Sex, Blogs, and the Great Firewall Part I – Censorship

China has 162 million Internet subscribers – 12.3% of the total population of China, but over 50% of the total population of the U.S. And as Internet connectivity and use in China is growing, so too is China’s influence over the Internet. The Associated Press reports that the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers is working on incorporating characters from non-romanized alphabets into web addresses, albeit while facing big challenges over how to do this. Concerning the prospect of Chinese in these addresses, John Yunker’s article Slouching Toward Multilingual .com originally ran under the title “Slouching Toward .公司 (.com),” using the Mandarin Chinese characters for .com. And concerning the overall influence of different languages on the Internet, Daniel Altman of the International Herald Tribune raises the prospect that Mandarin Chinese might someday overtake English as the language most widely spoken on the Internet. While Altman is dubious about this prospect, the prospect he raises of Chinese dominance over the Internet is a prospect generating a lot of discussion around the world.

All this is occurring with the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, heavily involved with an Internet Censorship campaign. This censorship campaign has taken on multiple different forms and been applied with varying degrees of consistency and varying degrees of effectiveness by the Chinese government. I will get to a discussion of censorship in China in a moment, but first I should say a word about what censorship is and is not.

So what does the slippery concept of censorship entail?

One of the best thoughts I have encountered regarding censorship emerged during last year’s Global Plaza. Responding to a First Monday article that I posted to the Blog, a student wrote that the article

…clearly shows that a society cannot exist without some sort of censorship. The government tries to enforce censorship of actions or content that majority finds harmful or offensive. Basically, we expect government to do something about child pornography or terrorist training sites and don’t usually view it unfair censorship.

This thought points to a continuum of different levels of acceptability of censoring people’s thought or expression depending upon what that thought or expression is. While many people (not all, but many) in liberal Western societies find it socially desirable to censor child porn or terrorist training sites, they will have a different standard of acceptability for censoring the free exchange of ideas. And there are many levels of acceptability of censorship in between these two situations, along with ongoing debate about what should or should not be censored at these different levels. Furthermore there are the questions of who is and who should be able to make such a decision – be it the group of “many people” I list above, or official government censors. Last but not least questions of culture come into play. What is socially or culturally taboo in one region may be acceptable in another region. While citizens of liberal Western societies may find it socially desirable to censor one type of idea, citizens of another form of society may object to the censorship of the same idea. And given the borderless nature of the Internet, different cultures will come in contact online, in some cases prompting national governments to try to erect an artificial national cyber barrier to ideas or websites they find subversive.

In addition to this continuum, there are different forms of censorship. Many voices discussing censorship in China are (correctly) discussing CCP censorship. These discussions concern (for example) jailed bloggers such as Wang Xiaoning, and the heavy handed “challenge the Party and you will be punished” approach to censorship. Less attention is paid to the closely related and comparatively lighter handed concept of propaganda. Instead of using threats or force to ensure conformity, government censors will use Internet portals such as Sina or Sohu to post pro-Party reactions to ideas they consider subversive in an attempt to sway public opinion to favor the official view over the subversive view.

In her book Foreign Babes in Beijing, Rachel DeWoskin writes that xuanchan, the Chinese word for propaganda, does not carry with it the negative stigma of its English equivalent. It is merely the word for “official” information or views of events. Reactions to such an official view expressed through propaganda can range from agreement to disagreement, whereas people in the U.S. and other western countries typically display aversion to the whole concept of propaganda.

In an article with the somewhat Orwellian title As Chinese Students Go Online, Little Sister Is Watching, Howard W. French describes Hu Yingying, an undergraduate who follows the life of a typical Chinese undergraduate – except that for several hours per week unbeknownst to her classmates she acts as a censor of her university’s Internet forums. As French says,

Part traffic cop, part informer, part discussion moderator — and all without the knowledge of her fellow students — Ms. Hu is a small part of a huge national effort to sanitize the Internet. For years China has had its Internet police, reportedly as many as 50,000 state agents who troll online, blocking Web sites, erasing commentary and arresting people for what is deemed anti-Communist Party or antisocial speech.

But Ms. Hu, one of 500 students at her university's newly bolstered, student-run Internet monitoring group, is a cog in a different kind of force, an ostensibly all-volunteer one that the CCP is mobilizing to help it manage the monumental task of censoring the Web.

Instead of relying on the force of authority alone, Hu tries if possible to steer conversations on these forums to a more pro-Party viewpoint, and only alert the school’s webmaster for the worst departures from an official view. French writes that Hu,

says she and her fellow moderators try to steer what they consider negative conversations in a positive direction with well-placed comments of their own. Anything they deem offensive, she says, they report to the school's Web master for deletion.

French does not mention any disciplinary action taken against a student who posts something that is later deleted, only that the post is deleted.

(Two side notes: First, I would be remiss if I neglected to mention self-censorship – the practice of voluntarily censoring one’s thoughts on a topic in order to avoid repercussion or to conform to a societal standard. And certainly this happens in China. But while some will censor themselves, others will not, thus furthering, rightly or wrongly, a role for CCP censors. Second, I am not suggesting that surveillance occurs only in China. A similar situation occurred at my undergraduate school in Ohio in the mid-1970s – before the Internet, and more specifically, before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, which stipulates that the U.S. Government must obtain a warrant in order to monitor a person’s phone conversations. At the end of the Vietnam War, before FISA was enacted, residence halls at my school were not equipped with a telephone in each room. Rather they had one phone per floor in the hall. A CIA wiretap was found in the phone that one floor of one of the residence halls shared. No school administrator ever learned who installed this wiretap, but there is some speculation that one of the students was doubling as a CIA operative).

There is a kind of middle ground between censorship and propaganda that the CCP uses too – “friendly” reminders not to engage in subversive behavior online. Such reminders are best exemplified by two cartoon cybercops (one of which is below) that have recently begun appearing on Chinese websites.

Chinese cartoon cybercop

Quoting the China Daily news service, the BBC reports that

The animated figures, a man and a woman, will appear on users' screens every 30 minutes "to remind them of internet security", China Daily said…

They would "be on watch for websites that incite secession, promote superstition, gambling and fraud", the China Daily said, citing Beijing's Municipal Public Security Bureau.

How effective they are or are not remains to be seen, as do people’s reactions to them. And as with the cybercops, the effectiveness of the Chinese government’s Internet censorship program as a whole, as well as the reactions of Chinese citizens to it merit discussion.

Is the CCP effective in censoring the Internet? And what do people in China think about official censorship?

I first wrote about Internet censorship in China here. In this article I noted that, even into the early 2000s, the Chinese Communist Party had met with solid success in censoring the Internet. I pointed to Tamara Renee Shie’s 2004 article in the Journal of Contemporary China called “The Tangled Web” and Tom Zeller Jr’s observation that the Communist Party “created a multilayered regime of filtering and surveillance, vague legal regulations and stringent enforcement that, taken together, effectively neutralized the Internet in China” as evidence of the Party’s success in controlling online information. But then I added that

Change is happening despite the CCP’s efforts at control, and it is proving a powerful force in terms of everyday life in Chinese society and in terms of online commentary specifically… things will only get harder for the CCP as the Internet and the blogosphere continue to expand. Ultimately the CCP must adapt to the current realities of Internet use in China (which may prove to be too much of a challenge for them) or see their control over information wane, perhaps to the point that they will no longer be able to govern China.

Howard W. French offered a similar observation here. And although I was writing in early 2006, the tension between Party control and freedom on online information is still the same fundamental tension.

The CCP is aware of the increasingly complex challenges of maintaining control over online information. In addition to their efforts at technological control, they have reached into their own Confucian and Maoist cultural heritage to promote an ideology of following Party rule. I wrote about efforts at ideological control in the comments to a post from last year’s Plaza:

This New York Times article by Jim Yardley describes an effort by the Chinese Communist Party earlier this year to reinstill a Confucian respect for order and official authority, under the premise that doing so will allow the party to remain a modern and vital element of life in China. Revolving around many hours spent reviewing the works of Chairman Mao and Deng Xiaoping, Yardley quotes Wenran Jiang of the China Institute at the University of Alberta as saying that the Party’s effort “is an effort to cope with the declining reputation of the party and the distrust of the people toward party officials.” That Professor Jiang saw fit to bring the issue of trust into this push for order underscores the position in which the Communist Party currently finds itself, and its desire to reinstill a sense of trust for its authority among the Chinese people.

However a push towards conformity like this represents a huge challenge for the CCP – some Chinese citizens will treat a push like this with disdain. It is in the blog comment above that I wrote about the question of the reactions of ordinary Chinese citizens to censorship. Professing disagreement with the reasoning of CCP censors in this BBC article, I “began to wonder if Chinese Internet users would react the same way, or if my reaction was borne of my own Western view of a free Internet.” I found both Chinese voices dissenting against censorship and expressing support for it. Concerning the dissenters, I wrote

Hundreds if not thousands of Western media outlets have chronicled official censorship in China, and many Chinese bloggers take the same view, as this BBC article suggests. Not trusting the official media to report a broad range of news events, nor to report them fairly or accurately when they do, the journalists, editors, and ordinary citizens noted in this article support freedom of expression in the Chinese media.

Concerning Chinese voices in support or partial support of censorship, I wrote

But there are Chinese voices that explicitly place their trust in the official media to present trustworthy information. I think in particular of a Chinese classmate who, when asked what she thought of Party censorship, responded that she saw solid arguments both for and against state control of media.

Concluding that “Some favor independent media sources competing and collaborating with each other, similar to Western media sources and blogs [and] others prefer to place their trust in official party pronouncements,” I now find my thoughts similar to DeWoskin’s observation about propaganda above. As with propaganda, there exist among Chinese netizens both a view that CCP censorship is something to be quashed as quickly as possible, and a view that CCP efforts at censorship are merely efforts to promote their official version of events. And the tension between these two viewpoints continues to be discussed in different segments of the blogosphere in China (unless it gets censored) and around the world. This tension frequently centers on a sensitive topic, and can be heightened even further when there exist different ideas about what subjects are illicit, should be illicit, and should be discussed even when others consider them illicit. If a new idea (particularly a more liberal idea of what should or should not be restricted) is imported into a culture from another society or country, the tension over censorship can become explosive. And the topic of my next post – Sex, Blogs, and the Great Firewall Part II: Sexuality and Subversion in China – is a tension that has become explosive and will only continue to challenge CCP censors in the years to come.

(The NY times requires a login to read their articles online. Creating a login and password for the NY Times is free and may be done here).

Works cited:

DeWoskin, R. (2005). Foreign Babes in Beijing: Behind the Scenes of a New China. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Ltd.

Shie, T.R. (2004, August). The Tangled Web: does the Internet offer promise or peril for the Chinese Communist Party? Journal of Contemporary China, v. 13: 40.

Posted by Aaron Bowen

Category: