New York Times case could test China’s balancing act on censorship

October 26, 2012

Chinese web users visit an Internet cafe in Beijing. (AP Photo/Elizabeth Dalziel)

The Chinese government has long found a careful balance on censorship, particularly online, between restricting sensitive information and meeting some public demand for openness. This has allowed officials to clamp down when they've felt it necessary without unduly angering an increasingly web-savvy Chinese public that has come to accept the trade-off. But a particularly touchy story reported Thursday night by the New York Times -- that Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's family has amassed at least $2.7 billion in personal wealth -- could represent a significant test for China's censorship model.

The New York Times is itself a revealing case study in the government's give-and-take on censorship. The paper's English-language site is typically available off-and-on in China, with some pages blocked but others usually available. The site can always be reached by way of VPN, a firewall-skirting web tool commonly used by expats and web-savvy Chinese. In this way, the web users who most value accessing such sites -- and are thus most likely to complain if that access is removed -- can do so, while the majority of more casual web users can't. It's part of a larger system in which censors alternate flexibility and firmness, balancing censorship with citizens' satisfaction.

China has at times appeared to emphasize flexibility when it comes to the New York Times, which is well known there. When the Times launched a Chinese-language site this July, censors at first blocked it the paper's official Weibo account, but then allowed access. The newspaper had hired a staff of 30 to 35 to run the site. 

Also in July, Bloomberg News published a story revealing that Vice President Xi Jinping's family had accumulated $376 million in wealth; four months later, Bloomberg is still blocked in China. After Al Jazeera English correspondent Melissa Chan went knocking on the doors of "black jail" sites, officials expelled her from the country. Chan, the first foreign journalist to be kicked out of China since 1998, was called a "foreign b----" by Yang Rui, one of Chinese television's best-known news broadcasters. Al Jazeera English said it had no choice but to close its bureau in the country.

It seems unlikely that Chinese authorities will respond to the Times story as severely they did to Al Jazeera. That reaction may have been informed both by the sensitivity of the "black jails" story and by the network's perceived support for the Arab Spring, another touchy subject for Chinese officials.

But censors must now decide between blocking the Times' Web sites outright as it did with Bloomberg or granting the paper special leeway. Chinese web users are more likely to notice the Times' absence from the web, and thus more likely to react with the sort of popular outrage that censors seem to wish to avoid. Within the first few hours of the Times story going up, censors seemed to have largely succeeded in stifling early discussion, but some web users had still noticed and raised questions about the censorship itself. It's a small contradiction within China's censorship approach -- at some point, do you actually draw attention to a story by censoring it? -- and how the country handles it will say much about that system's viability in an increasingly wired age.

Read more: When else has China censored the web and why?

Correction: This post originally stated that Chinese censors has temporarily blocked access to the New York Times' Chinese-language website shortly after its launch. In fact, the paper's official account on the Twitter-like service Weibo had been shut down. This is the first time that the site has been blocked entirely. The post has been corrected.

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Max Fisher | October 26, 2012