This article also appears on The Atlantic, a Tea Leaf Nation partner site.
David Barboza, the New York Times correspondent and Shanghai bureau chief, won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting for exposing the wealth amassed by the extended family of former premier Wen Jiabao. The report, which tackles head-on the politically sensitive topic of corruption by high-level officials, led the Chinese government to block Web access to both the English and Chinese versions of the New York Times entirely.
On Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, popular Web user with the handle “Pretending to be in New York” (@ 假装在纽约) posted the following comment on April 15, the day the Pulitzer Prizes were announced:
The Pulitzer Prize for reporting just released: the New York Times claims four awards, one of which was awarded for that well-known China-related report. That piece won the prize for international reporting.
Although the user was careful to avoid mentioning Wen Jiabao’s hidden family assets, Chinese censors apparently found it unacceptable nonetheless. Within 24 hours, the tweet was swept clean off of Weibo.
Feat or conspiracy?
Tea Leaf Nation collected some of the comments the thread gathered before its deletion. Though few, and perhaps not fully representative, they provide a brief insight into Chinese online reaction to this topic.
Some Web users saw the incident as an American conspiracy to undermine Chinese leadership through news reporting. “China is resolutely opposed to any country, any person, using the Pulitzer journalism prize to interfere with China’s internal affairs and defile its former leaders,” commented @小子子懒到死. “This is definitely an American imperialist [conspiracy],” wrote @鸟博9.
Some, on the other hand, congratulated David Barboza and the New York Times. User @彥Ianni wrote, “That famous NYT article received special mention —congratulations! A Pulitzer Prize in international reporting! What a courageous journalist.” @Salt_Lee wrote,“Congratulations on that famous report!”
Others responded in genuine — or perhaps feigned — confusion, pointing out how common such scandals are in China. “Which report [did the NYT receive the award for]? The one about amassed wealth? Or the one about swimming-pigs?” asked user @柠檬树559, referring to the recent flood of dead-pigs in Shanghai’s Huangpu River. “I would like the source for that report. It’s the one related to high-level government corruption, I’m assuming?” wrote @别打马赛克啊.
The murky world of online censorship
For Chinese netizens, censorship is a fact of life. Over the years, they have found ways to circumvent the regulations, such as inventing codes to discuss a sensitive topic. In order to gain access to David Barboza’s censored report, some Web users requested links or screenshots. Besides demonstrating netizen ingenuity, this also suggests that there are many Chinese citizens who may have heard about, but have never actually read, the report in question.
“They censored the article before I had the time to read it. I remember thinking at that time that the reason I couldn’t access it is because the snowstorm in New York interfered with their internet,” wrote @忠于原味wer. “Even if you give us the link, we probably can’t open it. Please post an image of the report so that we can all see it,” requested @特种大猫.
Many Web users prophesied the expurgation of the tweet posted by “Pretending to be in New York” as well — yet another sign of increased netizen familiarity with the un-written codes of online censorship.
“‘Pulitzer Prize’ will become a sensitive term,” forecasted @双宿. “I reckon the Chinese government will announce tomorrow that the ‘Pulitzer Price has no public credibility.’ But they can’t force other people’s mouths shut, and we can’t cover our own eyes. Our government is truly foolish,” criticized @风莽莽.
However, despite such predictions, the news itself is not completely off-limits on the Web. “Pulitzer Prize for reporting” is one of the trending topics on Weibo, and some posts that explicitly mention David Barboza’s name remain untouched. Most such posts, however, do not touch upon the actual content of Barboza’s report.
Still, there are some daring posts that, surprisingly, are uncensored on Weibo. User @高万喜 wrote, “The NYT journalist David Barboza wins this year’s Pulitzer Prize for international reporting for his report on the USD 2.7 billion fortune of ‘the clan high up in the starry heavens.’” The “clan high up in the starry heavens” is a code for the extended family of Wen Jiabao.
Another user, @colin在重庆, also skirted the censors by tweeting the news in English:
Awarded to David Barboza for his striking exposure of corruption at high levels of the Chinese government, including billions in secret wealth owned by relatives of the prime minister, well documented work published in the face of heavy pressure from the Chinese officials.
Why are these posts not censored, while the post by“Pretending to be in New York” is? Perhaps the user “Pretending to be in New York” was censored because of his status as a widely followed, vocal social critic on Weibo. Perhaps the other posts escaped deletion through their ingenuity, or sheer good luck.
And, perhaps, it is just a matter of time until the censors hone back in.