The Chinese Communist Party operates out of a vast walled-off compound, known as Zhongnanhai, near Beijing’s Forbidden City. It is here that party leaders oversee the Great Firewall – China’s 24-hour control of the Internet.
Some 5,900 miles away, in a cottage in Berkeley, Calif., the staff of China Digital Times tries to poke holes in the Great Firewall. Every day, they collect, translate and publish many of the censorship directives the party sends to state media. They aggregate breaking news deemed “sensitive” by China’s rulers and highlight the codewords Chinese people invent to get around the censors.
“There is no way you could take all these critical voices and party directives and put them together on one website in China. It would be taken down immediately,” said Xiao Qiang, chief editor of China Digital Times and an adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “But outside the Great Firewall you can do that. And that is what we do.”
Since Xiao founded China Digital Times in 2003, it has become a go-to site for English speakers wanting to keep up with China’s Internet and its 640 million “netizens.”
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But China Digital Times doesn’t cater only to English speakers. After China blocked access to the site in 2006, Xiao made plans for a Chinese-language site, which he launched in 2011. China blocked that site as well, but Xiao said his team uses a variety of methods to make China Digital Times accessible in China. These include email lists, social media and “mirror sites” that can’t easily be blocked.
Imagine confronting Goliath with pebbles, and you have some sense of China Digital Times. China is thought to employ as many as 100,000 people to monitor and remove posts it finds objectionable. China Digital Times has six, spread from California to Washington, D.C., and Vancouver in Canada.
Since Xi Jinping became Communist Party secretary in late 2013, China has unleashed a broad crackdown on dissent, and netizens haven’t been spared. One example is Ilham Tohti, a Beijing scholar who used his blog to criticize the treatment of Uighurs in his native region of Xinjiang. Last September, a Chinese court sentenced him to life imprisonment on charges of promoting “separatism.”
Despite such consequences, said Xiao, numerous Chinese tipsters continue to supply China Digital Times with fodder for one of its popular features – “Minitrue,” short for Ministry of Truth. These are directives sent to state media to remove or tone down postings on sensitive matters.
In a typical posting, China Digital Times reported Wednesday that censors have instructed media not to play up coverage of recent explosions at a factory that produces paraxylene, a highly toxic chemical.
“Do not place news of the Zhangzhou, Fujian PX explosion in lead story sections of news agency websites,” the directive read. Several websites quickly complied.
According to Xiao, the Chinese and English sites of China Digital Times have a combined monthly audience of 250,000 to 500,000 readers, about two-thirds of them in mainland China. The numbers fluctuate, he said, depending on China’s success in preventing China Digital Times from burrowing through the Great Firewall.
Sarah Cook, a media research analyst at Freedom House, a human rights group, notes that several websites have missions similar to that of China Digital Times. These include the Hong Kong-based China Media Project, which collects and republishes censored posts from Sina Weibo, the country’s main social media platform.
But Xiao and China Digital Times have provided a real service, she said, through their decade-long tracking of the “Minitrue” directives. “They must have quite a network of contacts in the country,” said Cook, adding that the censorship directives help media researchers track trends within China.
Jeremy Goldkorn, another China media specialist, agrees that China Digital Times has been valuable partly because “they have kept at it for so long.” But he advised caution in drawing too many conclusions about the censorship directives from what China Digital Times posts, saying they provide only a snapshot of the Communist Party’s full censorship practices.
“There is not just one Ministry of Truth in China. A huge number of government departments are engaged in censorship,” said Goldkorn, founder of Danwei, a Beijing-based consulting group. He added that many directives are now issued through telephone calls, because officials “do not want to keep a paper trail.”
Xiao, 53, took an unlikely route to digital activism. Born in northern China, he came to the United States in 1986 to obtain a doctorate in astrophysics from the University of Notre Dame.
Like so many Chinese students of that time, Xiao’s studies were interrupted by China’s suppression of the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square. Sitting in a Berkeley cafe recently, Xiao recalled how his emotions welled up after learning the government had opened fire on so many young people.
“At that moment, I really wanted to do something,” he recalled. “And the only thing I could do was – go back.”
Two days later, Xiao flew from Indiana to China, where he spent weeks listening to stories from his shaken countrymen, including survivors of Tiananmen. The experience changed him, he said. He soon lost interest in astrophysics. When he returned to Notre Dame, he said, his doctorate adviser had dropped him for skipping out.
Xiao moved to New York, where he found a job with a fledgling group, Human Rights in China. He served as the group’s executive director for more than a decade after 1991.
Late in 2001, he woke up one day to learn that the MacArthur Foundation had awarded him a “genius” grant. The timing was apt, he said, because he was feeling burned out and in need of something new.
According to Xiao, it was Orville Schell, a China specialist who then was dean of the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, who convinced him to come west to teach. Their collaboration led to the founding of China Digital Times.
The organization’s six team members are split between the Chinese-language and English-language sites, with producers of the latter sometimes drawing from the former.
“Every day, there is just so much out there – a vast ocean of content,” said Sophie Beach, who edits the English-language site. She said the job requires tag-teaming in different time zones, night and day, to keep up with the news cycle.
Xiao said the websites have an annual budget of “less than a million” – largely from foundation grants – which makes it a lean operation – too lean for Xiao’s taste. He says it is “an uphill struggle” to raise money, but he keeps doing it because of feedback from readers.
Many of those readers, said Xiao, share his perspective that the current Chinese regime feels insecure and is cracking down as a result.
“If the economic situation goes well, they can hang on for another decade or longer,” he said. “But they know they are in trouble. The legitimacy of the regime is in question.”
For Xiao, political reform in China can’t happen soon enough. Because of his human rights work, Beijing forbids Xiao from returning to China, even to visit his family.
While that didn’t matter to him a few years ago, Xiao said his 80-year-old father is now ill and unable to visit him in the United States.
Asked about China’s future, Xiao had this to say: “I have no fear China will be unable to change. What I fear is that I will not be able to see my father before he dies.”