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Minami Funakoshi senior contributor

Chinese Online Reaction to New York Times Pulitzer Becomes Case Study in Censorship

(Grafitex/Flickr)

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.

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. (Via Bigstockphoto)

“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.

3 Comments
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Minami Funakoshi

After spending her childhood in India, Malaysia, and Japan, Minami moved to the U.S. to attend Yale University. Currently, she is studying abroad in Beijing and Taipei to improve her Chinese. She will work as an editorial intern at the Wall Street Journal Hong Kong Office through the Robert L. Bartley Fellowship Program.
  • BobbyWong

    Minami, quick searches on Baidu show the following terms are not censored:

    “普利策奖”, “Pulitzer Prize”

    “大卫 巴博萨”, “David Barboza”

    Here’re couple top Weibo search results from Baidu on 2013 Plutzer Prize, notice both Barboza and subject of his winning article were mentioned:

    “散客乙:当地时间4月15日,2013年普利策奖在美国哥伦比亚大学揭晓评选结果,美联社五名摄影师凭借“叙利亚内战”摄影报道共同获得突发新闻图片奖,法新社摄影师Javier
    Manzano同样凭借“叙利亚内战”组照获得特写摄影奖。另外,《纽约时报》记者David Barboza凭借关于中国政府官员财富的报道,获得国际新闻报道奖。”

    “张洪峰:《纽约时报》记者David Barboza凭借关于中国政府官员财富的报道,获得国际新闻报道奖。 知道是哪位官员的,投个足”

    Even searching “David Barboza China official corruption Pulitzer” (大卫 巴博萨 中国 官员 贪腐 普利策) yielded uncensored results.

    A wider survey suggests this subject is not censored. Is cherry picking data a form of self-censorship? Your examples of censorship seem very annecdotal when compared to the uncensored search results.

    BTW, Sina is a private company and have right to set content policy.

    • minami

      Hi Bobby,

      Thank you for your comment. Although the post by
      “Pretending to be in NY” was censored, I do mention in the second half
      of the article that the topic itself is not completely censored on Weibo
      (as you point out). I cite a post similar to the one by 散客乙 that you
      cite, which does mention David Barboza’s name but omit the key words
      “corruption” or “family assets.” I also acknowledge and cite examples of
      posts that mention corruption (ex: @colin在重庆).

      In this article, I do not suggest that the subject itself is censored; instead, I tried to
      highlight the inconsistency–and unpredictability–of Chinese
      censorship. (From the last few paragraphs: ‘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.’)

      The deletion of the tweet by “Pretending to be in NY” may seem anecdotal,
      but even so, provided his popularity on Weibo, I still think it is a
      significant case worth analysing.

      Perhaps the article’s organisation–focusing on the deleted tweet first, then explaining other cases–led to the misunderstanding. If so, I apologise for the
      confusion. Nonetheless, thank you for your post.

      Best,
      Minami

      P.S. Even private companies cannot exceed certain limits set by Chinese government censors–which, to most, remain unclear–and often try to self-censor to avoid being blacklisted by the censors.

  • http://www.weibowatcher.com/ WeiboWatcher.com

    “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.

    Could these two comments not be sarcasm?