June 20, 2006

In China It's ******* vs. Netizens

That's the title of Nicholas Kristof's op-ed piece in the New York Times today, about getting politically sensitive material past the 30,000 or so Internet censors in China.  Kristof's point is that the enormous amount of blogging being done -- he estimates that 120 million Chinese are on the net -- will overwhelm the censors most of the time.  Meanwhile, he blogs mischievously, and the worst that's happened so far is that avoidance characters sometimes get inserted in his Chinese text.

After two provocative postings that were untouched by the censors, Kristof tries again:

    Desperate, I mentioned Falun Gong, the religious group that is the Chinese government's greatest enemy: "In Taiwan, the Chinese people have religious freedom.  So in the Chinese mainland, why can't we discuss Falun Gong?"  That instantly appeared on both my blogs as well, although on one the characters for "Falun" were replaced by asterisks (functioning as pasties, leaving it obvious what was covered up).

    Finally, I wrote the most inflammatory comment I could think of, describing how on June 4, 1989, I saw the Chinese Army fire on Tiananmen Square protestors.  The two characters for June 4 were replaced by asterisks, but the description of the massacre remained intact.

The Chinese net censors seem to have borrowed the Western scheme of taboo avoidance via conventional characters replacing orthographic units within the taboo expressions -- letters for languages with alphabetic writing systems, characters for Chinese.  In fact, the censors have taken up the most common avoidance character used in English, the asterisk.

This is a very odd form of CENSORSHIP.  (We'd expect the censors to be suppressing entire postings containing taboo expressions, or closing down sites completely -- and these tactics are also used in China.)  The asterisks of "f**k" are a kind of ADVERTISEMENT of the taboo material; they ostentatiously avoid the physical form of this material while unambiguously  communicating it, "leaving it obvious what was covered up", as Kristof puts it.  Using asterisks this way in Chinese scarcely stifles dangerous political discussion.  In fact, if the asterisk (a decidedly non-Chinese character) is being employed extensively in net censorship -- perhaps inserted automatically by spellchecker-like software -- it provides an easy way for readers to find politically racy material: just search for asterisks!

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

[A sampling of other Language Log posts on taboo words and techniques for avoiding them:

Maybe better make that "freakingly brilliant" (1/25/2004)
The FCC and the S-word (1/25/2004)
Teaching the difference between right and wrong (1/25/2004)
The S-word and the F-word (6/12/2004)
Three vs. four askerisks at Boondocks (9/22/2004)
All's fair in love and redacted (12/21/2004)
Unredacted discussion (12/28/2004)
Twat v. Browning (1/19/2005)
Adios, FCC? (6/23/2005)
Disparaging trademarks and the lexicography of tools (7/16/2005)
Adverbial license (7/17/2005)
You taught me language, and my profit on't / is, I know how to curse (7/17/2005)
Curses! (7/20/2005)
No fuckin' winking at the Times (8/17/2005)
Call me... unpronounceable (9/6/2005)
Football's F-word (11/29/2005)
Standing up to linguistic terrorism (2/3/2006)
The N-word in the news again (3/17/2006)
Twonk! (3/30/2006)
"Thinking specifically about the F-word" (4/2/2006)
Everything is too appropriate these days (4/5/2006)
A brief history of "spaz" (4/13/2006)
Delete expletives (4/29/2006)
"What up, Nick--?" (5/31/2006)
Words that can't be printed the NYT (6/5/2006)
Goram motherfrakker! (6/7/2006)
Wh�tever (6/7/2006)
The history of typographical bleeping (6/10/2006)
The earliest typographically-bleeped F-word? (6/15/2006)

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at June 20, 2006 10:47 AM