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Why China's Censors Cut Obama's Speech

Posted by: Bruce Einhorn on January 23, 2009

James Fallows has a good post on his Atlantic blog about the Chinese censorship of Obama’s speech. He answers the question I’ve been asking myself: Why in the world would anyone - even a Chinese censor - be so stupid as to censor the inauguration speech of the new American president, especially one so popular overseas as Obama? Fallows, who has spent a good amount of time in China and knows the country well, writes “the people in charge of China’s propaganda apparatus are among the least worldly and most rigid-minded people in the entire country, with absolutely the least feel for how people in other countries might react or think. So apparently some of these ignoramuses considered it a good and prudent idea to cut off Obama — even if the vast majority of their fellow citizens would consider such paranoia to be extreme and bizarre. Also, within a part of the government where orthodoxy is everything, an official takes no risks by being too hard-line, but could get in trouble by being too permissive.”

That makes sense. Everybody knows China’s censors have a list of taboo subjects that Net users in the country are not allowed to discuss. By talking about the defeat of communism (albeit not in China) and regimes that try to stifle dissent, Obama ventured into that off-limits territory. So the censors’ knees jerked and they cut. Sure, it means the Chinese censors are now up there with Chief Justice John Roberts among the spoilers of a perfect Day One for Obama. But rules are rules.

Reader Comments

rima kaur

January 23, 2009 7:50 AM

but that is horrible! even the common man should know what another country's president thinks!


January 23, 2009 3:17 PM

>even if the vast majority of their fellow citizens would consider such paranoia to be extreme and bizarre

But not the case. I've been sampling Chinese blogs and see those who kowtow to the party on this matter are not rare at all. The ratio of pro/con is much closer to 50/50. That's why the censors keep at it. It works.


January 23, 2009 3:43 PM

Most Chinese will not find the cut to be extreme and bizarre as you would believe. What you mean to say is that YOU (and the rest of the western world) find it extreme and bizarre, I would assume also a little bit mad for insulting your messiah. Well, the West insult China all the times, and when China object, no one listens. So I don't see why China should care now. Also, it's pretty funny to see the West getting insulted for a change instead of the other way around.


January 23, 2009 4:05 PM

While I agree with Fallows’ statement about the rigidity and out-of-dated thinking of Chinese Propaganda Department, your article fails to point out other important facts for your readers. While most Chinese don’t believe in nor exercise (Russian) Communism anymore, Chinese people still believe in Chinese Communist party and are quite satisfy with their accomplishments so far, e.g. lifting 300 Milionis of Chinese out of poverty. According to recent UN report, it is an unprecedented, Hercules task in whole human history. Hay, you have to give credit where it is due. When President Obama wants to preach his ideology and equate Communism with Fascism, of course he is getting what he got in China. By publishing the whole text in its English-version official newspaper but omitting some words in Chinese translation, Beijing actually has tactically spared President Obama from future embarrassments when he meets ordinary Chinese people who might ask him why he dislikes Communism so much. An idea was proposed during Chinese Zhou Dynasty, 1050BC – 256 BC, and was also praised by the great Chinese philosopher, Confucius, as the ultimate utopia of mankind.


January 23, 2009 5:33 PM

Censorship comes in many shapes and forms, according to wikipedia:Censorship is the suppression of speech or deletion of communicative material which may be considered objectionable, harmful or sensitive, as determined by a censor. It occurs in China, as well as our own 'free' media. For examples, CNN crops the pictures of violent Tibetan protesters, German media 'mistook' Nepalese police as Chinese police, Colin Powell 'lectured' in UN using 'accurate' CIA info., British press never publish 'foreign country' demanding Elgin's marble to be returned, British Museum never admits much of its contents were stolen, Yale university never admits they stole much of the treasures from Machu Picchu in Peru, Kent State murders was only an accident, and My Lai never occurred to some. Censorship is not good, no matter where it is. It is especially not good in the 'objective' and 'free' West.


January 23, 2009 8:18 PM

It's really just a matter of control in China. The leadership doesn't want an momentous occasion in the US Stifling their perceived country' order.

Whats more interesting in China is that *most likely* 7/10 people have no interest in government or politics as long as their lives are comfortable. (Does that sound familiar?)

For those of you who 'elected' not to vote this year move to China. Life is comfortable here and you do not have to make decisions such as Democratic or Republic; Pro-Choice or Pro-Life. It's just one: the people's party.

(Of course, there are actually numerous political parties in China; however, each must recognize the superiority of the People's Party.)


January 23, 2009 9:10 PM

Why in the world would the Chinese politicians even care about Obama's speech. So far the only well-known black politicians they've seen from the U.S. are either drug addicts or corrupted politicians who were caught hidding money in a bra and in a freezer.


January 23, 2009 10:30 PM

Why take it so seriously? Obama is president of US. He doesn't hold any rank in China. So it is a fair game for Chinese Censor to cut as they need, which they practiced a lot in the past. And frankly, no matter how oversea-popular is obama, not many Chinese citizen will treat him more than another US president, no additional worship in play here.


January 23, 2009 11:32 PM

The first time I heard about the censorship, my reaction was "What is that for?" After a while, I understand it better. It could be two reasons (beyond the knee-jerk reaction suggested here). To take out any possible offense US made to the Chinese government. Or, to avoid any ill-feeling among Chinese people who might be offended. Either way, I think the issue is overblown. The word "Communism" has taken a totally different meaning now from decades ago. China is becoming more democratic by the day (see the milk melamine case. It won't be possible decades ago). "Communism" will soon become as benign as intended by Marx - a sense of community and solidarity to achieve collective prosperity. But, this time, the practice will take the form of democracy and free market. All is good! :-)


January 23, 2009 11:52 PM

Actually China is showing what exactly in mind. But forgotten that world is now borderless , and it will back fire . Time will take it's own course.


January 24, 2009 12:19 AM

Are you sure that they cut the speech? I knew many college English language studying magazines in China put Obama's forer speeches as sample speeches. I think they just don't see it's so important that they have to broadcast it as a live. Anyway, Obama is not their president. Any media here in the U.S. ever broadcase the speeches of chinese leaders so far? Any american here cares about it? Give them time, they just need to find a good translator to avoid a translated speech with tons of funny mistakes. And before you blame others, please always think if you yourself does it right. As of myself, I don't care about Obama's speech, it's just a show, a presentation-well, a good example for public speaking.


January 24, 2009 12:28 AM

All countries "censor" in their own way. TV networks favor certain parties/policies - others the opposing view. Isn't that censorship too? Well some like to say that's free speech. Also during the recent Olympics it's interesting to note how each countries media focuses on their athletes. Another kind of censorship - or patriotism? Let's be a bit careful about labels.


January 24, 2009 1:46 AM

I agree, And the only well-known white politicians they've seen from the U.S. are either Child Molesters, Drug Dealer's, Weapons Dealer's, (The drugs belong to the white politicians and thier chromies) Child Smugglers & murderers, not to mention Molesters, (The Franklin Credit Scandal) All out Perpetrators of complete cultural Genocide, Pornagraphicly over sexualized, etc... No Wonder!!!!!


January 24, 2009 1:56 AM

Follow Obama and China on Line Spout.


January 24, 2009 2:20 AM

I wonder if this coincides with Kim Jong Il appearing with Dr. Wang Jiarui head of the international department of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee in Kim's first public appearance in months. China seems to be preparing to take a sparing stance with President Obama. Bet you donutses to beignets they are having real social unrest simmering right now.


January 24, 2009 2:22 AM

Fallows even though he spent quite a lot of time in China still couldn't find the right answer. I am also a foreigner livin in BJ. According 2 my opinion the Chinese editors (because we call the western censors: editors) decided not 2 fire up the public and with Obama's words not 2 cause unnecessary tensions. China doesn't want 2 have a counter-American public opinion. They want peace, stability and let the word them continue there chosen way. Witch doesn't harm anybody, but building and developing its own country and nation. Do not b naive that the Chinese public, especially those who were watching the live program from Washington DC, after midnight, would b convinced by a message of a 48 year old inexperienced man about the nature of Communism, or there own system. Same with the censored Amnesty International homepage. Anyone really thinks that any Chinese (almost 300 million Internet users) would change its mind after reading it? Really: why anybody thinks that Chinese wanna experience our so called Western "democracy"? 4what? Look around.


January 24, 2009 4:49 AM

Depending on what lines of existance that we as in individuals live within...... This is just another example of the globalization that is happening. COuld it be?
I wonder what the Chineese saw back 10 plus years ago......No question, that is a people with an incredible amount of conditioning.
Yet, we all have a level of censorship that exists within our world.


January 24, 2009 5:42 AM

Isnt that obvious? The thing is democracy is inevitable for China due to the fact that they rise. When the country rise most of its ppl will be in middle class level. Remember China is a country with over 90% ppl who can read and write.

Chinese pretty much knows what happens around the world. First becoz of their literacy, second China influence does not involve its internal ppl only. Overseas Chinese who are more well performed and liberal are also influencing the country. Not to mention the west and also the orient themselves (Japan, Korea, HK, Taiwan, SG and the rest). No doubt there are some wicked elements in the west that wish China to fails but there are also equally same good element that have the intention to help.

China rise becoz of its ppl, no country can rise no matter what system of govt they adopt if its ppl does not have the will, wisdom and unity to move it forward.

That why the Tibet issue causes so many chinese coming out and protest simply they know the reason behind it. You cant fool them.

Put it simply, its the yin and yang concept. You can have 1 thing and at the same time you will also have to let go something. When China rise its ppl will demand democracy else China will have to perform more that 100% effort to satisfy its ppl coz like always intense criticism will be coming in from all sides. Which if you really look at it, is not really a bad idea.
Another thing is they do take critics and view stability seriously.

You see some countries like to give reasons why they fails or slow in performance becoz they are democracy. Which of coz is a joke and it not funny. China on the other hand does not have this luxury to make this joke.

No matter how much the censor is the irony is the more censor the worst the news / situation will be was a bad move actually.


January 24, 2009 7:13 AM

I think there have been a lot of good points here.
Could it be that china sensored the presidents speech because of obama's comments on N.Korea after all they are allied with china.
If so this would be a good sign and would indicate that china are not intereasted in the conflicts of the US.
Just a thought, what do you all think.

James Mason

January 24, 2009 9:00 AM

Americans so love to preach to the world! It matters not if they actually follow their own prescriptions themselves – Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, for example – the main thing is to pretend that they are just so morally superior to everyone else. Sadly for them, the Bush administration has torn away that fig-leaf. The world knows what America is really like. No amount of propaganda will change that. Those who think the Obama administration will make a huge difference are sadly mistaken. Look at Obama’s deafening silence over Gaza and the Israeli attacks on UN buildings, UN facilities, UN agency staff and the people under their care. Why would anybody think that America has changed?


January 24, 2009 11:08 AM

I'm afraid that I would have to take considerable exception to the following sentence:

"Absolutely the least feel for how people in other countries might react or think"

You have things backwards. Chinese censors are fully aware of how this might look overseas, but THEY DON'T CONSIDER IT TO BE IMPORTANT.

As far as China's censors are concerned the rest of the world can think that the moon is made of green cheese and that pigs fly across the moon every day at dawn. It's not their job to care what foreigners think, and therefore it's not their problem. They only care about controlling what Chinese think.


January 24, 2009 11:29 AM

Chief Roberts and Chinese censors in the same sentence,BusinessWeek... really poor judgement.


January 24, 2009 2:34 PM

I loved the line about Fallows spending a good amount of time in China and "knowing China well." I'm reminded of a saying among expats here in China: "Those who have spent two years in China are experts. Those who have spent 10 years realize they know nothing."


January 24, 2009 5:08 PM

This is why I hate censors. I don't care if they're from China or at the FCC.

Anyone who takes an unhealthy interest in "protecting" the public from content and not letting people decide for themselves is as useless a scumbag as a telemarketer.

I would favor summary castration for anyone involved in censorship- which would only work if censors had balls to begin with.

Shame on censors, most especially shame on China.

Henry L.

January 24, 2009 5:11 PM

Common guys, we all know that the Chinese routinely censor what they don't like. So nothing new there. How many of us know that the self righteous US media routinely do the same thing. It's just that we are all too stupid to know it.


January 24, 2009 6:35 PM

To Peace4all1: my friend, lifting 300 million people out of poverty is really not such a feat. All you need to do is let foreign countries, including US to a large extent, to manufacture their goods in China. It is not the feat of Chinese Communism, but the Western capitalism which looks for cheap labor wherever it can find it. The communism by itself could lift anything - withor without censorship.


January 24, 2009 7:22 PM

I agree. It is the invisible hand of market forces that have pulled those 300 million people out of poverty. They would not have been poor for so long in the first place, had China pursued free market earlier. Communism= earnings $1 a day.
As far as censorship is concerned, command and control type of communism thrives on censorship.


January 24, 2009 7:35 PM

Bush also said before about defeat of Fascism and Communism before in public (did Obama copy and pasted this?) China protested very loudly about this. The fact that they censor Obama on this means they want a better relation with Obama than with Bush. Dissent part is probably reactionary but censoring is better than what China did to EU when they honor (on purpose) the dissentist Hu Jia.


January 24, 2009 9:05 PM

I think China has the right to crop any America media, including that of Obama. why not? When one lies, he deserves to be cropped.

When one looks at the Webster dictionary of communism, it would be prudent that based on the US dictionaries, not that of China, China is no longer a communistic country based on the definition of all American dictionaries. Why are Americans calling China communisum then? they are simply lying to its people, which is fine.

Now, why should the Chinese gov't allow a false message to be delivered to its people. Come on!

Inconvenient Thoughts

January 25, 2009 1:02 AM

I totally agree with Jose. Great comments. Some of China's most precious archeological treasures are still in the British Museums, America's Sach's museum and the Louvre. And, defendants of the West, don't give me all this BS about the loots being taken out of China by legal means. They were stolen from China when the country was in chaos -- that is the simple truth. And how many in the west know this or pay much attention to it? Isn't this the result of selecting reporting or censorship?

I read somewhere that, at one point, when Egypt asked for a Phinx to be returned so that it can be reunited with its body, the French asked instead that the body be sent to France to be reunited with the Phinx. That is rubbing salt to an injury. How many in the West know this?

I can cite countless such examples.

So yes I totally agree: censorship goes both ways.


January 25, 2009 3:43 AM

First, when China has 1.3 trillion dollar as foreign exchange reserve in hand, it is quite logical to forewarn/advise "baby" President Obama to be more careful while talking to "senior" President Hu Jintao during former's upcoming visit to China.End.


January 25, 2009 8:54 AM

I have been doing business in China since 2001 and have many business/personal friends. Most of Chinese I encountered, including cabdrivers and restaurant service staff do not believe the official lines. They even jokingly said the opposite of official accounts is the real thing. They tolerate rampant corruptions, human rights violations/abuse and censorship as long as they can live without worrying about food and clothing.

So I do not think leaving out Obama's speech would amount to anything.

The unprecedented unemployment of hundreds of millions of migrant workers and millions of graduating college students due to recent economic downturns would be a challenge to CCP leaders in Beijing. They fully understand severity/gravity of the issues. If managed poorly, CCP would face unrest and its regime may be at risk.

Tahoe Conservative

January 25, 2009 9:57 AM

Wecome to the "Fairness Doctrine."


January 25, 2009 12:17 PM

Based my expericenceas that I have my trip to numerous countries, not many country 's media would give Obama 'speech 100percent broadcasted. Airtime is money and why would they air Obama's speech at length for something irrelevnet to them?


January 25, 2009 3:08 PM

micromega, you sure about that? capitalism is all about exploitation. many of the most globalized, developing nations are not seeing their conditions improve at all.


January 25, 2009 3:33 PM

To ACB: The sad thing is that the Chinese government actually does care how foreign audiences perceive them. The Chinese media actually spends a lot of effort trying to discredit Western media reports. If they didn't care nobody would make an issue of Chinese censorship. Deep down, they know that it's wrong and that's why they get so humiliated when other people point it out. They're really ashamed of themselves, not at how other people view them.


January 25, 2009 5:30 PM

Communism in China is no longer like what we used to know under the Russian system. Most if not all Chinese can freely come in and exit the country. Milk scandals can be widely publicized, even in China official website. School building collapse due to poor construction is widely read too. Communism has change - for the better. Soon, it will be like what Marx thought: a collective initiative for common prosperity. This will work because what is inside China's communism is becoming more democratic and free-trade incentive (which China has embraced since the Silk route time). What is most difficult is for foreigners to understand or accept that Communism is no longer a bad word in China. The problem is with us - the readers.

David King

January 25, 2009 7:58 PM

I am really impressed by peace4all1's
arguments. It is the best spinning seen so far.

It is so funny to read the argument that Chinese communist party (CCP) should get credit for "lifting 300 Milionis of Chinese out of poverty"

It is a typical CCP propaganda. You can tell peace4all1 is not native English speaker. "300 milionis of Chinese" and want to hide his/her true identity.

First of all, I want to ask who put
those 300 "milionis of Chinese" in poverty? why are they in poverty?

Did peace4all1 study modern Chinese history? Culture revolution, Big Leap forward .... 80 millions killed during
last 50 years of CCP control of China?

Another propaganda that Peace4All1 try to spread is "Chinese people still believe in Chinese Communist party"

Give me a break. Based on CCP internal documents, in 2006 there were more than 100,000 protests or riots involving more than 10,000 people occurred in China.

Even Chinese President Jintao Hu said
in his New Year address that CCP is facing a great challenge of losing control.


January 25, 2009 8:17 PM

I myself don't even care what the new U.S president has been talking.Even if he is a smart,honest man, he still can not turn his criminalist nation around.The son of a immigrant cannot fix a criminal culture which was planted deeply 300+ years ago in the society.When the Titanic does have a damaged structure the new smart, good captain cannot do nothing about it,he just try to prolong the sinking process or controlled collapse.Be prepared for more bad news on the way.

Kartik Thakur

January 26, 2009 2:29 AM

The reference made to the Chief Justice John Roberts in the article in an unrelated context lacks seriousness and is in bad taste.


January 26, 2009 8:15 AM

Which is more evil?

1)A country censoring another country's leader's speech?

2)Or a country invading and bombing another country AND killing its leader?


January 26, 2009 8:21 AM

As a Chinese student, I wish my country to be a giant Singapore, one ruling party, not very free media, strict religious laws, weak labor unions, strict laws, too modern, less traditional, too dull, but after all its citizens have comfortable and high quality life. I don't want to see too many political conflics in China as in Taiwan and Korea.


January 26, 2009 10:22 AM

Most of Mr. Fallows are off the mark. High-level Chinese Communist party members like those in charge of the Propaganda are well-informed of what's happening in other countries.

These officials attended some of the best schools in China, as well as in America and Europe. It is also and a requirement of their job to stay fresh on internatinoal current events and politics. This knowledge helps them to sculpt a more responsive and informed propaganda machine.

Mr. Fallows did accurately perceive one reason for the censorhip of Mr. Obama's speech:

"Also, within a part of the government where orthodoxy is everything, an official takes no risks by being too hard-line, but could get in trouble by being too permissive.”


January 26, 2009 8:59 PM

@David King:
"Based on CCP internal documents, in 2006 there were more than 100,000 protests or riots involving more than 10,000 people occurred in China."

LOL...What a big number - 100,000 * 10,000 = 1 billion! You must be kidding me man? Where did you get the statistics data? That means almost every Chinese joined protests or riots in 2006!
I live in China for a long time and keep travelling around the country, but are disappointed as you to see far fewer protests and riots here than in most other countries...


January 26, 2009 9:05 PM

As the spokeswoman of Chinese government said, she is not aware about the so called "censor" of Pres. Obama's speech. It is up to the editors of media to do their jobs...


January 27, 2009 1:58 AM

Bill -

Your attitude is incredibly childish. The fact is that if China insults the US, at least we are allowed to listen, and even if we don't' our *right* to listen is not infringed.

In this case, the Chinese government showed that it does not have enough faith in its own people to decide on their own and hear the statements. The issue of censorship is very typical of an overly paranoid government. In this case it was a rigid CCP censorship system who fears allowing people their human (and as Americans consider it, inalienable) right hear, speak, and think freely.

To me, that is just a very sad situation.

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