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NÜVOICES [published in July 2019]
James Griffiths, author of The Great Firewall of China, discusses censorship and China’s women’s movement
“China’s censors do not care about blocking content, they care about blocking solidarity,” James Griffiths writes in his debut book The Great Firewall of China: How to Build and Control an Alternative Version of the Internet.
Solidarity among women is no exception. Like many movements in recent years, China’s feminist movement has been stifled at the hands of government censorship. When the 2019 Stonewall March—commemorating the anti-police brutality LGBT uprisings at New York’s Stonewall Inn in 1969—took place, there was little celebration in China. Danjia Liu, a Weibo editor and member of the Beijing LGBT+ Center, told NüVoices she did not see many posts online about “Stonewall,” nor any mentions of commemorations taking place in Beijing.
The monitoring of “sensitive” words and phrases used in social movements have forced activists to be creative when expressing themselves online. To circumvent censors, Chinese feminists used the hashtag #米兔 (mi tu, characters that translate into “rice” and “rabbit”) rather than #MeToo, and have strived to organise physical meetings in order to continue their work on combatting gender inequality.
In “The Great Firewall of China,” Griffiths—currently a senior producer at CNN International—establishes a comprehensive overview of the history and development of China’s system of censorship. Beneath China’s strict control of information, Griffiths explores the consequences of state censorship on protesters and dissidents, as well as the wider diplomatic discussion on internet governance. Using anecdotes, the book highlights challenges activists face when attempting to build solidarity and questions the future of online expression in this era of increasing cyber sovereignty.
In an exclusive with NüVoices, Griffiths discusses the ways in which censorship has impacted feminism and other activist movements in China.
You did such a good job presenting the history of censorship in China, and how it initially focused on restricting news and pornography before expanding to include anything that might threaten state control. Since the late 1990s, what key changes do you think have had the biggest impact on feminism and other forms of activism?
In the early 2000s, from China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation and leading up to the 2008 Olympic Games, there was a great relaxation of controls on the internet and civil society at large. This enabled people to organise online and for a time platforms such as Weibo were having a very real effect on the country’s politics. However, this all ended with the Olympics, and 2009, which saw a key Tiananmen anniversary and unrest in Xinjiang, was a major turning point back towards censorship and control.
In 2018, an unlikely #MeToo movement blossomed despite the odds. Yet the campaign was not as successful in China as it was in other parts of the world. What is your read on China’s version of #MeToo, and how censorship has affected the movement?
Chinese feminists have faced major pushback even for comparatively modest demands, such as preventing sexual harassment on public transport or bringing to justice men who are guilty of #MeToo related offences. The government should not in theory see them as a threat, given they are operating within the law and calling for the respect of principles the government itself claims to uphold, but unfortunately this has not been the case. As with other groups, the government is highly suspicious of any organising outside the Party structure, and has seen the women’s movement, with its potential to build solidarity across a huge swath of the population, as a real threat, and clamped down accordingly.
In some ways, censorship can build solidarity amongst activists, and push them to find more creative ways to promote their causes. What do you make of this view that the government’s crackdown on information has, ironically, strengthened some aspects of activism?
I’m sceptical that censorship is in anyway beneficial, as alternative ways of promoting causes tend to be far less effective and there are legal risks inherent in continuing to organize when the government has banned certain groups. However, one way in which I do think the backlash has strengthened the movement is in radicalising young women who might not otherwise have considered themselves particularly political. After all, their demands are fairly modest and thoroughly reasonable, and so to face such intense censorship and official resistance has a dramatic effect on how they see the Chinese political system and the need for more structural changes.
You’ve discussed how the government has since installed filtering software into WeChat, Weibo and Baidu, among others. Do you see such moves as a reaction to growing civil society in China, and movements like feminism, or an inevitable progression of the administration’s system of censorship?
There has always been an instinct for greater control and surveillance within the Party, and technology has finally begun to catch up to these ambitions. When the Great Firewall was first developed, it was very much a top down model overseen by Party apparatchiks, it was then increasingly outsourced to the private companies which run the Chinese internet to look after their own censorship (or face official punishment). What we are seeing today is a shift, with greater surveillance and use of artificial intelligence to police people’s behaviour, towards self-censorship. The theorised social credit system is a major step in this direction, raising the societal and legal costs of attempting to bypass censorship or pushing the boundaries of what can be said online.
In your book, you have a compelling anecdote about three friends watching a pirated western documentary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, 20 years on. In your observations, what are the similarities and differences between the extreme censorship of the Tiananmen Square Massacre 30 years ago and the #MeToo movement in 2018, and any other connections between them?
The experience of being censored can in itself be radicalising. This can also help people understand the need to build solidarity with other groups facing similar pushback from the government (workers, Marxists, ethnic minorities), which is what the Party fears above all else.
What made you interested in exploring the issue of censorship in China? Is there anything in particular you hope readers, and particularly gender activists, will take away from your book?
I first lived in China during the high point of Weibo and surge of optimism around the potential for the internet to bring about social change in China, and I have seen (and reported on) the subsequent backlash and rolling back of freedoms both online and off. The book is an account of the effectiveness of the Firewall in stopping solidarity and organizing, but also a testament to the importance of both, and I think groups operating in sensitive and oppressive circumstances – such as China – should take this to heart: only by uniting across gender and class boundaries is true change possible. The book is also a warning to activists and others in countries with “open” internets, that their freedoms to speak and organise online may be more fragile than they realise, and that they should not be complacent about protecting their rights online.
Can you discuss your views on the future of censorship, and whether it will become more or less effective as globalisation continues and more Chinese people travel abroad?
A huge number of Chinese people have travelled, studied and lived abroad, including key Party members, and this has not had a great effect on the Chinese political system. The Party has also shown itself fully able to co-opt technology and other business leaders, so I do not think globalisation is a threat to the existing system. Propaganda and patriotism are a powerful guard against people being influenced by what they learn overseas, and even if they do come back believing that the system needs to be changed, the Great Firewall and other controls on organizing and solidarity have proven themselves more than effective at tackling any resistance.
What Else Can “This Town” Offer Besides Being a Political Swamp? [2019 Op-Ed]
In late February, President Trump met with Kim Jong-Un for the second summit in Vietnam. The negotiation ended with unpleasant outcomes, which has been a topic reported by various media outlets in the past weekend. I clicked on the newest article– “Trump blames congressional hearing with Michael Cohen resulting in not signing a deal with North Korea,” but gradually lost interest in the entanglement of politics.
So I stopped scrolling down the article on my phone and finally paid attention to the jazz music that my Uber driver was playing on the radio now. It sounded chaotic at first, several instruments playing not on the same frequency. The music became integrated within seconds after I delved into the rhythm.
“Your music taste is fantastic! Are you a musician?” I started the conversation. “Of course! I can play guitar, piano, you name it, on any type of music,” he answered my question with excitement. He is an African American who owns two regularly-perform bands. He shared how he does music in “this town” — “You ain’t gonna success if you stuck in your own culture, it’s a global culture mixing time now.”
So does in politics. Many reports before the Trump-Kim second summit hold positive views toward the outcome, but “the failure” could actually be foreseen. How Trump dealt with the trade war and resisted to the WTO have shown his lack of efforts to understand globalization. However, the similar type of coverage on the U.S. foreign policy does not fully represent local American cultures, at least not in D.C., a cultural hodge-podge where everyone can find a place of his or her own.
Reverse back to February 5th, Trump announced his meeting with Kim in the State of the Union address. Coincidentally, that same day was also the start of 2019 Chinese New Year. D.C. celebrated the tradition in its own way- holding the annual Chinatown parade, creating special Chinese New Year menus, and even displaying wax figures of Chinese icons at Madame Tussauds DC. During the lunar new year celebration week at the Kennedy Center, I was lucky to get a ticket of the “National Ballet of China: Raise the Red Lantern” show. The show was directed based on a 1991 film which tells three women’s miserable lives being concubines of a rich landlord in feudal China. As entering the hallway, I was shocked by the Center’s interior design- red carpet, red lantern raised highly on the ceiling, and delicate red paper-cuttings hanged next to national flags. The auditorium was quickly filled audience with a diverse composition.
No need to translate anything, arts do the communication for languages. The combination of western ballet and traditional eastern costumes represents the multicultural characteristic in a broader context. Through the eyes of an outsider who only have been in D.C. for two months, I’m fascinated to see the harmony that diverse cultures play along with each other. At its core, D.C. is engined by the underlying political power. But the swirling political chaos cannot conceal the cultural harmony and globalization around the city.
“Listen to Yanni! He’s one of my favs,” he said. “Will do, sir!” I said, looking at his eyes in the rear-review mirror, and we both smiled.
Cambridge Chronicle [published in January 2019]
Why does Cambridge’s top-ranked fire department lag in diversity?
Despite being located in a city that cherishes its diversity, the Cambridge Fire Department has very few minority and even fewer women firefighters. Only seven of 269 firefighters – about 2 percent – are women. Only 50 firefighters – about 19 percent – are members of minority groups, according to statistics from late October.
In contrast, more than one-third of City Hall employees are women (35 percent), and almost a third (31 percent) are categorized as minority. The Cambridge Police Department lags behind City Hall but still does a better job as far as women are concerned. According to November statistics supplied by the department, 27 of 276 officers are women (about 10 percent), and 36 percent officers were considered minority.
When asked about the number of female and minority members, acting Fire Chief Gerard Mahoney said high costs of applying and health concerns contribute to an overall decrease in the number of firefighter exams completed by Cambridge residents. The process is also a long one.
“I have friends who are in the Fire Department, and if I didn’t have those friends, I would have given up because I had no idea what the process was,” said Stephanie Crayton, the only minority female firefighter from Cambridge in the entire department. She was a single mother when she took the written exam in April 2012, which she said was “very long, confusing, and emotional.”
Since 2012, the number of Cambridge residents applying to be firefighters has dropped by 33.3 percent, according to City Hall. This lowered application rate, Mahoney said, impacts the number of women and minority applications, too.
In order to become a firefighter, a person has to take the state-administered Municipal Firefighter Exam and a preliminary physical abilities test (ELPAT), which together cost $200, according to the state website, although applicants can request a waiver.
Once tentatively accepted, candidates have to take a second physical costing $150, Mahoney said. When ranking accepted men and women, veterans get priority over all other applicants. This could be another reason that non-vets don’t apply, according to Mahoney.
“I can see a young person that hasn’t been in the armed forces say, ‘I got to spend 500 bucks to take an exam for a job that I really don’t stand a chance to get? I am not going to pull up and take it,’” Mahoney said in a group interview that was also attended by Sheila Keady Rawson, the city’s personnel director, and Betsy Allen, director of Cambridge’s Department of Equity and Inclusion.
After the exam, the state sends a score-ranked list of those who passed to City Hall. The names are ranked in order: veterans and Cambridge residents are ranked highest, then non-veterans and Cambridge residents, and finally, non-residents. The sequence matters in terms of hiring more women and minorities, Rawson explained.
“Veterans tend to be men, and most of the veterans that we have seen on the list have been white men,” she said.
Looming health concerns
In addition to facing high costs and uncertainty during the application process, some would-be firefighters might also be wary of the health risks faced by firefighters. A multi-year study with a sample of nearly 30,000 firefighters by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found firefighters have higher rates of certain types of cancer than the general U.S. population.
Mahoney said he has been a firefighter for 35 years, and that his father was also a firefighter. But he told his child to “do something else” because of the higher risk of cancer.
“It has been kind of a legacy occupation for many generations to be firefighters,” Mahoney said. But “a lot of people have steered their kids away.”
Recruitment has led to little change
The city’s Department of Equity and Inclusion has been aware of the diversity issue within CFD, Allen said, noting that her department is working with the Cambridge Veterans Services to get more minority veterans to take the exam and help them score well.
CFD has also made efforts to reach out to more young people, Mahoney said.
During the past two summers, the department coached 35 students, ages 13-18, about basic firefighting and medical skills in the Youth Fire Academy during a six-week Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program (MSYEP).
But, he noted, applicants have to be 19 to take the firefighter exam, which means teenagers from that program have to wait.
“Between now and then, they could wind up pursuing another career path,” Mahoney said.
The department said it has also made efforts to improve diversity by sending firefighters to talk about the profession on career days in high schools, encouraging all employees to speak to their friends, and organizing regular neighborhood walks.
But there has been little change.
Although CFD is slightly more diverse than two decades ago, the percentages of women and minority officers both have increased by just 2 percent.
Four new firefighters who will be appointed this month are all white males, Mahoney said.
Representatives of Cambridge’s firefighter union Local 30 said they are committed to ensuring the department meets the dynamic and growing needs of the city.
“We share concerns about our membership reflecting the population we serve, and have approached the city at many levels to offer our assistance in increasing the size and diversity of the Fire Department’s applicant pool,” the union said in a written statement. “We look forward to working with the city on our proposed solutions, and on any other equitable solutions which may be presented.”
Cambridge is not the only city struggling with diversity issues. Only 26.7 percent of Boston Fire Department employees are from minority groups and about 5 percent – 90 of 1,654 – are women.
To learn more about the state’s Civil Service, visit mass.gov/civil-service-information.
To learn more about the Cambridge Fire Department, visit cambridgema.gov/cfd.
Minority firefighters join the conversation on Cambridge department’s lack of diversity
Two of Cambridge’s minority firefighters said they have never experienced racism or sexism in the department, but did have some ideas of how to increase diversity.
Dave House, an African-American fire captain, said he would like to see more outreach to young people on social platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook. Stephanie Crayton, the only minority female firefighter in the department, said that she would like to see recruitment at places like the Rindge Tower, a 273-unit affordable housing in Cambridge, to reach “families that are from different nations that would love to do something for the city.”
“What a great community outreach that would be,” she added.
In their own words
– Dave House, fire captain (Engine 8, Taylor Square), 20 years working experience
Born and raised in Central Square area, Dave House never thought about becoming a firefighter until the summer of 1986. He was preparing to go to Connecticut for college when he learned that his track-and-field scholarship would not work out. Feeling upset, he went back home where his cousin, who is now a retired firefighter, told him to take the firefighter written test.
“I turned out to be in the right place at the right time,” House said. “Because back in 1986, when I came on in that climate, they were looking for minorities.”
After a year of training, he was officially a Cambridge firefighter. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1998 and has served eight years as a captain since 2010. He is in charge of 16 people and Engine 8 at Taylor Square.
House financially assisted his four minority friends who grew up with him to take the firefighter exam, but none of them made it through. He said one person he supported through four attempts finally got to the final interview stage, but was withdrawn from the candidates’ list due to a “sealed record.”
House said that while the state-wide firefighter exam could help hire more qualified people based on scores, the drawback is that minorities might not be able to compete with those who have more privileged backgrounds.
An additional hurdle for minority kids is not having family members or people who can guide them through the process, he noted. He suggested using both social media and in-person tactics, like sending more young officers to go into public and private schools to attract young men and women rather than someone “around 50 years old like me,” he laughed.
While the captain admitted that the department needs to make more effort in hiring and outreach, he said the current staff members are pretty decent.
“Whoever walks in that door – black, white, male, female, transgender, straight, gay, whatever it is – the bottom line is, we all wear that same patch and we all feel pretty proud of who we are and what we do,” House said.
– Stephanie Crayton, minority female firefighter, 4 years working experience
Stephanie Crayton, who works on the River Street firehouse, is the only minority female firefighter from Cambridge in the entire department. She was a single mother when she took the written exam in April 2012.
Crayton said she is a member of Triple F (Fabulous Female Firefighters), a group that gathers women working in fire services around the world to motivate each other through organizing regular discussion and training.
“Being a member of Triple F helps to remind me I am a woman in a male-dominated field,” Crayton said.
The Cambridge Fire Department is supportive and open, Crayton noted, but said that abuse is not unheard of. A firefighter friend received personal attacks online, she said, after posting a photo on Twitter of 15 Asian female firefighters who graduated from the academy in New York.
Below, people had posted horrible comments, she said: “Who needs a bunch of women on an engine truck?” “I’d like to see them try to carry me out.”
“Even though it’s not about you and you know it’s some crazy person on the internet who probably isn’t even firefighter, it still stings and hurts,” Crayton said.
Before receiving training in the Fire Academy in July 2014, Crayton said she went through a five-hour-long background investigation, as well as psychological and physical tests.
“I have friends who are in the Fire Department, and if I didn’t have those friends, I would have given up because I had no idea what the process was,” Crayton said, which she said was “very long, confusing, and emotional.”
Three events in her life paved her way to becoming a firefighter, she said. As a girl, she witnessed three major fires on Cogswell Avenue where she lived in Cambridge. In the 1990s, she worked as a flight attendant and attended a fire class. And after reading a book about women and firefighting, she became determined to be a firefighter.
“I have always hated working behind a desk and not doing physical things,” Crayton said. “I couldn’t be happier now.”
Crayton completed the EMT (Emergency Medical Technicians) test, earned a master’s degree in public administration with a concentration of emergency management, and recently passed her paramedic test.
Zirui Liu is a journalism student at Boston University, writing as part of a collaboration between the Cambridge Chronicle and BU News Service.
The Daily Free Press 
There are also two frontrunner movies among the list, “Manchester by the Sea” and “Moonlight.” The drama film “Moonlight” looks like it might win the award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role and Writing (Adapted Screenplay). “Manchester by the Sea,” which is another drama, may win Writing (Original Screenplay) and lead actor Casey Affleck might take home the Best Actor in a Leading Role.
For the Best Actress in a Leading Role, the award looks like it will go to Isabelle Huppert in “Elle.” The drama film “Hidden Figures,” about a group of women who calculated important equations for NASA, is “La La Land’s” major competitor for overall Best Picture.The Best Sound Mixing award will probably go to “Hacksaw Ridge,” a war drama, because of its intensive soundtrack. In the Costume Design category, it looks like it’ll go to the 2016 British comedy-drama “Florence Foster Jenkins” for its extravagant costumes.No matter who you want to take home a prestigious Academy Award this Sunday, it is sure to be a historic night for the movie industry.
A letter to Boston and its people
Last weekend, I went on a whale watching tour at the Boston Harbor. It was a sunny day, and I could see the top of Prudential Center when I first went on board. As I started the voyage on the ship, I somehow felt detached to the city. The new memories that I have in Boston all came back to me and I began to reflect.
Looking at the city, besides the scuttle when the plane was approaching Logan International Airport, I came to realize that this city was now my second home besides Beijing. To be honest, at the beginning, I was nervous and did not have the confidence to speak to others. As many of you may have experienced, I struggled before I went to my first office hour of PH 160. Lots of weird thoughts came to my head when I stepped in. What if my professor could not understand me? Can I just drop the course? Things turned out to be much better. All the professors were very kind, and from talking with them, I unlocked the hidden characteristics of myself and began to believe in my abilities to challenge myself. I went to interesting places and discovered restaurants; I chatted with Uber drivers and heard their funny stories; I adapted more in this new society, even the changing weather. Coming back from sea to land, I realized that I have grown up so much.
Coming from Bejing to Boston was hard, but it’s been a year to remember.