Artistic Expression and Free Speech in China – A Dangerous Game

Last week, the Chinese government proposed new limits on media and Internet freedoms that include some of the most restrictive in years. The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television ordered 34 major satellite stations to only broadcast no more than two 90-minute entertainment shows per week, and collectively 10 nationwide. The government is also demanding that these stations broadcast two-hours of state-approved news every evening. According to Chinese officials, “these measures were aimed at rooting out excessive entertainment and vulgar tendencies.”

Furthermore, the government has decided to crack down on China’s short-message, Twitter-like microblogs, an Internet sensation that has become a major source of whistle-blowing. “Microbloggers, some of whom have attracted millions of followers, have been exposing scandals and official malfeasance…with astonishing speed and popularity.” Managers of these microblogs say authorities are toying with the idea of requiring microbloggers to register accounts with their real names and identification numbers instead of the anonymous names in vast use.

However, despite these crackdowns, protest and expression cannot be silenced. According to an article in The New York Times, mass censorship in China is allowing the Internet to flourish “as the wittiest space in China.” “‘Censorship warps us in many ways, but it is also the mother of creativity,’ says Hu Yong, an Internet expert and associate professor at Peking University. ‘It forces people to invent indirect ways to get their meaning across, and humor works as a natural form of encryption.’” One example of these indirect ways to convey a message, is the increase of Chinese comic satire on the Internet. In order to fool censors, Chinese bloggers are hiding their messages in protective layers of irony and satire. One artist, Pi San, creates comic strips that are both ironic and contain coded language that comments on the missteps of the government. (One of Pi San’s darkest satires, Little Rabbit, Be Good, speaks of the injustices suffered by Chinese citizens during the Chinese Year of the Rabbit by telling a story of indignities suffered by rabbits, which reflect actual abuses of power by the Chinese government). The Chinese are calling this subculture: egao, meaning “evil works” or “mischievous mockery.” But, in many instances, the government has caught on. Lawyers, activists, journalists, and artists have vanished into police custody and have become lost in the Chinese jail system almost as fast as their words and images were posted on the Internet. As a result, artists and bloggers are constantly walking the line between accepted satire and jail-time. However, they continue to spread awareness through creativity and artistic expression.

Is it at all possible for the Chinese government, or any government for that matter, to completely censor free speech and artistic expression? Aren’t Chinese officials basically playing a gigantic game of “Wac-A-Mole” in which when one form of expression is curbed, another just springs up from the ground? Also, is it possible that if these government crackdowns continue, a revolution similar to that of The Arab Spring could arise in China?

For some of Pi San’s comic strips see:



  1. In a time where we would expect countries to be moving towards having free speech, it is a shame that China is moving farther and farther away from it. Clearly, it appears that China fears this new digital age, where protests and riots can start from computers and cellphones. Although “nobody outside China’s closeted leadership knows the true reason for the maneuvers,” it is obvious that China is quite fearful of its citizenry and what they may expose about the country.
    Besides for the limiting of entertainment television and the requirement of state approved “news,” what is even more appalling to me is the proposed requirement that bloggers must register accounts with their real names and identification numbers, and will not be allowed to post anything anonymously. This is a blatant attack on free speech, as bloggers will be too scared to write about what they truly feel, since there will be no sense of security or anonymity, and the repercussions will be extreme.
    So, to answer your question of whether China can completely censor free speech and artistic expression- it seems like unfortunately, China is well on its way to achieving such.

  2. In tax class we often discuss how the tax system is used to affect behaviors and direct public policy. In the U.S. we have cigarette taxes, gasoline excise taxes, and taxes on alcohol, which serve as some of the classic examples of the practice. However, in China, the practice of using taxation to affect behavior is taken to a whole new extreme. Pi Soon cleverly commented on this issue and concurrently paid tribute to fellow artist Ai Weiwei in his Crack Sunflower Seeds cartoon published last April. Ai Weiwei was incarcerated last April for supposed tax evasion (the Chinese government alleges that he owes $2.3 million in back taxes), but Ai Weiwei and others believe the tax evasion charge is simply a cover used in hopes of censoring Ai Weiwei’s outspoken, negative views of the government. Personally, I find it ridiculous for lack of a better word that the Chinese government is so blatant in its attempts to censor dissenting voices in the era of twitter, facebook, etc. I agree that China is playing a game of metaphoric wac-a-mole that it has next to no chance of winning.

  3. There have been a lot of fascinating stories done on China recently centering around its censorship policies. 60 Minutes, for example, did a story shortly after the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident which was enlightening. Most Chinese who were either born shortly before or after the demonstration have no idea what happened that day. That’s pretty damn effective if you ask me.

    Despite the Chinese policy of State approved TV, Radio, Print, and Education, I don’t think its realistically possible for the Chinese to fully censor the internet and to subvert free speech. There are just too many smart people in China. This notion must be particularly frightening for the Chinese government in light of the Arab Spring uprisings. While I’m sure that there has been little, if any, coverage of these popular uprisings on Chinese TV, Radio, and newspapers, I have to imagine that the internet has allowed word to creep out.

    Creating new laws and cracking the proverbial whip is a perfect way for the Chinese government to let their citizens know that they’re still in charge.

    China’s biggest fear has to be an Arab Spring style uprising.

  4. I commend individuals like Pi San who continue to be defiant in the face of and cleverly subvert governmental restrictions on freedom. For the Chinese Government to label Pi San’s satire as “evil works” truly exemplifies Orwellianism in its most frightening and purest form. Indeed, it is the Chinese government’s restrictions on freedom that are evil. Although perhaps not as severe or forthright as the Chinese government’s actions, the United States people must be alert of attempts to restrain free expression on the internet through the guise of IP protection.

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