Censoring the Censors

In Books-1, Shanghai, The Art of Travel Fall 2014 by Andrew Graham2 Comments

A red stone wall encloses the decrepit, soot-covered housing blocks that have escaped demolition in Shanghai’s sparkling Pudong district. Like a snake, the wall bends and contorts to keep the boundaries of the Dongfang Jinzuo housing complex fixed. The wall is severed in three spots, forming entryways. Most mornings, I pass through one of the three reliefs in what I’ve come to call the ‘Boa Wall’. A concrete, winding pathway meets the mouth of the Boa Wall at the starting point of my daily commute. The pavement is beset on either side by symmetrical green space hardly large enough to hold several short shrubs. At the opposite end of the pathway lies an asphalt street that provides access to the apartments of Dongfang Jinzuo. It’s on this leg of the journey I encounter something central to Marteen Troost’s commentary on the role of Media in China – a People’s Daily message board.

Known more for his humor and relatability than for any sort of serious political commentary, Troost makes an interesting remark on the role of media throughout the Middle Kingdom in “Lost on Planet China”. In addressing the infamous 2001 Hainan Island incident, Troost jokingly creates the headline “American Aggressor Downs Peace-Loving Chinese Aircraft in Chinese Territory. Chinese Plane Was Delivering Toy Bunnies to Orphans” (Troost 130). While the mock headline is no doubt good for a laugh, it also hints at a larger issue that I encounter daily in Shanghai – the role of state-run media.

Everytime I pass the People’s Daily message board, inside the confines of the Boa Wall, I look for some reference of the Hong Kong protests. I can’t read Chinese characters, so instead, I scan for images. Over the past several weeks, even as Hong Kong consistently made headlines in Western media, not once did I notice a picture on the message board referencing the protests. So I took to the internet, hoping to find a single mention of the most significant protests in China since Tiananmen Square. The People’s Daily english website returned one relevant result for Hong Kong since mid-September: “Hong Kong must treasure economic vitality.” The article makes mention of the incident, but goes on to say “no one but the Chinese mainland really cares about Hong Kong. Some people from the West who hail the protests harbor ulterior motives to do so.”

Troost’s characterization of the Communist Party’s use of propaganda, while funny, is remarkably on point. As I reflect on his Onion-like headline, I can’t help but think of the People’s Daily mention of Hong Kong as pure comedy. Students organize the most successful pro-democratic protests in decades and the CCP responds by publishing an article encouraging Hong Kong to “treasure economic vitality”.

When I glance at the People’s Daily message board each morning, I can’t help but wonder what those reading on either side of me think of events like the Hainan Island incident and Hong Kong. With completeness of information, I can pass through the Boa Wall unencumbered, but I fear that many of my new neighbors cannot.


  1. Hi Andrew,

    Thanks for your comment on my post! I have yet to make it to Brighton or Dover, but I will certainly try to in my upcoming days off. And you should definitely watch Broadchurch at some point, because it’s an incredibly character-driven murder mystery that is much more than your average whodunnit.

    Wow, I honestly can’t imagine living somewhere where the press is censored in such a way. I am glad you make an effort to look at the People’s Daily message board, even though you cannot read Chinese characters. As evident by your writing, there is so much to be learned from just heightening your awareness of the board’s characteristics.

    Your title is intriguing. While you have an awareness of the censors, as you mentioned, it is interesting to think of those who are unaware, because that is all the information they are presented with. How can once censor censorship without an awareness of the censorship? It’s a trippy thought… In my journalism class, we’ve put a lot of emphasis on Thomas Jefferson’s famous quote regarding the freedom of the press: “No government ought to be without censors; and where the press is free, no one ever will.” Clearly, transmission of news can influence a government’s power in extreme ways.

  2. Hi Andrew!

    This is really interesting – I hadn’t thought of the aspects of life for NYU students in China that are affected by censorship. I’ve read that use of social media is a problem in China because of government restrictions. Have you been affected by that? Are you able to find any independent media sources?

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