Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Chinese Ministry of Cultural Censorship.

I was reading with despondency today an article by Digital Music News which states that the Chinese government is going to require that all music hosted off shore but accessible from within China be approved by the Chinese Ministry of Culture before beign digitally distributed.

According to MacWorld (quoting the Wall Street Journal): "Online music providers will have to submit to the Ministry of Culture the lyrics of each foreign song, translated into Chinese, along with evidence proving they have permission from the copyright owners to sell and distribute the songs..."

This does not reconcile well with USA calls for strong piracy controls from within the country and indeed smells a lot like using piracy as an opportunity to further control the messages conveyed to the people.

Whilst one cannot second guess what criteria will be applied in determining the suitability of songs, it may be questioned that such a scheme could be used to prevent the reception of songs with overt political characteristics. Other songs may nonetheless be used in a political way but songs with clear political sentiments may be directly at risk.

In August last year, the Art of Peace Foundation released an album titled Songs of Tibet with its release coinciding with the Beijing Olympic Games. The Chinese government responded by blocking access to iTunes for a short period of time.

Similarly, it was reported in March 2008 that following a Bjork concert in which she made a direct link between her song ‘Declare Independence’ and the struggle for freedom in Tibet, Chinese officials suggested that in the future all foreign artists would be screened prior to gaining entry to the country.

This essentially opens the door to the further regulation of free speech in China. Freedom of speech and freedom of expression, whilst not exactly the same, are arguably so closely related as to come within the ambit of the same fundamental human right. Expression concerns not that which is simply spoken but that which is expressed in other ways – in this case music – but in other examples recognised by western legal systems, expression has been seen to encompass a wide range of communicative activities including those taking a physical form.

In Levy v Victoria [1997] HCA 31 Brennan CJ stated (at page 5):

Speech is the chief vehicle by which ideas about government and political are communicated. Hence it is natural to regard the freedom of communication about government and political implied in the constitution as a freedom of speech. But actions as well as words can communicate ideas. In the United States where “freedom of speech” is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution, non-verbal activity which expresses ideas may be protected as a form of speech. Thus a “protest by silent and reproachful presence” or by a burning of the flag of the United States have been held to be protected by the First Amendment....

The freedom of discussion implied in the Constitution of the Commonwealth, unlike the subject of protection under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, does not require consideration of the connotation of “speech” or of the conduct which might be thought to constitute a form of speech. The implication denies legislative or executive power to restrict the freedom of communication about the government or politics of the Commonwealth, whatever be the form of communication, unless the restriction is imposed to fulfil a legitimate purpose and the restriction is appropriate and adapted to the fulfilment of that purpose. In principle, therefore, non-verbal conduct which is capable of communicating an idea about the government or politics of the Commonwealth and which is intended to do so may be immune from legislative or executive restriction so far as that immunity is needed to preserve the system of representative and responsible government that the Constitution prescribes.

Music with overt political characteristics is clearly a form of speech or expression that comes within the globally recognised standard of human rights and yet in this case the Chinese government appear to be restricting the opportunities for its reception by attempting to control what comes into the country. Music of this nature has the ability to empower, educate and mobilise citizens often to address injustices and to create awareness of the potential for, and prevent, future disasters. However, here the Chinese government is seeking to restrict access to music, under the guise of piracy prevention, for its own political purposes which include restricting the access of its citizens to information about current events.

As I wrote in the paper I presented to the International Association for the Study of Popular Music in Liverpool earlier this year, ‘moral progress is a part of social progress and refers to changing attitudes to concepts such as freedom, equality, justice and truth. Social and moral progress depend heavily on knowledge and are affected (and effected) by the production and reception of information.’ (Bierstedt, 282). If China censors music by limiting the messages that citizens can receive, there will inevitably be a restriction to social progress and perhaps even retrogression.

Further Reading
Digital Music News, Instead of Anti-Piracy, China Offers Music Censorship... (9 September 2009) <> at 10 September 2009

MacWorldUK, China tightens rules for online music providers (7 September 2009) <> at 10 September 2009

The Register, iTunes, and Sting, banned from China (22 August 2008) <> at 28 August 2008

The Register, China pardons iTunes (but not Sting) (26 August 2008) <> at 28 August 2008

TechDirt, China Realizes It Doesn't Need To Block All Of iTunes (26 August 2008) <> at 28 August 2008

Digital Music News, iTunes Reinstated In China... Tibet Album Now Included (27 August 2008) <> at 28 August 2008

TechDirt, China Blocks iTunes After Olympic Athletes Download Pro-Tibetan Music (21 August 2008) <> at 25 August 2008, China blocks iTunes music store (21 August 2008) <> at 25 August 2008

Digital Music News, Will the Ban Boost Sales? Tibet Album Pushes Past 10,000 (22 August 2008) <> at 25 August 2008

Digital Music News, Great Firewall Growls: China Blocks iTunes Access (21 August 2008) <> at 22 August 2008

The Age, iTunes blocked in China after protest stunt (21 August 2008) <> at 22 August 2008

OpenContentAustralia, Bjork in China (11 March 2008)> at 10 September 2009

Bierstedt, Robert. 1974. Power and Progress McGraw Hill, New York

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