falun Gong homepage will be popped up when you use it to surf the internet.

People only use the software at home and secretly. There’s no clear law about it. But there will be a reason for punishment if the government needs to make one.

What do you think about the way China is reported in the Western media?

Basically they cover it in the right way. Sometimes it’s too simple, but you can’t blame that.

Chinese newspapers don’t care much about foreign issues, so they just want a general picture. It’s still correct.

Do you think that the 2008 Beijing Olympics will make China more open?

I don’t think this will change anything. Absolutely not. They will have no effect. In Seoul the Olympic Games in 1988 they changed a lot, but that was in a very small country.

China is so big that the Olympics cannot change it. It could make China more open, but after that it will just close down, and everything will come back to how it was before. It won’t change.

How about the fact that so many Chinese students come to the West for university?

Yes. It will help that trend. But you mainly find many high-ranking officials’ children studying at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale, and they will never have the will to promote democracy to China, as it could lead the collapse of their families’ power.

Do you think that in some ways Chinese people have more freedom than in the West?

I think that in some ways American society is more conservative than China, for example in their attitudes to religion and to homosexuals. Chinese society is more open to that.

Would you be afraid of returning to China?

I am a professional journalist, not a dissident. I have my own self-censorship: I will seldom touch the most dangerous sort of politics.

And you don’t think you became a dissident when you criticised the government?

I’m not sure. But I am alone, I have no organization behind me. The government are only afraid of opposition organizations.

Do you think that people in the party have to censor themselves as well?

Yes. We do it for safety, they do it for more power, or promotion. People who censor and people who are censored, we are the same.

We are friends and we are classmates. We just work for different sides. It’s a difference of jobs, not one of ideology.

What do you think of those currently leading the party?

I don’t really care. Maybe some are better some are worse. But they are all communists.

Do you have strong opinions about Mao Zedong?

No. I will forever keep my lines of freedom of speech and press.

I have no interest of inside stories of the Party.

I won’t join them, so what’s the difference among them to me?

And do you think that there are many chances for poor people to improve their lives in China at the moment?

If you are young, fine. Just go to the south to join the army of Made in China.

If you are old, only God or your son can help you.