Glenn Tiffert on China’s insidious digital censorship

Glenn Tiffert, a historian currently doing a post-doc at University of Michigan, has written a terrific paper [updated version from that originally posted here] about how the government is systematically removing certain materials from digital databases. He looks systematically at late 1950s issues of 法学 and 法学研究, but notes that it is happening in many other places as well. The goal? Obviously, to shape the narrative of history in way favored by the current leadership.

The paper is a model not only of careful scholarship, but also of how information technology can be used to glean useful findings from a massive corpus of documents. And the subject is incredibly important. Anyone connected to an institution that collects materials on China should pass this paper on to their librarian with a big “URGENT” stamp on it.

I should add that I was alerted to Glenn’s article by John Pomfret’s recent Washington Post piece on “China’s odious manipulation of history.”

2 thoughts on “Glenn Tiffert on China’s insidious digital censorship”

  1. Over ten years ago reading through several years of articles by Chinese scientists about the danger China faced from avian influenza and studies of avian influenza in on the Chinese CNKI academic database (on the Internet at about avian influenza and the risk that avian influenza posed to China, I noticed an interesting pattern. Up to a certain year there were warnings were articles about the dire threat that avian influenza then the warnings stopped. I also found an article that mentioned that antibodies for a particularly dangerous strain of avian influenza was found in blood samples from peasants in a certain locality.

    This article contradicted the official position at the time that there had been no avian influenza of that strain found in China. A few years later I looked for that article again and found a note that it had been removed from the database for national security reasons. That was very startling, since the Chinese authorities don’t usually admit to removing things or why.

    At the time there was an institute in northwest China that had to authorize any release of information. China also at that time was issuing regulations and administrative orders to clamp down on rumors although to be fair the PRC also passed a law designed to promote information releases to the public during national emergencies.

    Looking around a bit, I did find a posting a did on the translation blog I started while I worked in Chengdu at the U.S. Consulate General 2007 – 2012 to help me improve my Chinese and to archive some of the translations I was doing. Here are the first few paragraphs of the posting. I reposted my 2011 blog entry with a zippier English title “2005: Avian Flu Cover-Up Chronicles” at

    “The difficulty of diagnosing bird flu makes it hard to know if an epidemic is underway. It must be even harder for doctors to diagnose an epidemic if information on other cases is not being published so that they could have the disease in mind as a possibility. So perhaps the difficulty of diagnosing H5N1 in China has been compounded by secrecy about serious animal diseases. Secrecy about animal epidemics ended in 2003 according to a 2005 Caijing article (summarized below with links to the Chinese text). So the secrecy problem at least at the central level may not be so serious now.

     If one looks at the Chinese academic literature on avian flu, there are traces of H5N1 several years ago when H5N1 fell under secrecy rules. 

    The Caijing articles are at at and

    The Caijing article noted that despite secrecy there were traced of not officially acknowledged H5N1 to be found in the Chinese academic literature. Although it seems that some of what they were referring to in the article were less virulent strains of AI, there were some traces of H5N1 in articles I found.  Also it makes one wonder, if worrying problems were found in small samples, where were the big followup studies?  I looked around and found some.”

  2. Having compared CNKI available online in China that one can get by buying a login in card with the version that one can get via US university (I think they buy it through a database consortium named Westview) there are more articles in the domestic Chinese CNKI than in the version marketed abroad. I didn’t do any systematic comparison, I just noticed that in my own research about ten years ago.

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