Culture & Society

Chinese Take Creative Approach to Internet Censorship

CNN correspondent Kristie Lu Stout describes an array of creative ways Chinese internet users navigate around government censorship.

November 16, 2011

| by Maria Shao

Chinese internet users have devised an array of creative ways to navigate around government censorship of China’s cyberspace, a leading Hong Kong-based CNN journalist told a Stanford audience.

In a November 21 talk at Stanford GSB, Kristie Lu Stout, BA ‘96, MA ‘97, an anchor and correspondent for CNN International, discussed the burgeoning internet and social media scene in China. The Stanford graduate described a fast-changing country where daily life increasingly takes place online and where social networking has created new ways for Chinese citizens to interact and express themselves, even as their online activities are strictly monitored for offensive or politically sensitive content.

China has a “vibrant community of netizens and entrepreneurs who are actively challenging the boundaries,” Stout said. “They’re able to come up with creative ways to bypass [restrictions]. It’s a story of expression, control, and innovation.”

China has the world’s largest internet population, about 500 million users, and it has experienced an explosion in the popularity of social networking.

Based for a decade at CNN’s Asia headquarters in Hong Kong, Stout has been at the forefront of covering China’s online community. She anchors a daily news show for CNN International, which broadcasts globally (outside the United States). Her talk was sponsored by the Stanford Program on Regions of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, part of the GSB.

Stout said that Chinese government controls have tightened over the past year or so, ahead of a transition of power expected in 2012-2013 for China’s top leadership. Officials recently have ordered Chinese media outlets to “strengthen information management,” “crack down on false rumors,” and “enforce real-name registration” on social media sites, she said.

“The rules are broad and vague. There’s a blanket ban on anything that would harm state security and social stability.”

She listed some keywords that were blocked from online searches in China over the past year: protest, sex, Hillary Clinton, occupy, empty chair, jasmine. In addition, leading Western sites, including Google, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, are blocked.

The CNN journalist discussed her coverage and interviews of two leading figures at opposite extremes of the Chinese internet. The “establishment” figure was Charles Chao, CEO of, the online media giant that abides by Chinese censorship rules while also operating Sina Weibo, a microblogging and social networking site that is a popular venue for public discourse. The “anti-establishment” figure was Ai Weiwei, a dissident artist and political activist who recently was detained by Chinese authorities and whose name is banned from the Chinese internet. “Both represent the different story lines that we, as journalists, look into,” said Stout.

Stout highlighted the tactics Chinese netizens use to circumvent the “Great Firewall” of China. Individuals and businesses have used virtual private networks, or VPNs, to access forbidden sites. It’s estimated that more than 100,000 Chinese are on the Google+ social network and 20,000 on Twitter, Stout said.

A new lexicon has emerged on the Chinese internet, consisting of code words, homonyms, and vocabulary laced with mockery, satire, or sarcasm. The words “empty chair” refer to jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize but was barred by Chinese authorities from going to Oslo to accept it. Being “harmonized” means being censored, a reference to top leaders’ frequent calls for creating a harmonious society. Chinese netizens invented the “grass mud horse,” or “cao ni ma,” a mythical creature whose name sounds like a Chinese profanity. The alpaca-like creature emerged online as a symbol of resistance to censorship, setting blogs, and social sites abuzz with images, songs, and poems about it.

Despite China’s strict controls, the internet has become a far-reaching venue for venting public frustration and anger over government corruption and incompetence. When two high-speed trains near Wenzhou crashed in July, killing 39 people and injuring many more, there was an outpouring of anger online against officials for their handling of the disaster, Stout said. Similarly, a photo of Gary Locke, the new U.S. ambassador to China, carrying his own backpack and buying his own coffee at a Starbucks in the Seattle airport in August, went viral on the Chinese internet, where netizens noted the contrast with Chinese officials who often travel with large entourages and expense accounts. The photo sparked “a huge online debate about corruption and values,” Stout said.

In response to a question, the CNN journalist said it’s impossible to estimate how many people are involved in China’s censorship apparatus. However, she said, “the most powerful way to control the internet is through self-censorship.” By “creating a climate of fear,” Chinese authorities can put much of the responsibility onto media organizations themselves.

Stout acknowledged that many Chinese believe the internet has introduced a level of freedom previously unknown in China. She suggested that it is in China’s best interests to further ease controls. “If you want to be a truly innovative country, you can’t censor the internet,” Stout said.

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