Back in 2009 when President Obama paid his first visit to China, the President came out and stated that he was a “big supporter of non-censorship,” claiming that criticism helped him to better serve the needs of the American people. “The more freely information flows, the stronger society becomes as citizens can hold their governments accountable for their actions,” said Obama, adding that it allowed “people to think for themselves”.
It was clear for all to see that Obama was eluding to the belief that internet censors in China do everything they can to stem online criticism of the government and Communist Party leaders. But are China’s censorship goals really that straightforward? Is it really their mission to remove any and all criticisms of the state?
A new study by researchers at Harvard University pours cold water on that supposition, revealing that China’s internet censorship policy is far more sophisticated than many believe. The study, led by Professor Gary King of Harvard’s Department of Government, describes ”Chinese censorship efforts as the most sophisticated attempt to censor human expression ever attempted”, but notes that China is not actually trying to suppress all criticism of the government or the Communist Party.
The systems China has in place are quite complex, with many censors actually allowing criticisms of the Beijing government and certain government officials. The study concludes that blog posts and comments that contain “negative, even vitriolic” criticisms of the government, its policies and its leaders, are often allowed. Negative posts, which were previously thought to have slipped through the net, were actually intentionally allowed to pass through.
Why does China sometimes allow criticism? Instead of trying to smother all dissent, the Chinese government’s goal is to remove comments that could incite collective action, even when those actions are not overtly political or directed against the Communist Party leaders.
Such a goal actually makes sense if you believe that political stability is Beijing’s top priority. This view is supported by the fact that China’s budget for internal security remains substantially larger than that of its defense budget. In 2010, the last year for which data is available, there were an estimated 180,000 ‘mass incidents’ in China. The Chinese government appears keen to keep these protests isolated and prevent activists from using the Internet to fan the flames of these protests. It is for this reason that Chinese censors were quick to a remove calls for a Chinese-style “Arab Spring”, a threat that many had considered to be pretty much non-existent.
China is so concerned about stability that even posts about non-political items may be censored or blocked. In the aftermath of the Fukushima crisis in Japan, rumors spread around China’s Zhejiang province that salt would be able to protect people from exposure to radiation, leading to a run on salt. Although the rumors were non-political, censors were concerned enough to step in and delete a vast number of related Internet posts.
Another finding of the study is that China believes it can benefit from allowing criticism of certain officials, especially local officials. During a highly publicized case about a high ranking Communist Party member and school official accused of the rape of 11 underage schoolgirls, Chinese censors allowed people to vent their frustrations online to prevent them taking to the streets in protest.
It’s become clear that the Chinese government has a nuanced approach to censorship, aimed at maintaining stability. Censors are willing to tolerate criticism in certain instances up until the point it could incite protests.
Jean-Loup Richet – Special Commentator to Herdict