Censorship in China

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Censorship in China is a concept that has existed throughout China's history. Some of the most notable events include the burning of Confucian texts by Emperor Qin in the third century BC, and the control of media during the Cultural Revolution[1]. Conventionally, censorship is defined as the suppression or prohibition of any parts of books, films, news, etc. that are considered obscene, politically unacceptable or a threat to security[2]. However, in an attempt to open up more discussions about the topic, Kay Mathiesen, the Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Northeastern University, defined censorship as restricting or limiting access to an expression, portion of an expression, or category of expression, which has been made public by its author, based on the belief that it will be a bad thing if people access the content of that expression[3]. With the rise of the internet, censorship in China has evolved to account for the new found freedom that the internet provides. China deployed an army of bots and millions of human censors to work around the clock and police daily activities.[4] This effort is commonly known as The Great Firewall. The Great Firewall brings with it a number of ethical concerns including restrictions to internet access and the need for legislation across borders.

The Great Firewall


The Great Firewall of China, also known as the Golden Shield Project, is a set of technologies and methods with the overall goal of censorship. The Great Firewall itself has not been officially acknowledged or publically exposed. Methods utilized in internet censorship include bandwidth throttling, keyword filtering, and blocking access to certain selected foreign websites. These websites include but are not limited to Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Wikipedia. China's Great Firewall also seeks to regulate cross-border traffic by denying some foreign traffic coming onto their servers, as well as denying some traffic leaving China intended for foreign servers. Beyond the firewall, the government has also turned to shuttering publications and websites, and jailing dissident journalists, bloggers, and activists.[5]

Comparison for search results related to The Tiananmen Square Incident [6]

China uses a complex, technical process to filter through posts, videos, comments, and other forms of user-generated content. Research done in 2014 showed that China allows for the criticisms of the state, its leaders, and their policies, whereas posts with collective action potential are much more likely to be censored. Censorship in China is used to muzzle those outside government who attempt to spur the creation of crowds for any reason — in opposition to, in support of, or unrelated to the government. The government allows the Chinese people to say whatever they like about the state, its leaders, or their policies. Any subject not connected to collective action is not censored.

Censorship Factories

As a response to the digital information boom, China has strengthened its efforts toward censorship by creating a new and lucrative industry: censorship factories. Thousands of recent college graduates are employed by firms that specialize in online censorship and work in such factories to monitor digital information online. Typical training for these professionals involves getting familiar with the Communist Party's top leaders, memorizing an exclusive list of government-owned websites and specially approved political blogs, and being up to date with recent sensitive topics and political figures. Before starting their shift, these staffs are required to put their cell phones in designated lockers, the computers they work on can't be used to take screenshots or to communicate with the outside world, and the staffs are explicitly prohibited to discuss their work outside of the company.

One of the workers described the factory as the Foxconn in the data industry. However, unlike workers in Foxconn, these staffs are discouraged from working over time due to the resulting decrease in accuracy which can potentially lead to severe political consequences. [7]

One such censorship factory worker was Li Chengzhi who got the job soon after graduating from college.[7] The unique part of Li's job introduction was that he himself did not know enough about the outside world and of national events to know what he should censor. Li himself had grown up as a victim of online censorship in China and therefore did not know enough information to properly censor the information that the government wanted hidden. This lead to an ironic result where Li actually had to go back and learn a bunch of censored information such as the crackdown of Tiananmen Square just so that he could scour the internet and censor it so that other Chinese people would not be able to know about it. This allowed internet users in China to grow up in naivety, similarly to how Li did before he was required to learn about the past for censorship reasons. Li does not take his job lightly and even said that "it helps cleanse the online environment".[7] People like Li, and others who work in censorship factories such as Beyondsoft help to control the content that over 800 million internet users see in China.[7]

Censorship in Education

Outside of the institutionalized censorship seen throughout Chinese media and internet, censorship within the education system in China has also become increasingly prevalent. Namely, Chinese government has taken advantage of their opportunity to teach history to today's generation of children exactly as they intend it to be remembered; consequently, a trend to conveniently revise, edit, or ignore certain historical events has emerged. In an effort to circumvent Western influence on China's education system, the country has undergone and comprehensive re-evaluation of all school history textbooks to remove unapproved content with the underlying motive of promoting patriotism.[8] Allegedly, many of the updated junior high and senior high history textbooks neglect to mention milestones in ancient history, de-emphasize historic movements of resistance, reduce Mao to a mere name drop within a single chapter, and simplify the impact of socialism and communism in the country.[9] In response to public backlash within the private school sector and among upper-middle class families seeking foreign education sources, officials have only intensified the effort to clean and unify the country's history curriculum. As a result, without the presence of oral history passed down and preserved through families, today's generation of young people in China may see their country through a distorted lens and know little about significant, symbolic events in recent history such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.[10]

Censorship in Television

Many news outlets such as CNN, BBC World Service, and TVB occasionally face censorship in China. The extent to the censorship can be seen as certain controversial segments being blacked out. While CNN has agreed to China's censorship and given them full autonomy in determining what part of the broadcasts will be shown, CNN remains not easily accessible, only being broadcasted in certain diplomatic offices. References to certain notable moments have been blacked out, such as the Dalai Lama, the death of Zhao Ziyang, and negative reportages about the Beijing Olympics. [11]

With the increased popularity of Game of Thrones, the ways in which this show has been censored have left people wondering what is left of the show after being censored. Typical scenes of nudity, extreme violence, and supernatural horror have been censored and what is left is "more like a mundane “medieval documentary” with disjointed plot points." Many Chinese viewers feel confused and angry about the censorship because they are often left with many questions. Because HBO's Chinese contracted partner, Tencent, charges viewers to have access to Game of Thrones, many feel that they are being ripped off. As much as 20 minutes of one episode has been taken out. [12]

Television censorship remains very difficult to execute and is mostly ineffective because of the ways in which people can access satellite signal systems by hacking them and giving direct access to the public. [13]

Censorship in Film

China allows many foreign films to be released in the country. There is not official rating system like in the United States, where films are rated G, PG, PG-13, or R. Instead, China censors all films to be suitable for all audiences. [14] What this means for foreign films is that many scenes may need to be cut out in order to be deemed suitable for all audiences. Anything that is seen as an insult to the country, nudity, extreme violence, and "wronged spirits and violent ghosts, monsters, demons, and other inhuman portrayals," are just a few of the major criteria that must be omitted from films prior to being released for the public. [15] Domestically, there are also censorships. If a film is produced in China, the government must approve of the film before it is submitted to a film festival. [16] The first movie to be released without censorship was V for Vendetta, which raised the hopes of many people that censorship laws would begin to change. [17] However, hope was lost when China shutdown the Beijing Film Festival in 2014 because they feared that the event would be used a platform to criticize the government. [18]


Google had set up shop in mainland China in 2006, offering a version of its services that conformed to the government’s censorship policies. Google officials said they’d decided that the most ethical option was to offer some services to the enormous Chinese market, rather than exclude millions of Internet users. However, in 2010, Google shut down its search engine and all operations within mainland China after a cyber attack, where it found that the Gmail accounts of a number of Chinese human rights activists had been hacked. It moved all operations to Hong Kong, where all forms of both traditional and nontraditional media were uncensored at the time[19]. In 2018, Google revealed it had plans to launch a censored version of its search engine within China once again, named the "Dragonfly Project". The new search engine would censor information at the request of the Chinese government. Many employees protested, naming the "urgent moral and ethical issues" involved in the move[20]. According to one Google employee that resigned in protest said that the new search engine wouldn't only block information about human rights but would even block access to accurate information about air quality data[21].

Google vs Baidu

Baidu is the largest search engine in China with over 2 billion users.[22] However, because of its censorship, the affordances of Google and Baidu are vastly different. This has led many to crack the firewall for access to tools such as Gmail and Google Scholar. The discrepancy between uncensored Google (USA) Images and Baidu Images in China is shown in the image here, in the search for the "Tiananmen Square Incident." The Google (USA) Images search yields vastly different results than the Baidu Images search, when in China, due to the censored content available on Baidu. However, with Google hoping to reenter mainland China, the search results may end up looking more similar to that of Baidu, while still affording China's users some of the access to Google-specific resources.[6]

Getting Past the Firewall

In an attempt to avoid the censorship of the Great Firewall, internet users over the years have found ways to circumvent the censors. Ultrasurf, Psiphon, and Freegate are popular software programs that allow Chinese users to set up proxy servers to avoid controls. While VPNs are also popular, the government crackdown on the systems have led users to devise other methods, including the insertion of new IP addresses into host files, Tor (a free software program for anonymity), or SSH tunnels, which route all internet traffic through a remote server.[5] These tactics help users to browse foreign sites freely, without the restriction of the Great Firewall's censorship.

DNS Cache Poisoning

The Domain Name System (DNS) is a hierarchical naming system that maps domain names to IP addresses. A correctly-operating DNS system is crucial to successful internet browsing. If the DNS fails, then users can not access the sites they are trying to reach because the domain name can't be mapped to the proper IP address. The Chinese government takes advantage of this in order to further impose censorship in China. DNS servers cache DNS requests. DNS cache poisoning is when the IP address for a domain name in the cache is swapped with a different IP address causing the user to be redirected to a different site than the one they were intending to reach. The Chinese government uses DNS cache poisoning to misdirect those requests to banned websites by sending them to the wrong IP address.[23] Since the Chinese government has access to the DNS cache servers, they can change any of the IP addresses they want in order to further impose censorship.

Likening Xi Jinping to Winnie to Pooh, an example of blocked content by the GFW [24]

Banned Words/Concepts

There are lists of words and concepts that are permanently blacked out from appearing in any Chinese media. There are also lists of words and concepts that are temporarily blacked out of Chinese media, due to the context they are used in. An example of this was when the Chinese population turned to likening President Xi Jinping with Winnie the Pooh. All mentions of Winnie the Pooh or anything distinctly similar were banned from China. Another example of this was when the letter "N" was briefly banned in China. When word spread about the dropping of President Xi's term limits and his indefinite stay in power, the letter "N" was used like that of a mathematical equation where n>2 where n=term limits. Words such as "immortality" and "ascend the throne" were also banned in fear of civilian push back.[25] President Xi further banned any terms commonly used in criticisms of his rule, such as: 'emperor', 'two term limit', and 'control'. [26]

War on Fun

In order to push China and its masses towards a culture of socialism, the censorship authorities deemed it necessary to expunge any noticeable forms of lingering individualism and hedonism. In order to do so, censorship authorities began censoring any tattoos or earrings that appeared in local social media. To undertake this, authorities began to blur out stills from music artists and other influences that bore any earrings or tattoos in their videos. Further, soccer players and other popular figures were asked to wear long sleeve shirts and jerseys in order to cover up tattoos while recognizable women in media were told to keep away from wearing even mildly revealing clothing and instead, wear clothing higher up the neckline. [27]


Historically, punishments and censorship have been limited to restricting one's online access, and ability to post content. For instance, if one was to post something on their online space that involved one of the banned/frowned upon keywords or phrases, it would simply get taken down in due course, before any damage is done. Therefore, the punishment was delivered on the online space, to the individual's online identity. However, with increasing levels of surveillance and strictness, the level of punishments have consequently increased too. As a result, punishment for online misconduct have been handed out in real life, by tracing and finding the person responsible. This includes authorities showing up at people's doors and taking them away, to be interrogated or imprisoned, for any sort of public delinquency. [28]


A number of ethical issues have risen alongside the growth of Chinese censorship. Many creators of technology are faced with the difficult feat of trying to adhere to more western ethical standards while still seeking access to Chinese markets, two goals which are at odds with one another. It turns out, it is rather difficult to attempt to make different rules for different regions of the world within the internet space.

Association of Computing Machinery

Association of Computer Machinery logo

The largest professional organization for computing, the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM), recently updated its code of ethics. Many employees of large western companies are members of the ACM, meaning they have agreed to abide by this code. The code includes phrases such as “to contribute to society and to human well being”, “promoting human rights and protecting each individual’s right to autonomy”, and "computing professionals should take action to avoid creating systems or technologies that disenfranchise or oppress people”.[29] It has proven to be a challenge to follow the ACM code of ethics while also trying to forge a path into the Chinese market, which maintains the constraints of the Chinese firewall and other censorship policies. Moves such as the Dragonfly Project from Google have led people to question whether American companies are putting profits before ethics when conducting business in China. US lawmakers claimed that China's vast and lucrative market has prompted US companies to put ethical considerations to the side when adhering to Beijing's restrictive rules. US internet providers have defended their cooperation with the Chinese government, saying that restricted online access, while less than ideal, is still of great benefit to the vast majority of people in China.[30]

Ethics Across Borders

The ethical issues associated with censorship in China have raised a number of questions regarding how legislation and value systems among different cultures should interact with one another across borders, particularly via the internet. In his article: "Should You Have The Right To Be Forgotten On Google? Nationally, Yes. Globally, No.", Luciano Floridi, a professor of Philosophy at the University of Oxford, addresses some of the ethical challenges associated with translating cultural values and ethics across international borders.[31] Floridi discusses his experience as a member of Google's Advisory Council on the Right to be Forgotten, whose purpose is to formulate a set of guidelines for determining what constitutes a valid "delink request" or removal of information from Google's search engines around the world. One issue that Floridi confronts early on in his article is the intersection of privacy and freedom of speech. In the case of China, a decision to censor certain portions of the internet, based on their own unique set of principles, represents a value system which clashes with a large portion of the western world, and with the idea of freedom of speech. What may seem like a blatant infringement on human civil rights within one country, may in another country be accepted as part of their culture. The ethical question of how international legislation should treat this issue remains unclear.

Censorship in Restricting Human Interests

In her article, Professor Mathiesen presents the argument that all humans and societies possess "deliberate interest", which is defined as an interest to revise and gain a deeper understanding of one's individual and collectively held beliefs and commitments. [3] Censorship restricts this interest because ultimately, an individual's understanding of his values and beliefs is limited if he is not exposed to a full range of information that may both affirm or oppose those beliefs. This can be seen in regards to the Tiananmen Square massacre[32] in 1989, which was a series of protests in China that resulted in government interference through the mechanism of public slaughter by use of tanks and other military force. Many of China's citizens have mostly forgotten this event. Due to the nature of censorship in China, many individuals, especially those less educated, know little or nothing about the Tiananmen Square incident.[33] Through suppressing information about this incident, restrictions on knowledge over history and values are placed. The concept of free speech within American ideals is not found in the same manner due to the censorship in China, and it obtrudes understanding over human interests as a whole.


Censorship is closely related to bias in information. China's censorship creates large discrepancies in the information being received. The content moderation that happens in China's censorship of any platform holds the potential to relay bias in favor of those in power. The potential for news media bias from censorship is particularly concerning in how events and stories are reported and understood. Any place where censorship occurs, however, is also creating bias in information.

See Also


  1. "Burning Of Books And Burying Of Scholars." En.wikipedia.org. N. p., 2019. Web. 12 Apr. 2019.
  2. “Censorship | Definition of Censorship in English by Oxford Dictionaries.” Oxford Dictionaries | English, Oxford Dictionaries, en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/censorship.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Mathiesen, Kay., "Censorship and Access to Expression". The Handbook of Information and Computer Ethics, 6 Sept. 2008, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1264451.
  4. Hunt, Katie, and CY Xu. “China 'Employs 2 Million to Police Internet'.” CNN, Cable News Network, 7 Oct. 2013, www.cnn.com/2013/10/07/world/asia/china-internet-monitors/index.html.
  5. 5.0 5.1 “Media Censorship in China.” Council on Foreign Relations, Council on Foreign Relations, www.cfr.org/backgrounder/media-censorship-china.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Sonnad, Nikhil. “See What China Sees When It Searches for ‘Tiananmen’ and Other Loaded Terms.” Quartz, Quartz, 11 Feb. 2015, qz.com/216829/see-what-china-sees-when-it-searches-for-tiananmen-and-other-loaded-terms/.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Li, Yuan. “Learning China's Forbidden History, So They Can Censor It.” The New York Times, 2 Jan. 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/02/business/china-internet-censor.html.
  8. "Author, No. “China Removes Unapproved and Foreign Content from School Textbooks.” The Japan Times, The Japan Times, 20 Sept. 2018, www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2018/09/20/asia-pacific/china-removes-unapproved-foreign-content-school-textbooks/#.XMTyK5NKjOQ."
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  10. "Yuan, Li. “Learning China's Forbidden History, So They Can Censor It.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 2 Jan. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/01/02/business/china-internet-censor.html."
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  19. Waddell, Kaveh. “Why Google Quit China-and Why It's Heading Back.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 19 Jan. 2016, www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/01/why-google-quit-china-and-why-its-heading-back/424482/.
  20. Theintercept. “Google Staff Tell Bosses China Censorship Is ‘Moral and Ethical’ Crisis.” The Intercept, 16 Aug. 2018, theintercept.com/2018/08/16/google-china-crisis-staff-dragonfly/.
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  26. Siedel, Jamie. “Words Are Deadly. Winnie the Pooh Is Worse. Or so Chinese Censors Think.” NewsComAu, 28 Feb. 2018, www.news.com.au/technology/online/censorship/chinas-war-on-words-anything-be-it-a-phrase-or-picture-that-can-be-used-to-insult-xi-has-been-banned/news-story/a8e5a9d558b3ed0465e1fc020e2d6c2c.
  27. "No Earrings, Tattoos or Cleavage: Inside China’s War on Fun" https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/27/business/china-war-on-fun-earrings-tattoos.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FInternet%20Censorship%20in%20China
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  33. Beam, Christopher. “‘I Think It's Already Been Forgotten.’” The New Republic, 4 June 2014, newrepublic.com/article/117983/tiananmen-square-massacre-how-chinas-millennials-discuss-it-now.