The President’s Deputy National Security Advisor, Matthew Pottinger – who speaks fluent Mandarin and worked for seven years as a journalist in China — recently gave a speech on the 101st anniversary of China’s May Fourth Movement of 1919.  China Digital Times reported “government authorities” issued this order the next day: “Strictly delete any reposts, comments, and content related to U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Matthew Pottinger’s Chinese speech from all platforms, websites, and interactive comment sections, leaving no dead corners. If any are found by the internet management office or reported by internet commentators, they will be dealt with seriously.” 
The censorship of Pottinger’s speech comes amidst active Russian and Chinese efforts to shape international discourse over COVID-19. The two regimes propagate messages in other countries even while they put strict limits on what may be said or published at home.
Surely every government wants to shape opinion in two directions – domestic and foreign. Surely leaders always hope to portray their nation and their governance favorably – and to discredit criticism – both at home and abroad. Licit methods include straightforward public affairs and Public Diplomacy. Among illicit ways, censorship stands out as a dishonest method, and the Chinese party-state is a leading practitioner.
Framing the issue
Before zooming in on the current challenges, looking through a wide angle lens can place the practice of censorship in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in a larger frame.
America’s Public Diplomacy practitioners focus on messages directed toward foreign publics – “our” outward presentation of society, government, and policies, or “their” messaging to us. In general, democracies rely on truthful and attributed communication, and democratic governments understand that foreign publics may receive information and opinions from many sources – from the government, yes, but from independent media too. The media attend and report on press conferences, speeches, and interviews, and they communicate news and views. They can also expose falsehoods, misleading statements, disinformation, and abuses. In the democracies, there’s a sense that citizens, hearing all sides of an issue, can be trusted to make up their own minds.
Thomas Jefferson famously wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “let facts be submitted to a candid world.” His call for “free argument and debate” because “errors [cease] to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them” is a foundational principle of America’s Public Diplomacy.  This is why I have characterized the Public Diplomacy officers of the U.S. Foreign Service as “honest advocates.” 
Leaders in authoritarian or totalitarian states have a different view. They want to control, limit, or channel public opinion to support their rule. They use government communications, opinion campaigns, and government-controlled or -influenced media to “guide” their populations. Authoritarian portrayals can be reinforced when those governments, using different levers, influence or bound broadcasting, film, the stage, museums, and the teaching of history and literature. The goal is to protect the regime’s version of goals, themes, and history from facts and opinion that might contradict its approved national narrative.
All this can usually be seen in a regime’s outward messaging, but a comprehensive view also requires looking at how governments portray themselves to their own people, how they limit or suppress independent expression, and how they interdict different views coming from outside.
Explicit censorship takes many forms. In some countries, newspapers, magazines, books, and movies must pass through formal pre-publication review, and censors can disapprove publication in whole or in part. During the Cold War, Soviet officials carefully inspected the luggage of incoming foreign visitors – and seized many books and magazines. So did Taiwan before its turn away from authoritarian rule in the late 1980s. In South Korea in that decade, each newspaper editor was given guidelines on what might or might not be published during a daily conference call with the government press office. 
Knowing the degree to which authors and publishers in authoritarian states self-censor in order to avoid government sanctions or punishments is another part of a comprehensive view of censorship. Authoritarian governments have carrots and sticks at their disposal. Positive inducements to toe a government’s line include publication and promotion of works found pleasing by the authorities. Another carrot is placement in a comfortable position in a university, institute, or an information and cultural bureaucracy. The sticks can include barring publication of an author’s subsequent work; losing one’s livelihood at a newspaper, publishing house, or university; limits on visitors and communication; house arrest; removal to a remote area; re-education during confinement; imprisonment; or disappearance. Working together, the carrots and sticks incentivize reticence, evasiveness, turning a blind eye, and pulling one’s punches – in other words, self-censorship.
To gain an understanding of the intellectual climate of freedom or censorship is one reason why America’s Public Diplomacy officers read and watch local media, attend local films and plays, view the social media, and meet local people in government, journalism, education, and the arts. This is why they are always alert for media controls and censorship.
Censorship in the PRC
The most egregious forms of domestic censorship in the PRC are well known.  No book, magazine, newspaper, or website within that nation can show the photograph of “tank man” at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Readers may recall that media in mainland China did not ever quote Hillary Clinton’s brave words on human rights and the PRC’s population control at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995.  And now, no one in the PRC may hear Matthew Pottinger.
A 2015 PEN America Center report offered a crisp summary. “It is well known that the Chinese government censors books, movies, music, news, internet writing, and other content, and even considers this practice a source of pride.” According to the report, “The government believes censorship helps guide public opinion and is crucial to maintaining domestic stability.” 
In the age of the internet, censorship is aided by blocking, and again the obvious example is the PRC. Its “Great Firewall”  assures that its own netizens cannot access certain websites, social media streams, or even certain words like “Dalai Lama,” “1984,” “Voice of America,” “Tibetan independence,” “June 4” (the date of the Tiananmen massacre), “Brave New World,” and “Winnie the Pooh.”  The PEN American Center group that visited China’s mainland and Hong Kong in 2015 spoke of “historical amnesia” in the PRC. They reported that “many young people now growing up or in early adulthood have no idea that the Tiananmen violence ever took place.” 
Book Translations, a Case Study
Yet one more dimension of Chinese censorship was reported at length in the PEN Center America report. Translation of foreign books has become an important business in China, offering to enlarge Chinese public views on many subjects. The government, however, uses several levers to assure that translations do not cross any political and social red lines. In the words of the report, “For the Chinese book industry, this means publishers are on alert to weed out any ‘objectionable’ content, including references to controversial Chinese historical details, Chinese politics, details about Chinese leaders, sexually explicit material and, in some instances, material relating to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues.” 
The report provided details: “The sensitive areas most often cited by writers interviewed for this report as ripe for censorship were the ‘Three Ts’— Tiananmen, Tibet, and Taiwan—as well as topics related to ethnic minorities, depictions of past or present CCP leaders or Party history, or descriptions of historical events that do not comply with the official account.”  “Such book censorship in China is nearly always carried out preemptively by publishers, not by officials, and is done to avoid government reprisals post-publication.” 
In addition to reporting that “efforts to suppress information are startlingly successful,” the report focused on censorship of passages in translations of foreign books. It counseled that foreign authors must understand the workings of Chinese censorship, be vigilant for omissions, and vet translations. Leaving publication arrangements in the hands of agents and leaving translation to the Chinese publisher is ill-advised.
This happened with the 2003 translation of Senator Hillary Clinton’s book, Living History. When readers closely compared the original text and the translation, they discovered that many passages had been deleted. 
There are some dilemmas for foreign authors. On one hand, “getting new ideas into China, even if they are in a diluted or distorted form, will help advance the cause of free expression in China and affords Chinese readers the ability to access a wide array of reading material and viewpoints that would otherwise be inaccessible. On the other hand, “agreeing to Chinese censorship . . . emboldens and encourages the censorship regime that is not optional for Chinese writers, and further limits freedom of expression in China.” 
Again Through a Wide Angle Lens
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”  The practice of censorship by China’s party-state impairs confidence in its aspirations for global leadership.
 “Remarks by Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger to the Miller Center at the University of Virginia,” 4 May 2020, at: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-deputy-national-security-advisor-matt-pottinger-miller-center-university-virginia/. View and listen to the speech on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dp5h6n6fbUg&t=33s. Pottinger was criticized by Liu Xin, “US politician’s May Fourth Movement speech mocked,” Global Times, 6 May 2020, at: https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1187592.shtml
 “Minitrue: Delete all references to US Deputy National Security Advisor Pottinger’s speech,” China Digital Times, 10 May 2020, at: https://chinadigitaltimes.net/2020/05/minitrue-delete-all-references-to-us-deputy-national-security-advisor-pottingers-speech/
 William Rugh, Front Line Public Diplomacy: How U.S. Embassies Communicate with Foreign Publics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), opening of chapter 1, “Legacy: Public Diplomacy’s Philosophy and Legal Basis.” See also Walter Isaacson, American Sketches: Great Leaders, Creative Thinkers, and Heroes of a Hurricane (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009), 34.
 Donald M. Bishop, “USIA’s Work is ‘Not Propaganda,'” USIA World, vol. 9, no. 6, 1990, at: https://www.academia.edu/40819215/USIAs_Work_is_Not_Propaganda
 Kyu Ho Youm and Michael B. Salwen, “A Free Press in South Korea: Temporary Phenomenon or Permanent Fixture?,” Asian Survey, 30 (1990) 3, 314.
 The organizational instruments of control are divided between state bodies and the Communist Party of China. See Patrick Frater, “China to Put Media Under Cabinet-Level Control, Abolish SAPPRFT,” Variety, 13 March 2018, at https://variety.com/2018/film/asia/china-media-under-cabinet-level-control-abolish-sapprft-1202725104/, Nancy Tartaglione, “China Film Industry to be Regulated by Communist Party Propaganda Department,” deadline.com, 21 March 2018, at: https://deadline.com/2018/03/china-film-industry-regulation-communist-party-propaganda-department-1202350328/, and Alexander Bowe, “China’s Overseas United Front Work,” U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission Staff Research Report, 24 August 2018, at: https://www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/Research/China’s%20Overseas%20United%20Front%20Work%20-%20Background%20and%20Implications%20for%20US_final_0.pdf
 “It is a violation of human rights when women are denied the right to plan their own families, and that includes being forced to have abortions or being sterilized against their will.” Hillary Rodham Clinton, Remarks to the U.N. 4th World Conference on Women Plenary Session, 4 September 1995, at: https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/hillaryclintonbeijingspeech.htm
 PEN American Center, Censorship and Conscience: Foreign Authors and the Challenge of Chinese Disinformation, 20 May 2015, at: https://pen.org//sites/default/files/PEN%20Censorship%20and%20Conscience%202%20June.pdf
 Eva Dou, “China’s Great Firewall Gets Taller,” The Wall Street Journal, 30 January 2015, at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/chinas-great-firewall-gets-taller-1422607143china. For the role of URL filtering, DNS poisoning, self-censorship, manual enforcement, and blocking VPNs, see Wei Chun Chew, “How it Works: Great Firewall of China,” medium.com, 1 May 2018, at: https://medium.com/@chewweichun/how-it-works-great-firewall-of-china-c0ef16454475. Elizabeth C. Economy, “The great firewall of China: Xi Jinping’s internet shutdown,” The Guardian, 29 June 2018, at: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/jun/29/the-great-firewall-of-china-xi-jinpings-internet-shutdown
 Jamie Seidel, “China’s war on words: Anything—be it a phrase or picture—that can be used to insult Xi has been banned,” news.com,au, 28 February 2018, at: https://www.news.com.au/technology/online/censorship/chinas-war-on-words-anything-be-it-a-phrase-or-picture-that-can-be-used-to-insult-xi-has-been-banned/news-story/a8e5a9d558b3ed0465e1fc020e2d6c2c For more details, see Jason Q. Ng, “Repository of censored and sensitive Chinese keywords,” The Citizen Lab [Monk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, University of Toronto], 10 December 2014, at: https://citizenlab.ca/2014/12/repository-censored-sensitive-chinese-keywords-13-lists-9054-terms/ and “Collected sensitive Chinese keywords (9,054 terms),” at: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/19eS47Dg086vR1jh9oo51pXstYVT2wft13JGCrnAeU7A/edit#gid=728354615
 PEN American Center, 5.
 PEN American Center, 4.
 PEN American Center, 8.
 PEN American Center, 4.
 Ross Terrill, “China Censors a Senator,” The New York Times, 29 September 2003, at: https://www.nytimes.com/2003/09/29/opinion/china-censors-a-senator.html
 PEN American Center, 5.
 “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” The United Nations, online: https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/index.html. The bicameral, bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China – in the “Freedom of Expression” sections of its annual reports – measures the People’s Republic of China against this standard. The reports are available at: https://www.cecc.gov/publications/annual-reports
Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications in the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.