TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Ghost Stories: Banned in Beijing

Under the headline “Regulators Now Spooked by Ghost Stories,” Reuters published an account on February 14 of a new act of censorship in China, as part of the lead-up to the Olympics. The General Administration of Press and Publications has stipulated that video producers have three weeks to report incidents of “horror” in their material, as well as content involving “wronged spirits and violent ghosts, monsters, demons, and other inhuman portrayals, strange and supernatural storytelling for the sole purpose of seeking terror and horror.”

Why ban ghosts? But that question probably gets it wrong from the start. Especially in the lead-up to the Olympics, censorship and social control have, if anything, become tighter, so this new move is consistent with larger tendencies. To be sure, China promised liberalization as part of its campaign to bring the Olympics to Beijing. So much for promises. This is not only about ghosts—the clampdown on dissidents has only accelerated, as part of the government effort to limit political disturbances around the games.

But this goes way beyond undercutting human rights campaigns. The ban on ghost stories has an additional dimension: it displays the Enlightenment legacy of attacking irrational superstition, but twisted dialectically into a justification for censorship. Ignorance in the name of fighting ignorance! Censorship in the name of freedom! The particular Communist twist goes back to the founding document in which, famously, a spectre, aka a ghost, is haunting Europe and to which the authors counterpose their own Communist Manifesto as a rational alternative. Rational?

Add to this the particular Enlightenment and Communist disdain for popular culture, and factor in Chinese government anxieties about growing populist unrest as a response to neo-liberal social stratification. So the prohibition on ghost stories is both a traditional Communist move against backward traditions AND an administrative move in defense of the new capitalist economy against an emerging social movement. In this combination, the Communist government acts as a vehicle of capitalist progress, but drawing on repressive features of both legacies.

At least Reuters is reporting on this censorship; but it makes light of it at the same time, with the wording of the title, and the body of the text, for example: “China has added ghosts, monsters and other things that go bump in the night to its list of banned video and audio content in an intensified crackdown ahead of the Beijing Olympics.” Bump in the night? The prose tends to trivialize the censorship. Imagine the response if the US administration tried a similarly heavy hand on gratuitous violence in Hollywood. Terrible. In China, it’s just funny.

Why is the western press reluctant to take on censorship aggressively? It’s as if it doesn’t take free speech seriously. Does it?

Part of the answer is surely just opportunism. In order to continue to operate, it has to engage in some prudent self-censorship. Why antagonize the Chinese government and risk problems when the real Olympics reporting starts? We know that a similar process limited network reporting on Iraq under Saddam. At a certain point though, the West and its vehicles of public opinion become complicit in repression. It refrains from reporting the news in order to be able to avoid restrictions on reporting the news. And that, boys and girls, is professionalism.

Ghost stories are nothing if not records of loss, suffering, and repression and how they return to haunt the living. Understood correctly, they are the most critical of genre. As indictments, the proliferation of zombie movies is more powerful than any NYT op-ed. Certainly more intelligent. Repressing the return of the repressed just makes the haunting more grizzly. But making light of it doesn’t make censorship fun.

Comments are closed.