Written by Guobin Yang.

I would like to approach the question of Internet censorship from a relatively unconventional angle. While a great deal of research aims to find out what is being censored on the Chinese Internet, I want to borrow ideas from a remarkable article by the literary scholar Thomas Chen to briefly discuss not what censorship prohibits, but what it produces. 

Entitled “The Workshop of the World: Censorship and the Internet Novel ‘Such Is This World’” (published in China’s Contested Internet, NIAS Press, 2015), Chen’s article is a study of how the process of censoring the Internet novel “Such Is This World” (《如嫣》) becomes a process of further online  dissemination of the novel. Chen sees online literary censorship as a process of production, which he calls alter-production. This process is characterized by intensified interactions among readers and the formation of an alternative public.

In this process, the practices of online literary censorship cannot completely prohibit the circulation of the censored work. On the contrary, they almost always provoke responses from users and readers, thereby prompting, rather than stopping, the circulation of the censored work. In the case of “Such Is This World,” roadblocks of censorship resulted not in dead-ends, but in detours of communication and diffusion. Consequently, not only did the novel stay alive but multiple lives – i.e. multiple versions and extended conversations, were engendered.

We witnessed such a process of alter-production after news broke out about attempted efforts by Chinese authorities to censor publications of the Cambridge University Press. Presumably, however, not all acts of censorship would activate processes of alter-production, and not all processes of alter-production are the same. Of the potentially multiple forms of alter-production, I would like to mention one case from research I recently conducted with my Chinese collaborator Shiwen Wu of Wuhan University. It is a study of how websites which have disappeared are remembered in Chinese online spaces. Websites everywhere may disappear for all kinds of reasons, but in China, many websites disappear because they are closed for political reasons. Once closed, however, these websites do not necessarily disappear into eternity. Some of the more popular ones live afterlives in the memory narratives people produce and post in online spaces. These memory narratives are a form of alter-production – an alter-production through commemoration.

One example is the popular bulletin board forum associated with Peking University called ytht (一塌糊涂), which was opened in 1999 and forced to close in 2004. In the memory narratives we collected for our study, this website is remembered more often than any other disappeared website. It is remembered as a free, open, and independent forum where users voiced views different from the mainstream media. Here is a short excerpt from one such memory narrative:

The first time I came across the name ytht was two years ago when Sun Zhigang’s death under police custody was causing an uproar. When the mainstream media turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to it, the non-mainstream internet forums were crying out for the abolition of regulations concerning detention and temporary residence permits. The forum with the firmest stand was ytht … It was almost as if ytht was the banner of internet forums, the leader of unofficial media.

This is only one of many memory narratives about the ytht BBS forum. There are many others and there are many other narratives about other disappeared websites (such as the liberal blog website bullog.cn). One might argue that in these memory narratives, these disappeared websites continue to enjoy afterlives in the nooks and crannies of Chinese online spaces where the stories are scattered. Censorship meets alter-production.

To say this is not to romanticize resistance to internet censorship, nor to mitigate its harms. At a time when news of censorship is almost a daily affair, however, it is necessary to be reminded of other possibilities and other stories in order not to fall into a kind of political cynicism or fatalism.

Guobin Yang is Grace Lee Boggs Professor of Communication and Sociology University of Pennsylvania. Image credit: CC by doubleaf chen/Flickr