Book Review: Trickle-Down Censorship

As we enter a post-truth world – or so we are told -- there’s probably no better time than to curl up with JFK Miller’s Trickle-Down Censorship: An Outsider’s Account of Working Inside China’s Censorship Regime. It serves well as a timely reminder of the dangers in the other direction – state control of truth and non-truth alike.

Miller, who has a relaxing chatty style, punctuated by occasional chunks of drier journalese to explain some background issue, takes a well-paced, gently humorous, sometimes self-deprecating dip into life working as an editor on that’s Shanghai, a listings magazine, in the mid-2000s. At times, it's almost like sitting down with an old friend for a pint in the pub and listening to his stories about those crazy times in China battling with the censors. It’s easy reading despite the difficult and oft-depressing topic.

This is Miller’s first book, but you might know him through his excellent website, an insightful spread of interviews with authors, many of whom have written about China. Here in his own book, richly annotated, he’s done a nice job of peeling back the oily curtain of media control on the mainland.


You’d be forgiven for wondering how could anyone possibly fill 250 plus pages just on censorship? Is there really that much to say? They censored this. Then they censored that. Now there are not censoring this but still censoring that. I don’t know why they’re censoring that but not this, but now they are censoring this again.

Fear not, Miller does more than just regale stories about how his magazine was shaped and shaved by Minitrue (his nickname for the faceless men and women who said ‘no’). He organizes the book thematically rather than chronologically and provides a lot of context and color when tackling each. So we meet the many faces of Chinese censorship: everything from banned political topics to the golden rule (report only the good not the bad), the impact of sensitive anniversaries to the play of propaganda (nicely described by Miller as the yang to censorship’s yin), and from self-censorship (that imaginary policeman looking over your shoulder as you type) to sex and pornography.

Miller has to cut a photo of a model showing the faint shadow of a nipple beneath a gossamer top. “That’s all it takes, apparently, to shut down a magazine in China: a solitary tit, scarcely enough to excite an oversexed schoolboy”.

Censorship in China is well covered, but a decent discussion of the export of censorship is not, and that I feel is something sorely missing in this book. Miller is in a distinctly good position to do so now, living in the West and having an insider’s experience of the subtleties of the censorship machine in action.

A chilling development of recent years has been an effort by Beijing to buy or bully the right to apply its censorship rules or spread propaganda across borders. This can be seen from state media produced “China Watch” pullouts inserted into mainstream newspapers such as The Washington Post and The Telegraph in London, to denying visas to journalists from publications that report on dubious wealth acquisitions at the top of the Chinese Communist Party leadership.

Indeed, the book itself appears to be a minor victim of this very phenomenon. The front cover features a bold red and yellow design (reminiscent of the PRC’s own flag colors) of a map of China and Taiwan. In alignment with China’s One China policy the two appear as a single country. Despite Taiwan’s lack of a seat at the UN, it does have de facto independence (and a dwindling number of diplomatic allies; 21 at the last count) and, I would argue, it is commonly shown – outside China – as a separate country.

I asked Miller by email about the cover, and this was his thoughtful reply:

“I never really pondered it until you asked. It never occurred to me that I shouldn't have Taiwan there. I suppose that after living on the mainland for six years that I grew accustomed to the idea that Taiwan is part of China... I suppose I just wanted a map on the front cover to represent the China I came to know through the eyes of my censors, i.e. one with Taiwan. Plus if I left it off – which never occurred to me anyway – I would have been making a statement on Taiwan independence. This book just wasn't the place to weigh in on one of the thorniest issues in geopolitics and, anyway, it would have deviated from my core subject which is censorship and self censorship.”

The problem is of course, whether you include Taiwan or not, it’s a political statement either way. Perhaps his choice of cover is nothing more than simply the remnants of his “training” in Shanghai. And six years is a long time. Right at the beginning of the book he writes: “My ability to self-censor is well honed. It should be; I have been doing this for six years. In the self-mocking patois of the Chinese Internet I have been ‘harmonized’.”

The absurdities of censorship make for a rich topic and some of Miller’s best stories are based on the perplexing decisions of his censors. At one point in 2007, after Miller is assigned by his boss to start a news digest, he plans to include an image of Osama bin Laden on the front page. No, say his censors, because “Being a sensitive figure, Osama bin Laden hasn’t been confirmed to exist.”

Miller also offers us a rare glimpse of the human side of censorship. The main, and perhaps only character, in Trickle-Down is his boss Li, with whom he seems to have a love-hate relationship. More hate than love I suspect: Li’s hair is “spiked at the top like a toilet brush,” and he is variously described as manipulative, eccentric, under-handed, money-mad, but devilishly charming (“I was fond of him at times”). The real treat is saved for near the end of the book, as Miller meets his censors for the first time when they come to Shanghai for a meeting and a lunch. I’ll leave you to read the book yourself to find out what they are like.

As his life unfolds in China, Miller describes how his feelings about censorship, which started off as a kind of cheerful courtesy he must offer because he is a “guest” in the country, morphs into a kind of “grumbling acceptance” until by the end his own self-censorship sparks “fear and self-loathing” even though he admits his publication was “largely froth and bubble” and not serious investigative journalism. I imagine that writing this book is an effort to make some amends to himself on that score.

Dinah Gardner is a freelance writer living in Taiwan.