When talking about censorship in China, most people immediately think of the government. Censorship is imagined as a finely tuned machine of repression or a solid wall that relentlessly sets and reinforces the boundary between what can and cannot be said or distributed.
However, everyday social media users help perpetuate censorship as well, as we found out in our recent study on online fandom communities in China.
Censorship relies on uncertainty
An approach to censorship that uses a system of certainty is one that provides a blacklist of prohibited expressions at hand. In such a clearcut system, one simply knows what will be censored and what will not.
Creative users would easily outmaneuver and exhaust such a system by constantly inventing new ways of expressions.
However, the day-to-day function of censorship relies on uncertainty. A repressive system conceals its rationale, standards and procedures from those who are being censored.
And so, with obscured or limited knowledge of what can be expressed, people have to guess which expressions are permissible and which could produce consequences.
This is exactly what happened in a digital community on Chinese social media.
Danmei and censorship
The digital community we studied is a fandom group of danmei (耽美, dān měi). This is a genre of queer fantasy that features man-to-man romance created by women authors for women readers. It originated in Japan and usually takes the forms of fiction, comics and cartoon.
In China, danmei is heavily censored for many reasons. The most obvious one is its featuring of homosexuality, which remains controversial in China.
In addition, male characters in danmei content may display gender expressions beyond conventional masculinity, which challenges the norms and culture of a patriarchal state. Other reasons for censorship include graphic and erotic elements commonly (though not necessarily) found in danmei content.
The many possible ways of being censored multiply the uncertainty of censorship. When a TV show adapted from a danmei fiction had its debut delayed, its fans had to anxiously speculate on the cause of the delay: Was it because of censorship? If censorship, was it due to man-to-man romance? Or non-traditional male characters?
What adds to the anxiety is that they may never find out for sure.
Participating in censorship
When censorship rules are deliberately vague, online users speculate about what these rules could be. This speculation influences how users behave online.
In the online communities we studied, members reminded one another to be aware of social media posts that were potentially “censorable.” Some users invited others to help determine whether they should delete their own posts due to sensitivity.
These regulating behaviours are neither compulsory nor enforced — rather, they are seen by members as necessary to preserve the community.
There is only a slight difference between self-regulation and censorship in this context. Content that is viewed as problematic can be reported to an authority, who may be the group’s content moderator, but who may also be acting on behalf of the government.
Jubao (举报; jǔ bào) is the name given to this kind of accusatory reporting. Once widely used during the Cultural Revolution, it has now adapted to the digital age. Many members in the group we studied shared their experiences of jubao, whether they were reported or had reported others.
In online fandom communities, jubao may not have been driven by censorship rules. In many cases, reporting was used to retaliate for a perceived attack on a character or actor. To make such reporting effective, reporters sometimes borrowed phrases like “foster a good cyber environment” from official documents.
Playing with censorship
Reporting by community members places censorship in a grey area. The system is still imposed and reinforced by the government; meanwhile, social media users play with — and within — the system. Users speculate about how censorship works, and at different times try to circumvent it or apply it to serve their own ends.
If the picture above looks bleak, are there ways for users to avoid perpetuating censorship? To be clear, any attempt at resistance, if ever possible, cannot be easy. It requires that a user is self aware and reflective in everyday situations that they may take for granted.