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Write This, Not That: Instructions From China's “Ministry of Truth”

BY Jessica McKenzie | Thursday, August 1 2013

On July 17 a Chinese watermelon vendor died at the hands of plainclothes policemen, or chengguan. The following day, the State Council Information Office sent this missive to China's media outlets: “All websites are asked to remove from their homepages the story of the melon grower beaten to death by chengguan in Linwu County, Chenzhou City, Hunan Province. Do not make special topic pages, and do not post video or images. Delete any such previous posts.” Instructions like this are known by Chinese journalists and bloggers as “Directives from the Ministry of Truth.” More than 2,600 such instructions have been collected on the website China Digital Times.

The collection offers a window into the sometimes bizarre concerns and obsessions of the Chinese authorities. Recently, in addition to the death of the watermelon vendor, media outlets have been asked to delete reports on a gang rape trial (which is no longer referred to as a rape but instead “taking turns having sex”), to not “reprint, comment on, or investigate reports concerning Snowden's betrayal of the NSA,” and to “cover all types of suicide cases in strict accordance with wire copy issued by authoritative judicial departments.” They also ban the media from independently investigating Edward Snowden, suicide cases and the Bo Xilai trial.

Recently, after four elementary school girls were assaulted by their school headmaster in a hotel, the media was instructed “not to sensationalized exaggerate, or comment on the incident in Wanning, Hainan Province in which an elementary school put female students in a hotel room overnight. You may report in an orderly manner according to information issued by authoritative departments.”

The child abuse is part of a larger trend, because only a couple weeks later a new instruction appeared:

Regarding the recent spate of school indecency cases, the media should not make this issue too prominent in layouts. Focus coverage on management and protection measures taken by Party committees, the government, and social organizations, while looking constructively at how similar mishaps can be prevented.

The directives are not always asking for straightforward redaction, but instead subtle manipulation of public opinion. Not covering or denying the “school indecency” cases could have caused more of a problem than it was worth.

In the case of the five year anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake, they instructed “Maintain positive coverage. . .do not produce reflections on so-called aftereffects.

All of the reports are verified from a second source before being posted on the website, and then the sometimes arbitrary seeming directives are put into context. Some of the explanations behind the directives read like the worst kind of tabloid:

Fan Yue recently resigned from the State Archives Bureau Department of Policies and Laws after his jilted mistress, news anchor Ji Yingnan, posted photos of happier times together on Weibo. Ji told Hong Kong’s Apple Daily [zh] that after her broke up with her, Fan demanded she repay him for all the gifts he had lavished on her, even turning to violence. She has now implicated Li Zhanshu, currently of the Party Central Office, Fan’s “fellow Henanese” and apparently his behind-the-scenes support against Ji.

This astonishing and illuminating collection was assembled primarily by Xiao Qiang, an adjunct professor at the School of Information at Berkley. In a recent piece for the New York Review of Books, Perry Link takes a closer look at Qiang's work and what it reveals about China's censorship apparatus.

Link observes:

And as Xiao has discovered, the new censorship strategies show the government’s growing awareness of the power of social media. Informal news stories—often accompanied by photos from smart phones—now spread widely and quickly enough that official media lose credibility if they do not at least mention them. In such cases, “on the back page” might be the best option. Moreover, Web users now understand Internet censorship well enough that the issue can itself be one that angers them. (The traditional print and electronic media are censored, too, but directives for them arrive via unrecorded telephone calls, which are much harder to trace and seldom leak. Because the Internet is too large to manage by telephone, its directives go out in writing.) Under the scrutiny of Web users, propaganda officials face the unwelcome task of censoring the Internet while trying to appear as though they are not—or at least not doing it “unreasonably.” This forces them to seek balance.

The entire piece, which gets into the nitty gritty logistical details of censorship in all its various forms (which includes prisoners posting state-approved comments to earn reduced sentences), is worth a read. And if you feel like falling down an Orwellian rabbit hole, you can browse the entire archive of Directives from the Ministry of Truth on the China Digital Times website.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.