Here are some facts about China:

1. The Chinese government puts a great deal of effort into blocking unfavorable foreign news.

2. China’s leadership is located in a compound right off of Tiananmen Square, called Zhongnanhai

During a recent trip to Beijing, I visited a popular bookstore that was just a few blocks from Zhongnanhai. You could buy a number of western magazines, and I picked up an issue of The Economist.  Ironically, China was the cover story, and the article was at times highly critical of Chinese policy.

Here’s one example:

China is suppressing and interning people from Muslim ethnicities, most notably Uighurs, on a vast scale in the Xinjiang autonomous region

In another article in the same issue they claim that Taiwan is not a part of China:

My Han [a Taiwanese presidential candidate] calls Taiwanese independence “more scary” than syphilis.  He refers to Taiwan as a region (that is, of China) rather than the country it is.

Why does the Chinese leadership allow this sort of western magazine to be sold in a major bookstore just a few blocks from Zhongnanhai?

The easy answer is that the magazine is in English, a language most Chinese cannot read.  That’s clearly part of the story, but not the whole story.  After all, many Chinese college students now do learn English.  And the Chinese internet firewall does block western media such as the New York Times, written in English.  Indeed even the online Economist is blocked.  I’m going to argue that a recent post by Bryan Caplan provides the most plausible answer, but first let’s consider a bit more evidence.

1.  There are few people in the world more incompetent with computers than me.  I once called tech support at Bentley for help when it turned out that my computer monitor was not turned on.  I still don’t know how to read emails on my iPhone.  Yes, I’m that guy.  But even I was able to circumvent the Chinese media firewall and read the New York Times while in China (using a VPN).

2.  Many middle class Chinese now take trips to places like Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao, Singapore, Australia, the US, and Canada, all of which have lots of ethnic Chinese people and publications that are written in Chinese.  If the Chinese want to figure out what’s “really going on” they have no trouble in doing so, even in their own language.

3.  The Chinese government increasingly covers up past atrocities such as the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the Tiananmen Square massacre.  But literally hundreds of millions of Chinese still recall these events, and any Chinese person could simply ask an older relative what happened.  These historical events cannot meaningfully be viewed as “secrets”.

Instead, Bryan Caplan provides the most plausible explanation for Chinese censorship:

What then is the primary purpose of censorship?  It’s not to suppress the truth – which has little mass appeal anyway.  The primary purpose of censorship is to monopolize the pretty lies.  Only the powers-that-be can freely make absurdly self-aggrandizing claims.  Depending on the severity of the despotism, you may not have to echo the official lies.  But if you publicly defend alternative absurdly self-aggrandizing claims, the powers-that-be will crush you.

I believe that at some level the Chinese leadership understands that in the modern world it’s impossible to keep things secret.  They also know that most people don’t care enough to search out the truth.  Thus they want to present a happy face, what President Xi Jinping calls the “Chinese Dream”.  You are not going to be thrown in jail for pointing out that the Cultural Revolution was a disaster.  But the Chinese government is increasingly likely to censor movies that dwell on ugly aspects of China’s past, as these atrocities make the Communist Party look bad.  Indeed Zhang Yimou’s new film may have been recently blocked not so much for its message, but rather the possibility that the film was so good that the message might receive widespread acclaim:

Instead, the acclaimed Chinese director has suffered the perverse fate of seeing his new film — the achingly personal period drama One Second — withheld from contention precisely because it is reputed to be so good that it might take home multiple awards, something the Chinese government is said to very much not want. . . .

Subsequent discussions with regulators have encouraged the One Second team that permission for a theatrical release within China will ultimately be granted. But it’s become clear to them that taking the film to a high-profile festival abroad is officially unwelcome. Should a director of Zhang’s stature win major awards for a film with One Second‘s themes, international media attention would be cast back on China’s officially suppressed history — this is suspected to be the authorities’ line of reasoning. Propaganda Department officials may have been sufficiently concerned by this possibility in Berlin that they resorted to the drastic step of yanking the film at the last minute via an unconventional mechanism.

The key phrase word is ‘suppressed history’, not “denied history”.  The Chinese Communist Party does not obsessively try to prevent every unpleasant “secret” from being accessible to the Chinese people.  Rather they try to flood the media with pleasant truths and pleasant lies.

Of course this is also true to some extent in democratic countries.  The difference here is that we still have lots of major independent media outlets that are easily accessible—outlets that are critical of whatever party is in power.  This also explains why we should be concerned when democratically elected governments try to monopolize the commercial media:

Hundreds of private Hungarian news outlets have been simultaneously donated by their owners to a central holding company run by people close to the far-right prime minister Viktor Orban, cementing Mr. Orban’s grip on the Hungarian news media.

If approved by the country’s regulatory authorities, which are led by an official appointed by Mr. Orban, the deal will place most leading private Hungarian outlets under the control of a single, state-friendly entity, in a move that is unprecedented within the European Union, according to Freedom House, a global rights watchdog that analyzes press freedom.

It is the latest broadside against pluralism under the increasingly autocratic Mr. Orban. Since taking power in 2010, he has steadily chipped away at Hungary’s checks and balances, stacking the Constitutional Court with loyalists, reshaping the electoral system to favor his party and placing dozens of watchdog institutions — including the judiciary and prosecution service — under the leadership of his allies.

Press freedom is not all or nothing; it’s a matter of degree.  Even in America we censor commercial speech, such as cigarette commercials.

PS.  Speaking of Zhongnanhai, that’s also the name of a popular cigarette brand in China.  The Chinese rock group Carsick Cars have a song entitled Zhongnanhai, with a very infectious hook.  Beijing University finance professor (and blogger) Michael Pettis (one of the coolest people I’ve ever met) was instrumental in discovering and developing the Carsick Cars.  They once toured with Sonic Youth, which might give you some idea of their musical style.

Artists in authoritarian countries become very adept at making points indirectly.

PPS:  I hope I don’t get this Beijing bookstore into trouble.