Chinese censors physically remove pages from print editions of The Economist

You probably have heard of China’s “Great Firewall” that blocks outside news sites and social media. But somewhat to my surprise, I saw firsthand that the country also censors print publications.

My surprise wasn’t in the censoring so much as it was in the method: physically removing stories from print newspapers. I had a print subscription to the weekly newspaper The Economist, and the copies would show up with stories on China removed. Often the entire section on China had been taken out.

This seems like a lot of trouble to go through. Why not just block the whole thing (as they do to The Economist’s entire website)?

There’s something almost charming about this kind of neurotic behavior. And it’s not like goons showed up at my door and beat me for reading subversive material. But it shouldn’t be viewed lightly. This sort of intrusion is just one tendril of a complex and thorough system. That it can happen at all speaks to the power and depth that a surveillance state already has.

You might think the placement of 1984 in one of the shots a bit contrived. (I’d roll my eyes too.) But it really was already sitting there because, oddly enough, I came back from China two months ago with a hankering to read it again — having just come back from Beijing where I worked in a building that was “startling different from any other object in sight”, the headquarters of CCTV, the country’s answer to Minitrue.

Make no mistake about it: China would fall over itself to install 1984-like telescreens into everyone’s homes if authorities thought they could get away it and had the technology. Note also that the country is investing heavily in AI and quantum computing, and is already widely using facial recognition technology in public spaces, with plans for more.

[Video Script]

You’re not going to get a clearer picture of Chinese censorship than this: my doctored copies of the Economist. I used to get them delivered by mail to my apartment in Beijing, and this is how they arrived: with the sections on China carefully cut out of them. Here you can see there’s supposed to be a section on Page 21. But… it’s not there. The copies would get cut out of their original bags, the section would be removed, and then the copy sometimes would be rebagged in a package that had the label of the China National Publications Import & Export Corporation on it.

Because of the work this extra scrutiny took, my copies of this weekly newspaper usually showed up late, in stacks of one month’s worth or more.

Stranger still, a couple of times I received two copies of the same edition, as if people at The Economist knew a particular issue was likely to be censored in this way, and so sent two in the hopes that one would slip through unmolested, or had some wink-and-nod arrangement that allowed officials to show they were doing their job by cutting one out, while still allowing one through. Who knows. Doesn’t quite make sense, but those are the only scenarios I could come up with to fit these circumstances.

I should note that only about half of my copies showed up with China stories removed. But it’s no surprise there were issues with these two double copies here. The subject matter was certain to draw the attention of censors. You’ve got one on Xinjiang, which has drawn increasingly intense, and justified, criticism of China.

And then this one is about China’s soft power push, as it tries to normalize the outside world’s view of the country.

Ironically, it talks about the place I worked at, China Global Television Network, a major part of the country’s outward-facing propaganda effort.

So here you have a situation where the people charged with working on this international soft power propaganda effort are not allowed to read about the international reception to this international soft power propaganda effort. Nor are they allowed to read about how the client for this effort, China, is generally perceived among the target recipients. The criticisms — the very things they are supposed to be countering — are blocked, exposing the fundamental contradiction at the core of this kind of repressive, totalitarian system.

Of course, this presumes that those in control care about convincing anyone who would ever be reading something like The Economist, or The New York Times, and so on. They don’t. Those readers already know China is a repressive dystopia and aren’t likely to ever change their minds. But the majority of people outside China don’t know that much about China, and so the plan with this soft power push is to get to these people first. Present China as just another normal country like any other.

And so, in that light, it isn’t so contradictory after all. They don’t care what informed people think, and they view their low-level propaganda workers as yet more simple people they have to keep in the dark. It’s entirely in line with the rest of the system.

Though my print copies shown here are from 2017, this practice of excising the China section likely continues to this day. If anything, the authorities probably have stopped bothering with the politeness of being so surgical about it and are blocking the full copy outright. I canceled my print subscription in mid-2017 because they stopped showing up at all.

I kept my digital subscription going, by the way. I instead used a VPN on my phone to read — during lunch breaks at CGTN — about China’s increasing oppression, aggressive nationalism, and alarming sharp turns toward an even harsher form of high-tech authoritarianism.