Friday, October 21, 2011

China & the Culture of Censorship

A Chinese friend who was educated in the states and now teaches American literature and culture in Shanghai, has an interesting take on the current Republican Presidential primary campaign. To paraphase from his email: "It's as if the candidates have created the political equivalent of William Faulker's fictional Yoknapatawpha County where anti-intellectualism and mendacity rule. In China the government tries to build a firewall around our speech. Your candidates seem to use religion and nativism to limit conversation."

I laughed and thanked him for not finding a political equivalent of Faulker's Snopes families in his political observations, though some of the candidates don't seem too far away from dragging their knuckles over a scorched earth of their own making. I reminded my friend that with all our political primitivism we still have the NYT, Gooogle and a Twitter that is free enough to follow aging dictators down rats holes or into sewer pipes.

It is something of a 21st century paradox that China, a country in which censorship is deep, structural, and aided by advanced technology, largely from the West, can continue to outperform America economically and even in some tech areas, including green technology. Countries need a compelling narrative and if we are to believe the Republican candidates, the story line they propose is a muscular, frontier narrative in which citizens should pick themselves up by their bootstraps and excel. In psychological terms this narrative is called an archetype, reflecting a set of values that might be commonly shared. It can be equally true that an archetype, if used as an actual legislative course or a hammer, rather than as an informing principle, might describe the mess in Washington DC or some other apocraphal end game.

China has been very adept at developing its narrative and this deftness was in display during the Beijing Olympics in 2008. I was in China at the time and was impressed the way the government harnessed accoutrements of an earlier dynasty to provide a theme and the remarkable graphics of the opening ceremony. This was public relations at its finest with China reminding its citizens and the world that the country indeed had a history and the horrors of 1948 or so were a mere blip. Even though the Communist Party had done everything in its power to eliminate all vestiges of the past, at times theatrics are in order. But the Central Committee knew this dance and flourish represented a remaking of a culture for political purposes. And it worked.

When the PRC came into being more than sixty years ago the central government gave to each of the thirty-four provinces a newspaper, magazine and radio station with Beijing getting the cream of the crop. While China media has undergone profound changes since that time especially with the impact of a modified capitalism in the media space, the basic tenets of this sixty year old decision are still in place, updated for a nation of 500 million Internet users who just like the rest of the world want their dating sites, their games and their porn.

I have said and my business friends have said at least for the last twenty years that it is culturally, psychologically and economically impossible for China to become a world power if it continues a policy of universal censorship. We were wrong. And if our more recent fantasy was that the Internet and microblogging sites such as the very popular Sina Weibo would be too complex and fast-moving for the authorities to keep up, we are wrong again.

A popular fiction, often encouraged by government officials, is that censorship is in the hands of a senior group of bureaucrats in Beijing who more often than not wait for citizens to report media infractions. Actually, there is some truth to this but the government's first line of defense is self-censorship, an art that is alive and superbly practiced by both domestic and international publishers. This is not to say that Chinese media, especally newspapers have been completely tamed. The government routinely looks the other way when newspapers and magazines, like the first-class Caijing, go after corrupt businessmen and shoddy business practices, though Communist Party malfeasance is out-of-bounds. And the government is becoming adept at using the Internet to its governing advantage. In keeping with the schizophrenic system journalists often go into the adjoining provinces to find misdeeds, a way to avoid upsetting neighbors and benefactors. The central government provides a large enough sandbox for enterprising journalists to play in.

But the real censorship is hidden behind the Great Internet Firewall of China, which is presented in sophisticated layers. According to the Open Net Initiative the first layer of Internet censorship is at the router level that is designed to screen out offensive URLs and keywords. This effort is reinforced by filtering software deployed at the backbone to filter political content. The Human Rights Watch has suggested China goes farther than most repressive countries in that it prevents ISPs, many privately-held and some with foreign investments, from hosting what they consider politically objectionable content. Furthermore, Internet Content Providers, that provide platforms, chat rooms and the like for text and video sharing must get a license to operate and are held liable for web site material. As Google found out, this is very serious business in China.

China has about 100,000 Internet "cafes" that provide its growing community of Netizens an access point. I've heard there are more than 70,000 Internet police that keep an eye on the local proceedings. This is the order of the day rather than an exception. Austin Ramzy blogging at's 'Wired Up" earlier this year writes that that Sina Weibo, the microblogging site, "employs up to 700 censors," as well as software that monitors sensitive words.

As Ramzy notes, Sina Weibo still represents an advance in China as social media is by definition dynamic and happening in real time. Furthermore this site seems more technologically advanced than Twitter and the very compactness of the Chinese language allows one to say more than in 140 characters in English. But don't search for Gadhafi or the Arab Spring anytime soon.

Conventional wisdom about censorship in China is that it is a long-term dance with technology pushing forward and the central government pushing back. This is a confortable model and a dialectic that has historical antecedents. So it might well be true. But I wonder.

The West tends to take greater umbrage at censorship than the hundreds of Chinese I have spoken to over the years. Some of this is generational. I've read research that indicates that Chinese high school and college students tend to have little interest in or knowledge of the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989. Of course, if a subject is not part of the curriculumn, it will likely be forgotten by a generation that is tasting the sweets of very impressive economic success. It might be great fun for a foreign journalist to conduct a web search for Falun Gong, Tibetan independence or Noble Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, but from my experience this is not top of mind in China.

As my friend in Shanghai has asked me, "You have open access to the Internet so why do so many Americans refuse to believe in evolution, global warming, and the fact that the first human can be traced to China and not Africa."

When I was with Scientific American  magazine I argued the last point at the Chinese Minstry of Science in Beijing where the Chinese evolution narrative was well-formed. 

But no Chinese Eden. Yet.


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