The Words That Scare America— and China

(Please see update(s) below.) For our special May 35 edition (look it up), a comparison of the words that can get you in trouble with the authorities in the world's two leading powers.

For America, the list shows up in the Department of Homeland Security's "Analyst's Desktop Binder," viewable in Scribd format here. It was released last week after a Freedom of Information Act suit by the Electronic Privacy Information Center. It includes terms-to-watch in monitoring social media and other communication channels. For instance, these are the tricky works in the "Domestic Security" category:


The whole document is an enlightening bureaucratic specimen.

For China, the list has been produced through very creative use of the feature Google made available a few days ago. As mentioned last week, Google started warning users within the Great Firewall when one of the search terms they were entering was likely to trigger a disconnection or blockage. The tyros whizzes at both and managed to reverse-engineer this feature to produce a more-or-less master list of currently firewalled terms. This is interesting in its own right -- and additionally significant because the uncertainty of what was and was not allowed added to the Great Firewall's effectiveness.

GreatFire's list of blocked keywords contains some English and many Chinese entries. Here is a brief part of the English section. The * marks are for wildcards, and 什么 means "what?" or "what is?":

blood is on the square
chinese people eating babies

In every one of those terms (and this is a tiny sample) is a whole saga for people following the Chinese developments. More details on GreatFire's site, plus this explanation by Bill Bishop on Sinocism. I have theories about what the lists say about each country, and about the beyond-national-differences workings of security-state agencies, but I'll skip them for now.

UPDATE China Digital Times goes into detail about the sensitive terms, and allows users to add updates, in English and Chinese postings.

Update2: Several readers have noted that I included the DHS/TSA list of touchy words as an image, rather than as pasted-in text. You're right! This was no accident. I figured I didn't need to ask for more trouble in TSA screening lines by putting up a post with all sensitive terms back to back.
I'm kidding, mostly. But the use of an image rather than text was intentional.: While on the road, I had missed Rebecca Rosen's very good previous item about the US list.


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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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