Near the outset of my time as a correspondent for The New York Times in China in the early 2000s, during one of my regular conversations with my research assistants, I had an idea for a story that I thought was promising. Beijing was just then cracking down on both video game parlors and internet access, with authorities saying that age limits needed to be imposed and real-name identification required in order to do many things online.
At the time, the state used pornography as the rationale for the moves, arguing that online smut would poison the minds of the youth if strict controls were not placed on internet use. Surely, I told my staff, all of them Chinese nationals, this is just political cover in order to justify encroaching on online freedoms more generally. But they did not agree. How could anyone defend pornography, one of them objected? Although I thought I had made it obvious, that was not my intention.
Despite their opposition, I pursued my idea, even as internet controls in China began to take other forms. Sometime later, for example, I visited the campus of a university in Shanghai, where a team of student censors worked zealously in a hidden-away office to silently intercept and delete writings posted to university message boards and elsewhere on the internet that might displease the Chinese Communist Party and government.