Last winter, after the Chinese Communist Party announced the abolition of presidential term limits, Beijing temporarily moved to censor social-media references to George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984. The government’s concern was that activists would use these titles to charge, in not-so-subtle code, that China was moving in a decidedly authoritarian direction. But censors did not bother to ban the sale of these texts either in bookstores or online. It was—and remains—as easy to buy 1984 and Animal Farm in Shenzhen or Shanghai as it is in London or Los Angeles.
The different treatment of these texts and their titles helps illuminate the complicated reality of censorship in China. It’s less comprehensive, less boot-on-the-face—as Orwell might have put it—and quirkier than many Westerners imagine.
Censors have banned books simply for containing a positive or even neutral portrayal of the Dalai Lama. The government disallows the publication of any work by Liu Xiaobo, the determined critic of the Communist Party who in 2017 became the first Nobel Peace Prize winner since Nazi times to die in prison. Again, for a time last year Chinese citizens could not type 19, 80, and four in sequence—but they could, and still can, buy a copy of 1984, the most famous novel on authoritarianism ever written. Prefer Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World? They can buy that text, too, just as easily, although its title also joined the taboo list last winter.