China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology published a curious article (link in Chinese) on its website yesterday (March 27). The story is headlined “Myanmar lifts ban of Facebook, blocked now by only four countries in the world.” It lists the offenders: North Korea, Cuba, Iran and “another.” (Here’s a summary in English.)
Of course, the “another” is China–which has blocked the social media site for about three years. The story, which whipped up a small frenzy of derision on Sina Weibo, China’s microblogging platform, is an indication not just of the extent to which foreign websites are blocked in China, but how opaque, to the point of absurdity, the government is about its censorship system.
Chinese officials have explicitly said that there is no censorship in China but only “information security,” as the official rhetoric goes. “It’s very nontransparent, very arbitrary,” says Sarah Cooke of the media freedom advocacy group Freedom House. “Overall, the government doesn’t admit to censorship.” When a user in China attempts to visit blocked websites like Twitter, Youtube, or Facebook the page takes too long to load until it eventually times out. Internet surfers use VPNs and other methods to get around China’s Great Firewall. (In other censorship-prone countries like Saudi Arabia, governments are actually pretty clear about what they are blocking, Cooke notes.)
So why did the government publish this story that alludes to its own censorship? The opening of Myanmar’s media, which happened in 2011, is hardly news. Yet the article details the reforms and calls Facebook one of the most popular sites in the world. If the article was meant to show ostensible state support for more open media, it only drew attention to the lack of it. As one blogger wrote, “You know what the other country is!”