It’s safe to say former White House national security adviser John Bolton’s book has made a splash.
With revelations about US President Donald Trump’s strategy in Korea, his response to the coronavirus, and his dealings with China, Bolton’s White House memoir has been dominating headlines around the world since advance copies began circulating this month.
This has also been true in China, where state media has been happy to play up many details of Bolton’s exposé. However, not every part of “The Room Where It Happened” is considered so palatable behind the Great Firewall.
When it comes to Bolton’s allegations that Trump asked Chinese President Xi Jinping for reelection help and voiced approval for mass detention camps in the Muslim-majority region of Xinjiang, Chinese media has largely stayed quiet. The country’s diplomats have been equally tight-lipped, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian only commenting to say that China had “no intention” to interfere in US elections and that the Trump administration “clearly understands” Beijing’s position on Xinjiang.
Those statements were made at a news conference on June 18, in response to a question from CNN, but are notably missing from an official transcript of the event published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. MOFA transcripts often leave out questions on sensitive matters.
The only coverage of Bolton’s allegations about Xinjiang and election interference in mainstream Chinese media appeared in the English-language Global Times, a state-backed nationalist tabloid geared toward a foreign audience. The paper accused Bolton of being “an anti-China hardliner” who was seeking to “smear” Beijing and “further muddy the waters of US domestic politics.”
Limits on Bolton’s China revelations go beyond not covering the matter: there is evidence of discussion of the book being censored on two of the biggest platforms on the Chinese internet.
Users on Weibo — a Twitter-like service — complained they were unable to comment on the book or share passages from it, while on WeChat, China’s largest messaging app, posts about Bolton appeared to be being hidden or deleted. CNN was able to upload a screenshot of the book cover to WeChat, but no contacts could see the resulting post.
It is unclear what exactly triggers the censorship, as some posts about the book, including reports in Chinese media, are permitted.
Yan Duan, an office worker in Beijing, said she was locked out of her WeChat account after sharing a PDF of the book in a group message. She received the notification: “As this WeChat account is suspected of disseminating false information, the current login is disabled.”
“A friend of mine expressed interest in the book, so I thought I could directly forward the file,” she said, having received it from another contact on WeChat herself. “It seems that there’s a window of censorship. The file was sharable earlier. But afterward, I heard many incidents where the messages got hidden or the sender got kicked out like me.”
Representatives for Sina and Tencent, which operate Weibo and WeChat respectively, did not respond to a request for comment.