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Unpacking the True Mechanisms of China’s Internet Censorship
In recent years, with the spread of social media and the increased activity on blogging sites, the Internet has been praised as a tool that enables social change and encourages public debate. The claim was dramatically proven this spring by the events in the Middle East, as social networking sparked revolts that had reverberating effects. However, when it comes to discussions of political involvement and freedom of speech, China is always cited as an example where censorship has unjustly kept a population in fear and ignorance. The nation’s dictatorial hold on media both in print and online has been decreed an assault on freedom of speech and an infringement of basic human rights, and the government is depicted as an oppressor, suppressing a nation that longs for democracy. However, if it is true that China is indeed rising up in its demands for greater political freedom, why did it not follow in Egypt and Libya’s footsteps? Is it possible that the Chinese government may not in fact be a ‘Big Brother’ as is depicted by the foreign press?
In this essay, we will explore the precise means by which Internet censorship places restraint upon public debate and social mobilization in China. The belief that Internet controls and lack of access to information cultivates popular ignorance is a concept that is fundamentally simplistic. Case studies will be included to illustrate and strengthen points of argument, while comparisons will also be drawn to other nations. By demonstrating that censorship does not prevent access to information, but instead imposes a threatening presence that encourages self-censorship given the current social, economic and cultural context, we can begin to unpack the true mechanisms behind China’s control of the Internet. It is not the censorship of information itself that is suppressing public debate and the push for greater political freedom; rather, it is the assertion of control and the conscious display of power by the Chinese government that discourages criticism and keeps dissidents in check. Such a display is effective as it works in conjunction with the current economic, social and cultural conditions that exist in China, forming a argument that must be examined in two parts: the effect of censorship upon behavior, and the pre-existing attitudes towards social revolt that exists in China today.
Censorship: a Brief History
Censorship in China takes many forms, encompassing print media, public broadcasting, and most infamously, the Internet. Only by understanding the role of the Internet in Chinese society, and the exact methods and strategies employed by the government in censoring online material can we hope to understand the effect that censorship has had on the populace.
In 1978, when faced with a stagnating economy following the events of the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping, the leader of the Communist Party of China at the time, implemented vast economic reforms that transformed China and brought it into the modern age. Urban areas became hubs of industry and economic growth, and according to researcher Marina Yue Zhang, an estimated 400 million people were lifted out of poverty over the past 30 years (2). Promoting widespread use of technology became an integral part of Chinese developmental strategies, skyrocketing the country and its citizens into a modern age at unprecedented rates. As quoted by the scholar John Lagerkvist, the China Internet Network Information Center reported in July 2010 that 420 million Chinese – a larger number than the entire population of the United States – now accesses the Internet via Chinese networks, and that number is expected to continue increasing (12).
The project of censoring the Internet was initiated by the Chinese Communist Party in 1998, and began operations in 2003. Peter Marolt classifies censorship into four categories: the “Great Firewall of China”, ISP-enforced blacklisting of specific words and phrases, the control of multinational technology corporations and real-world access controls (2). Websites providing access to information about the Falun Gong, the Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989 and the Free Tibet movement are blocked, as are some Chinese-language foreign news websites. Blog posts containing the names of government officials and keywords are heavily monitored, while access to social media sites such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Flickr is infamously prohibited. Although these restrictions generally do not interfere with normal day-to-day activities of Internet, the effects of censorship are nonetheless pervasive and ever-present, asserting a presence that subtly guides all online activities in China.
Failings, Foucault, and the Power of Fear
Censorship clearly exerts an extremely tangible online presence, affecting each and every Internet user in China. However, the question of what effect these acts of censorship have had upon the Chinese online community, and the nature of this effect is subject to debate. Certainly, knowledge about certain issues is difficult to access in China, and access to non-Chinese-based social media sites is largely restricted. Nonetheless, what matters is whether these censors are fulfilling their intended purpose of concealing truth from individuals, cultivating ignorance and promoting government propaganda.
Of all the subjects that the Chinese government seeks to hide, perhaps no other event evokes stronger emotions than the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Despite diligent attempts made by the Chinese government to promulgate their version of the events that took place, the Chinese public remains aware of the atrocities that were committed by the State, to a greater degree than an outside observer might expect. Although there is no concrete data examining awareness within China itself, the relatively recent event – having occurred a mere 22 years prior – is vividly remembered by all those who are of middle age. The China-based organization Tiananmen Mothers, founded by Deng Zilin in response to her son’s death during the massacre, continues to campaign peacefully within China for the recognition and remembrance of the tragic event (Time Magazine). Many artists and filmmakers, including Ai Weiwei and Yue Minjun, also produce work in reference to the event. Awareness is of a sufficient level that prior to the event’s 20th anniversary, officers in both uniforms and plainclothes patrolled the square, subjecting visitors to bag searches, requesting identification and restricting entry for both local and foreign journalists (BBC).
In this day and age of rampant globalization, when China is integrally connected to the rest of the world, completely covering up information is no longer a realistic goal. No matter what restrictions are applied, savvy individuals with tech know-how will find means of circumventing censors and accessing banned sites. For some individuals, including casual Internet users, the act of censoring a website is enough to discourage interest. However, the conclusion is that though China’s censors make it difficult for the average Internet user to stumble upon knowledge that has been deemed a threat to the Chinese government, a determined individual could easily find the means of accessing the information that they wanted. Therefore, censorship serves as discouragement, but no firewall is realistically capable of hiding truth from an entire nation of Internet users.
Figure 1. An original drawing of a Panopticon and its envisioned layout. Note the cells around the circumference and the central watchtower (Bentham).
Clearly, although censors have an effect, the full influence of Internet censorship in China cannot solely be the product of limited access to information and cultivation of ignorance. Instead, it is public displays of control and indirect intimidation that discourages public dissent online, essentially creating a society in which people are motivated to censor their own actions, adhering to regulations without the need of excessive governmental intervention. This balance of power can be described as a “Panopticon” – a term first coined by Jeremy Bentham in 1787, and later developed into a model of social control by French philosopher Michel Foucault. This model serves as a good point of reference to which Chinese strategies of censorship may be compared and explained, clarifying the factors that currently influence the public’s behavior as a society.
The Panopticon itself consists of a multistoried, circular prison with individual cells lined up along the circumference, all of which open up onto a central courtyard. A watchtower stands in the middle, lined with windows that allow guards to look out, but not allowing prisoners to look in. The inability of inmates to judge whether a guard is actually present forces them to believe that they are always watched, enforcing obedience even when guards are not actually present (13). Foucault takes this model one step further, applying it to politics and social control. He argues that if a government can assert a strong enough presence and generate enough intimidation, they would “induce in the ‘inmate’ a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (201). Thus, by reminding the public of their own permanent visibility, while preventing the masses from ever knowing the extent to which they are watched, order can be easily maintained within any system.
Online censorship in China mirrors Foucault’s model of social control, cultivating a form of “self-censorship” that may play a considerably larger role in suppressing dissent than direct action does. As Foucault states, such a setting, “arranges things in such a way that the exercise of power is not added on from the outside, like a rigid, heavy constraint, to the functions it invests, but is so subtly present in them as to increase their efficiency” (206). These words are a remarkable summary of the means by which the Chinese government exerts its power over the Chinese population – rather than fight a losing battle against the penetrative power of Internet-assisted knowledge, censorship works in more complex ways, discouraging interest in dangerous topics. These ‘subtle constraints’ include the replacement of Western social media sites with Chinese-based alternatives, and the active monitoring of blogs and discussion forums, both serving as ‘watchtowers’ that intimidate the public into self-censorship.
Censorship represents an assertion of power and authority, and – as demonstrated by Foucault’s model – is most effective when the populace is acutely aware of its presence. Perhaps the most visible and infamous aspect of online policies in China is the banning of Western social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – online staples for many Internet users around the world. As a result, Chinese entrepreneurs have exploited the gap in the Chinese market by providing their own versions of banned sites, sites that willingly conform to local online regulations while satisfying a nation of consumers. For instance, Tudou (土豆) and Youku (优酷) are both video-hosting sites that possess similar capabilities to that of YouTube. Both were founded by Chinese entrepreneurs who, following the banning of YouTube in 2009, sought to control the Chinese market.
At first it seems as though the government’s motives are clear; replacing foreign-based websites possessing large global networks with solely China-based versions limits the spread of potentially subversive ideas that would otherwise filter in from other nations. However, the government’s monopolistic hold on social media serves an additional purpose, ultimately forcing the nation to use a form of social media that exposes users to monitoring and control. Currently, Renren is China’s predominant social media site, with over 31 million active users in April 2011 (Wall Street Journal). The website is also one of the most heavily censored, with built-in filters that prevent the posting of content relating to Tiananmen Square, the names of government officials, the Falun Gong and the Free Tibet movement. Thus, by maintaining control over the single social media site that exists in China, the government creates an effective monitor and filter that the populace has no choice but to participate in.
The fear of being caught and identified, and potentially punished by such control, plays a major role in discouraging dissent, creating a strong culture of self-censorship motivated by fear. According to expert Peter Marolt, the Internet police monitors, identifies, and expunges subversive posts online using specially designed software that automatically targets key phrases (53). Direct action ranges from deleting posts and blocking websites to physical incarceration. However, the latter only occurs on a sporadic basis, following repeat or highly severe offences (54). For example, the high-profile arrest of the artist Ai Weiwei in April this year for alleged tax evasion was heavily publicized by foreign media, provoking rumors that the true reason for his incarceration was the maintenance of a daily blog pushing for political reform (The New York Times). Although such measures subject the government to heavy criticism, their actions also serve as a thinly veiled warning to others in China who might seek to disseminate similar messages, reminding the population of their vulnerability under China’s gaze.
As can be seen from the illustrations given above, censorship serves purposes other than the simple restriction of access to material. By reminding the populace of the government’s ability to block information, monopolize social media, and actively block posts made on blogs and in forums by individuals, China is asserting its presence online. Therefore, the mechanism by which censorship works within the nation is not so much an issue of suppression and cultivation of ignorance, but of intimidation and self-censorship. By employing such indirect means and ingraining desired behavior into the mindsets of Internet users, China promotes a situation in which heavy-handed forces is usually not required. However, such tactics must be evaluated within the context in which they are used. Clearly, such an approach must be supported by current economic, social and cultural conditions unique to China, factors that will be explored in the following section.
The Specificities of Time and Place
Up to this point, discussions have focused on the ways in which the Chinese government actively discourages and threatens those that voice open criticism online, while encouraging self-censorship. However, the perception that Chinese citizens live in constant fear is a vast oversimplification of a highly complex issue. The relative lack of political activism in China at present is not only influenced by government policies, but also by a myriad of situational factors. Within a population, the desire to revolt and instigate political change is a phenomenon that is inextricably tied to social, economic, and cultural factors – factors that have to be explored if we are to gain a full understanding of China’s current political clime in relation to the topic of censorship.
Firstly, from an economic perspective, China’s economy is not only stable, but also growing at a steady rate. Increasing wealth, a swelling middle-class and rapid industrialization is causing China to be heralded as the world’s next great superpower, and the Chinese populace is keenly aware of it. A healthy economy means that the people are content, and even willing to overlook issues of free speech. For example, to illustrate the points made above, during the Egyptian uprising that took place in early 2011, some political commentators were already speculating about the possibility of the Arab Spring being followed by a Chinese Winter – an event that clearly never occurred.
There are several flaws that made such a prediction highly unlikely, the most significant of which are the current economic differences between Egypt and China. Egyptians protested against rampant corruption, escalating poverty, and severe unemployment; these qualities are simply not currently present in China to the same degree. According to a Pew Global Attitudes Survey conducted two years ago, “Twenty-eight percent of Egyptians were “satisfied” with their country’s direction, down from 47 percent a few years earlier; 87 percent of Chinese were satisfied, up from 83 percent. Only 23 percent of Egyptians were optimistic about their own life prospects over the next five years, versus 74 percent of Chinese (and 52 percent of Americans)” (The Atlantic). Although the data may be questionable, given that respondents were predominantly urban dwellers, the results indicate that the motivation for violent revolt simply was not there.
China’s current economic strength, and the role that technology has played in the nation’s modernization has led to different perspectives of Internet’s place in society. As researcher Jen Damm elaborates, “Western discourses have focused on democratization and political change…The Chinese discourse, on the other hand, is very technology-deterministic, focused entirely on the potential economic and modernizing benefits of the new communication technologies” (93). This perception of the Internet as a tool for economic development simply is more pervasive than views of the Internet as a tool for social development, and social media does not hold the same value that it does in other societies. Admittedly, these two views are not mutually exclusive, and clearly there are those that do see the potential of using online media as a means of communication and access to information. Nonetheless, China’s history of immense economic growth and the current satisfaction of the population with the Chinese government, when combined with existing censorship, enhance the population’s reluctance to openly criticize.
Secondly, from a social perspective, demographics of Internet users are highly skewed, representing a section of the population that may not be representative of the nation’s beliefs as a whole. According research conducted by Junhua Zhang, over 80% of Internet users in China are below the age of 35, and the majority live in urban environments (45). This means that it is primarily those individuals of higher educational background and social status that are accessing blogs and social media sites, representing a section of the population that is currently in a position of relative comfort and economic satisfaction. Many of those living below the poverty line in rural parts of China do not have access to the Internet, and do not possess sufficient levels of education to actively participate in social debate, effectively cutting them out of the picture. Instead, the individuals that do, number among the growing urban middle class – a demographic that may be more unwilling than others to place themselves at risk.
Some analysts argue that it is precisely the rising generation of youthful intellectuals in China that will be the primary arbiters of social change. It was such a generation that organized the public protests of 1989, and many believe that it is precisely the Internet users that will most strongly advocate for social change. However, researcher Junhua Zhang argues that this view does not take into account the changing attitudes of modern youths and young adults who were not direct witnesses to the Tiananmen Square massacre, and therefore do not attach the same emotions the event that older generations do (91). Having grown up accustomed to restricted sites and the practice of self-censorship, there is some evidence that younger generations do not so much see the Internet as a tool for social change, as they see it as a tool for entertainment and personal pleasure.
Data collected online reveals interesting trends about patterns of behavior. According to the eBusiness Knowledgebase website, which ranks blogs based on each website's Alexa Global Traffic Rank, and U.S. Traffic Rank from both Compete and Quantcast, Huffington Post is the top blog viewed by Americans, followed by business and entertainment sites such as Business Insider, Perez Hilton and Gizmodo. In contrast, a study conducted in 2007 by Johan Lagerkvist revealed that not a single one of Mainland China’s top 100 bloggers discussed political issues or advocated social change (73). Instead, popular blogs in China are overwhelmingly focused on fashion, lifestyle, gossip and the stock market, reflecting different patterns of behavior online. Whether this is a result to censorship or social changes, it clearly reveals the dominant preoccupations of Internet users in China, demonstrating that the technology’s potential for inciting social change has not been heavily utilized.
Thirdly, from a cultural perspective, Chinese attitudes and beliefs are still deeply rooted in Confucian principles, as well as mindsets cultivated by recent historical events such as the Cultural Revolution. Many of these mindsets encourage respect for authority, adherence to social and political hierarchies and a non-confrontational approach to politics – attitudes that continue to subtly play a role in shaping Chinese society. What many Western commentators overlook is the fact that issues such as democracy and elections are viewed in a very different context in many non-Western nations, and may not in fact be seen as the ultimate goal of the people. China’s government – officially known as the Chinese Communist Party – gained its position of power during the Cultural Revolution, a period that continues to evoke strong memories within the populace.
Confucianism plays a large part in shaping Chinese culture, despite past attempts made by the Chinese government to quash the belief system. It is a philosophy that places great emphasis upon harmony, and as researcher Rodney Wai-Chi Chu states, “does not emphasize treating individuals on equal terms, but rather focuses on the relationships between people as the basic unit of society” (27). This view implies that Chinese individuals do not view the significance of democracy to be as paramount as Western individuals might consider it to be, and instead prefer to maintain stable relationships between the people and the state. In Confucian terms, social development would therefore best be achieved not by endowing each and every individual with increased freedom, but instead by improving the moral values of both state and society (29). This represents a key difference that separates Chinese and Western viewers, resulting in different interpretations and value judgments that affect perceptions of censorship.
The reality in China today is that Chinese citizens – as stated by Peter Marolt – “are ignoring or avoiding such discourses of legitimacy and their attendant narratives of control and censorship” (60) for reasons that go beyond censorship itself. The lack of public dissent and criticism online is not a mere product of government efforts and the spreading of fear; instead, social, economic and cultural contexts play a large role in providing motivations for civil debate. At this time, the condition of the Chinese populace is positive – despite its shortcomings, the government is viewed as a force that has modernized China and brought millions out of poverty. The potential costs of overthrowing the current powers are far too great for the sake of gains that are negligible in Confucian belief, resulting in a population willing to bow down to governmental power at this present time.
Censorship is not a direct means to an end. Rather, censorship in China is used as a demonstration of control, discouraging public criticism and reminding citizens of the government’s far-reaching gaze. In the first half of the essay, this phenomena was discussed in detail: while suppressing the dissemination of subversive information online creates an effective obstacle for many, this form of censorship alone is not enough to cultivate a society of docile ignorance. Instead, the Chinese government has chosen – consciously or not – to mirror Foucault’s Panoptic model of social control. By limiting forms of social media to those monitored by the government, and scanning millions of individual blog posts for subversive material, the government constantly reminds the populace of its presence. These acts serve as an effective “watchtower”, intimidating the populace into a state of self-censorship.
In the second half of the essay, we explored the social, economic and cultural conditions that make the intimidation imposed by China’s censorship policies effective. As it currently stands, China’s trend of steady economic growth, rising levels of wealth and increasing living standards temper the nation’s desire for greater political freedom. The trend in Internet users also consists of a demographic that is satisfied with China’s current social and economic stability, with no desire to voice critical dissent at the risk of losing their place in society. Finally, China’s history of having undergone the Cultural Revolution, and its long history of Confucian influence have left many people reluctant to upset a social hierarchy that is currently successful from an economic standpoint. With different views towards freedom of speech and human rights, coupled with the ample discouragement enforced by Internet censorship, the majority of the Chinese population simply does not feel compelled to upset the status quo at this point in time.
China’s system of censorship is so effective that it has left many observers in awe, marveling at the relative efficiency with which a nation’s critical opinion and dissent is subdued by the government. Yet when critiquing foreign systems of governance and control, it is important to recognize the complexity and multifaceted qualities of such regulations. The attitude of China’s populace towards the limitations that have been placed upon their Internet usage is one that results from a variety of factors – and not all of them have to do with censorship itself. As Foucaultian model, China successfully maintains the boundary between overt suppression and gentle encouragement of self-censorship, never quite overstepping into the role of Big Brother. Additionally, China has also proven to the world that it remains a rising power, demonstrating the strengths of its government despite external political criticism. Eventually, China will have to come to terms with its political system and the issues surrounding free speech; however, for now we must be content as spectators, impartially evaluating the interactions taking place within this complex nation.
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