[UPDATED at end of post.]
On Monday, the New York Times ran a story on the tightening of internet controls in China that included this anecdote in the lede:
BEIJING — If anyone wonders whether the Chinese government has tightened its grip on electronic communications since protests began engulfing the Arab world, Shakespeare may prove instructive.
A Beijing entrepreneur, discussing restaurant choices with his fiancée over their cellphones last week, quoted Queen Gertrude’s response to Hamlet: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” The second time he said the word “protest,” her phone cut off.
He spoke English, but another caller, repeating the same phrase on Monday in Chinese over a different phone, was also cut off in midsentence.
Here at Shanghai Scrap, we believe in the strictest journalistic standards, and so, for the moment, neglecting the New York Times reporting standards (censorship stories in CHINA led by anecdotes about foreigners quoting Shakespeare over the phone), we would now like to report the results of our STRICTLY controlled study of whether or not quoting Shakespeare over mobile phones in China results in a loss of connection.
METHODS: The staff prepared three phrases. A) Queen Gertrude’s response to Hamlet, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks;” b) “I like Bob Dylan’s protest songs, the most;” and c) “PROTEST PROTEST PROTEST!” The staff also prepared a list of five individuals with phones in China. They are a) a foreign Shanghai entrepreneur; b) a Shanghai school teacher; c) a Beijing-based foreign correspondent; d) a Beijing-based scrap metal entrepreneur; e) a Foshan-based scrap metal entrepreneur. Each individual was called from a Shanghai phone line, and asked to listen to the three phrases, repeated twice.
RESULTS: In all five cases, the connection was sustained and the staff was subjected to varying degrees of bewildered responses:
a) Foreign Shanghai entrepreneur: “Is this about the upcoming Bob Dylan show?”
b) Shanghai school teacher: “Are you drunk?”
c) Beijing-based foreign correspodent: “I thought that story was bulls*** too.”
d) Beijing-based scrap metal entrepreneur: “I don’t understand.”
e) Foshan-based scrap metal entrepreneur: “What do you want me to say?”
CONCLUSION: The staff of Shanghai Scrap conclude that, a) Foreigners can feel confident that they can quote Shakespeare, in English, when discussing restaurants in China on the phone; b) the New York Times needs to widen its circle of sources on censorship beyond people who quote Shakespeare, in English, when discussing restaurants on the phone. Further study needed on whether or not phones used by New York Times correspondents and assistants are the most reliable means of judging phone censorship in China.
[Addendum: It turns out that my friend Kenneth Tan at Shanghaiist conducted a similar study, with similar results, earlier today. Dr. Tan's study, here.]
[Addendum 3/24: And the unsuccessful attempts at verifying this episode continue, both among China's foreign correspondent corps (some distinguished verifiers, here, here, here, and here) and among expatriate, er, civilians (a tiny sample, here, and here) Now, just to be clear: this ludicrous, unverifiable example of 'censorship' should not detract from the simple fact that internet controls in China are tightening. That's a real phenomenon, and one can only wish that, in the future, the New York Times decides to front its stories with the many actual verifiable examples of censorship occurring here (especially as they impact the Chinese, and not expat correspondents).]
UPDATED after the page jump … Continue reading