Suppose you visited China, and had a sudden urge to read about Winnie the Pooh. If you tried to search the internet for the portly bear, you would get the error message “Content is illegal.” Why? Because censors have concluded that Chinese social media mentions of Winnie the Pooh were often actually sly references “to President Xi, as he walks with a similar waddle.” (Like War, p. 98).
You would also get an error message if you tried to use Google, Yahoo, Wikipedia, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, Pandora, Netflix, HBO, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or any of the more than 8000 other websites blocked in mainland China by what has been called “the Great Firewall.”
These examples illustrate how “a government censor looms over the shoulder of every citizen with a computer or smartphone. Web searches won’t find prohibited results; messages with banned words will simply fail to reach the intended recipient.” (Like War, p. 97)
In 2001, Jiang Zemin, then General Secretary of the Communist Party, gave a speech about the internet in which he mentioned its positive economic benefits, but also noted that it could promote the spread of “superstition, pornography, violence, and pernicious information [that could] harm the mental health of the population and of youth.” (The Great Firewall, p. 90) So you could say censorship protects residents of mainland China from child molesters in chat rooms, internet videos of ISIS beheadings, live streams of mass murders, and Nigerian bankers emailing offers of a small fortune if you just send them a few thousand dollars. But it also shapes what people know, and do not know, about what is going on in China and the rest of the world.
The Chinese government considers “censorship” the wrong word to describe the many functions of the Great Firewall. The Communist Party might prefer a word like “harmonization,” since harmony has been an important virtue in Chinese culture since ancient times, and its importance has been stressed by many Communist leaders.
Ironically, however, the word “harmony” was also banned from the Chinese internet after social media users who had found that the word “censorship” was banned creatively began using “harmony” as a cynical substitute. Then they started to use the phrase “river crab’d” which sounds similar to “harmony” in Mandarin. As a result, both the words for river crabs and their images have also been banned. (Like War, p. 98)
Almost as surprising as the list of terms that are forbidden is the list of topics which are permitted. In Chinese social media “Political problems are discussed, corruption is exposed and criticized, national leaders are lampooned, and air pollution is discussed endlessly and at length.” (The Great Firewall, p. 73)
However, some political discussions are off limits, namely anything that could threaten the government or social order, or organize collective action. In other countries, the internet has been a powerful tool for organizing resistance. To cite one example, in 2011, during the Arab Spring, a Google executive used Facebook to suggest people organize protests in Egypt, and 85,000 quickly pledged to march. March they did, and soon after dictator Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign. (Like War, p. 85)
Over the last few months, the demonstrations in Hong Kong have had mainland China censors working overtime. Under the “one country, two systems” principle formulated by Deng Xiaoping, Hong Kong’s internet falls outside the Great Firewall. And according to a CNBC report “social media has played a significant role in the documentation, organization, and assembly of the [Hong Kong] protests.”
But as of today, the disturbances in Hong Kong have not led to significant challenges to the Party in mainland China. On the contrary, according to a New York Times article, China has “aggressively stirred up nationalist and anti-Western sentiment using state and social media, and it has manipulated the context of images and videos [of Hong Kong demonstrations] to undermine the protesters. Chinese officials have begun branding the demonstrations as a prelude to terrorism.”
There has been a lot of talk about whether US reporters create “fake news.” In mainland China, there can be no doubt. More than 2 million people work for what is cynically called the “50 cent army” because they are paid 50 Chinese cents for each post they produce which “Promotes unity and stability through positive publicity… Today… [they] churn out at least 500 million social media postings each year.” (Like War, p. 100)
The most significant study of Chinese internet censorship was conducted by a Harvard research group that devised a methodology to analyze millions of social media posts which were later censored on over 1,400 Chinese social media sites. They concluded that the Great Firewall is used primarily to “curtail collective action by silencing comments that… spur social mobilization, regardless of content. Censorship is oriented toward attempting to forestall collective activities.”
In extreme situations, the government has even turned off the entire internet in troubled areas. For example, beginning in July 2009, Muslim Uighur riots killed nearly 200 people. (The government’s repression of Uighurs will be discussed in a future post.) As explained in a BBC news report, the authorities believed that internet communication had played a major role in organizing disturbances, and so they simply blocked access for all seven million internet users in the troubled Xinjiang region of Western China. Service was not completely restored until ten months later.
In some ways, the term “Great Firewall” may be a bit misleading in that it conjures up an image of a single physical device or switch for controlling internet access. The reality is far more complex.
While management of the physical backbone of the internet provides one means of control, much content blocking is done by software. When China began its efforts to control internet access in the 1990s, it was a relatively backward country technologically. How did it develop the highly sophisticated technology they needed to filter and manage key words so quickly? They simply bought it from US companies, notably Sun Microsystems and Cisco. (Like War, p. 98)
Government censors identify the terms which are forbidden, but they are often implemented by internet content providers. “Blogging platforms, publishers [and] social media… are held liable for all content appearing on their websites, regardless of who created it… [As a result, most Chinese internet companies] employ teams of hundreds of in-house censors, who are generally far more vigilant and draconian than their government overseers, in order to protect their own backs.” (The Great Firewall, p. 72)
Are most residents of mainland China outraged by this type of censorship? Nope. “The regime’s efforts to control what makes it on to the… internet… have been so successful that most people are unaware of, or unconcerned by, the borders of their digital world.” (The Great Firewall, p. 71)
The lack of reaction to censorship is just one more example of the profound differences between China and the US that make it so hard for us to understand each other.