So, Comrade, tell me: why did you censor my website?
On 3 July Chinese government censors blocked access to Danwei.org, the website I have edited from my home in Beijing since 2003. It is hosted outside China, so it's easy for zealous regulators to flip an electronic switch and restrict access. Most of our content is translated from the Chinese media and internet, which gave us a certain amount of protection: most Chinese people who write or publish in China self-censor; this is why we had escaped the censor's wrath. Until July.
This year – after a period of relatively relaxed controls – the bodies who censor information and culture have come back with a vengeance. There are several reasons: 2009 has seen a number of "sensitive" anniversaries, including the 4 May student uprisings of 1919, the 1959 Tibetan uprising, and Tiananmen Square in 1989. Although Tibet has been relatively calm this year, the riots in Urumqi in July added greatly to the tense atmosphere in Beijing. Government nervousness about the internet was exacerbated by hype in the western press about Twitter bringing democracy to Iran. Another factor is the financial crisis, which has made mass unrest more likely.
Despite the ongoing and harsh repression of anyone who sets up as a dissident or suggests that the Communist party is illegitimate, there is more anti-establishment chatter on the Chinese internet than ever. China has a new but firmly established culture of citizens using the net to air their grievances with local authorities. This year's most prominent example was the case of the young female hotel employee Deng Yujiao, where net activism was the decisive factor in saving her from a murder charge, when she was widely believed to have acted in self-defence against an attempted rape. Such cases of online activism have made the government even more wary of the power of the net.
The celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China (which were taking place as I started writing this) have been another cause of sleepless nights for government officials. Nobody who regulates information in China wanted to be seen as being soft if anything went wrong.
But none of this explains why Danwei.org was censored. I do not even know if the block was a decision made by a person, or the effects of a filtering software that decided we had too many "sensitive" keywords. There is no hotline you can call and say: "Comrade, why did you censor my website?"
Danwei.org is in good company: YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and hundreds of other foreign sites are inaccessible in China at the moment. But the difference between those sites and mine is that I live in China, and the website is part of a company that operates in China and pays my bills. We're also small: we are not a platform for citizens broadcasting their opinions like Twitter. It was something specific that we published that got us blocked, and it feels personal.
Nonetheless, my situation is not Orwellian. A mirror website that displays all our content is accessible in China, and my company's consulting business, which is closely associated with the website, is unaffected.
Life goes on. Within weeks of the site being blocked, I attended – by official invitation – a provincial government media forum at which I was allowed to air my views. Soon after that, a Chinese TV station hired me as a presenter, to conduct a series of interviews with government officials and well known business leaders about environmental problems. The programme is for a Chinese audience, broadcast nationwide. Not exactly Hard Talk, and they may not broadcast the interesting footage, but I got to give a senior government official a hard time about his department's empty eco-slogans. I also asked Liu Yonghao – one of the richest men in China – what he intended to do about the methane emissions caused by the farting of all the cows his New Hope Group owns.
Most hilariously, and this is difficult for anyone who has not spent time in China to understand, the state-owned China Daily newspaper ran a quote from me complaining about internet censorship on the top headlined story of its front page.
So there is not really that much for me to complain about. It's quite possible that our website will be unblocked in a few weeks, as nervousness about the 60th anniversary celebrations wears off. But the affair has marked me in some way. As JM Coetzee, the South African novelist, put it in his book of essays, On Censorship: "The contest with the censor is all too likely to assume an importance in the inner life of the writer that at the least diverts him from his proper occupation and at worst fascinates and even perverts the imagination."
This has been true for me, and I am not alone in this feeling. The most difficult part of any cultural or media project in China is to get past the regulators, and thus China's writers, film-makers, publishers and editors waste their creativity and squander their powers of innovation on self-censorship and red tape.
To quote Coetzee again: "The institution of censorship puts power into the hands of persons with a judgmental, bureaucratic cast of mind that is bad for the cultural and even the spiritual life of the community."
The effects are not just an underperforming film industry and underrepresentation on the world's literary stage. Censorship contributes greatly to the crisis of trust that many complain of in China. People don't trust newspapers or companies, business people don't trust each other, and no one – including the people who work in it – trusts what the government says.
Censorship also makes it very difficult for government officials to understand how to deal with foreign cultural organisations and media. Two recent examples were the story of the Frankfurt Book Fair and dissident writers (and it's not over yet), and the row over the Melbourne Film Festival that brought international recognition to a voice the Chinese government had hoped to silence.
Last week Beijing saw a display of military and economic might that the Chinese government and a huge number of its people are rightly proud of. But China wants more for itself. The government is constantly calling for home-grown innovation in science, technology and culture, and for China to wield more "soft power" and have a greater cultural influence on the rest of the world. These aims will be difficult, perhaps impossible, to achieve as long as China's bureaucrats retain their iron grip on culture and information.