This is another in a series of blog posts written by the students in my PhD seminar on Public Intellectuals, being taught this semester at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism.
Strategic Censorship, Ambivalent Resistance, and Loyal Dissident: Three Things that Western Media Fail to Tell You About Chinese Internet Censorship
by Yue Yang
When talking about the Chinese Internet, what would first come to your mind?
The largest online gaming population in the world? A highly creative ICT (information and communication technology) community? An enormous e-commerce market? “Tu hao(土豪)”, “Watch and Observe (围观)”, “Er Huo (二货)”，”Jiong (囧)” ?
I don’t know about your answer, but I am sure most American media would say with alacrity “No, it is CENSORSHIP!” Indeed, “censorship” seems to have become their knee-jerk word to annotate the Chinese Internet. If you search “New York Times Chinese Internet” through Google, on the first page of search results, you would 9 out of 12 news stories related to censorship; for “CNN”, it is 9 out of 9 (with 3 urls linking to non-CNN websites), and for “Fox news”, it was 8 out 10.
Since American media is so interested in censorship on Chinese Internet, do they come up with good, objective censorship stories? As a native Chinese and a doctoral researcher studying the Chinese Internet in the US, I would say “yea” for “good storytelling” and “nah” for “objectivity”. Try to click on one of the top urls and you will see what I mean: this is an exotic digital world: on one hand, the iron-wristed Chinese government launches another round of censorship campaign. It cleanses criticism, cracks down dissident sites, and even puts political foes into jails. On the other hand, facing ruthless and stifling censorship, courageous and canny Chinese “netizens” (Internet citizens) use their ingenuity in various ways, to flit machine censorship and to mock the impotence of government. Be it a gloomy “Big Brother” story or an empowering “Tom-and-Jerry” story, a censorship story never lacks tension or a easy-to-follow storyline. However, these stories grounded only on partial facts are not qualified for universal validity they imply, and they are often too interested in drama to capture the plain truth. In short, current censorship stories in mainstream media are often too simplistic to inform western readers of the complex politics on the Chinese Internet. In the following part, I will talk about three things that western media do not tell their readers about Chinese Internet censorship.
(1) Strategic Censorship: yes, Chinese people criticize the government on the Internet!
The first thing that western media do not tell you about Chinese online censorship, is that average Chinese Internet users can and do express a lot of criticism about the party-government. In fact, such criticism attracts little interest from the government censorship.
It is a widely recognized observation by people who personally attend to political discussions on Chinese cyberspace, that online space of speech is expanding and people can criticize their government without seeing their unfavorable comments censored over time. This observation is contrary to what most media censorship stories are telling people, but recently it has been confirmed by a large-scale, big-data research report from a Harvard research team. By collecting, analyzing, and comparing the substantive content of millions of posts from nearly 1,400 social media services over all China, and distinguishing what gets censored from what remains online over time in discussions around 85 topics, the researchers have upended some popular stereotypes, and found that “negative, even vitriolic criticism of the state, its leaders, and its policies are not more likely to be censored. Instead, the censorship program is aimed at curtailing collective action by silencing comments that represent, reinforce, or spur social mobilization, regardless of content”. Rather than remove any criticism against it, the Chinese government conducts strategic censorship, which “is oriented toward attempting to forestall collective activities that are occurring now or may occur in the future”.
(2) What Chinese People Think about Censorship: infringement of rights or Moral Guidance?
The second thing that western media do not tell you about Chinese online censorship, is that Chinese people’s attitudes towards censorship are actually divided and ambivalent.
In 2009, the Chinese government made various censorship efforts to make it virtually prepared for an extremely sensitive time period: not long ago, the famous dissident and later-Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo released the “highly subversive” 08 Charter; starting from March, the government was to anticipate several major political anniversaries: the 50 anniversary for Tibetan uprising, the 20 anniversary for Tiananmen Event, and the 60 anniversary for the foundation of People’s Republic of China. Although nothing except the 60-year national anniversary was to be publicly celebrated, the government was highly vigilant against any online-and-off commemoration or mobilization of other political anniversaries.
In such context, there was little surprise that the Chinese government demanded pre-installed censorship software called “Green Dam Youth Escort(Lvba Huaji Huhang绿坝花季护航)” on each new PC to be sold in the market, including those imported from abroad. The purpose, of course, was to protect the psychological health of the young from pollution through pornography and violence. But Chinese Internet users soon found that the software expanded censorship to political information. Worse still, the software had so many technical defects that it would severely hurt overall online experience and security.
Shortly after the installation plan was announced, a large-scale online protest occurred among Chinese Internet users, particularly among the younger generation. Young people soon launched an online carnivalist play-protest, characterized by a manga-style personification of the software called the “Green Dam Girl” (Lvbaliang 绿坝娘). At the same time, “2009 Declaration of the Anonymous Netizens” (“The Declaration”), a western-style manifesto against censorship appeared online.
Seeing such resistance, Chinese government canceled the installation plan, and the “Green Dam incident” became a typical case to illustrate Chinese emerging civil power countering the government’s blunt censorship decisions. However, when examining the online comments on “The Declaration”, researchers discovered wide expressions disagreeing with the anti-censorship declaration. In fact, there was considerable endorsement of the government’s filtering attempt during the incident.
Why was there public support for censorship? After looking closely at these for-censorship comments, doing interviews with their authors, and analyzing the collected data with reference to Chinese culture, the researchers made some very interesting analysis: unlike western people who conceive government as a “necessary evil” and censorship serious infringement of freedom of speech, the majority of Chinese people uphold Confucian state-society ideal, represented by the notion “custodian government(父母官 fuwu guan)”, which accordingly frame people’s understanding of censorship.
So what does “custodian government” mean and imply? Basically, it is a Confucian notion that proposes a state-society model in which the government maintains its authority through displaying exemplary virtue and parental care for people, and in return, people respect and obey the government like they respect and obey their own parents. When both government and people perform their roles properly, social harmony and ideal that would yield the best for the most can be materialized. Note that traditional Chinese culture does not challenge hierarchy or centralization, nor does it often raise government legitimacy questions as long as the administration is established in accordance with Confucian ethics.
In the case of “Green Dam”, a large number of people supported government censorship, because they expected a morally exemplary and custodian government to establish social norms and protect as well as regulate minors. In other words, to many Chinese, censorship does not necessarily mean violation of human rights or encroachment of individual interests, rather, it means moral measurements that are expected and accredited.
Such understanding was more popular among middle-aged Internet users, but it was not rare among the young either. In fact, researchers have found that quite an impressive percentage of Chinese Internet users are either unaware of or do not care much about the online censorship, stating that they are generally happy with the current cyberspace they have. In short, the general attitudes towards censorship are not as definite as most western media state.
(3) Subversive Dissident or Loyal Dissident?
The third thing that western media do not tell you about Chinese online censorship, is that Chinese Internet users are more of “loyal dissident” than subversive resisters, even if they were expressing criticism.
It was again in 2009, an Internet meme called the “Grass Mud Horse” (Caonima 草泥马) gained viral popularity in Chinese cyberspace. “Grass Mud Horse” sounds almost exactly like an abusive phrase, and it was originally invented by young Chinese gamers to dodge Internet censorship on obscene expressions. Soon the word play adopted the visual form of an alpaca, and put into different extension forms such as stories, animations, music videos, and T-shirts and dolls. Even a virtual Chinese character was later invented for it.
The phenomenal popularity of Grass Mud Horse attracted a lot of western media attention in its peak time. CNN, BBC, and the Guardian, for example, produce extensive report on it. Citing academics, these reports claim that Grass Mud Horse is not only a grassroots symbol of resistance against censorship, but also a “weapon of the weak” to challenge (the legitimacy of) the authoritarian government.
The statement that “Grass Mud Horse” is a play turned into politics, making creative resistance against censorship and authoritarianism is indeed interesting. However, when analyzing how Chinese Internet users actually engaged in the “Grass Mud Horse” carnival, how people actually used the words, pictures and related stories to expressed what intentions, research has found that Chinese Internet users tended to use “Grass Mud Horse” to vent personal frustration, criticize local corruption and bureaucracy, rather than make accusations against censorship or challenge the government’s legitimacy.
In a similar vein, through looking at the most popular and uncensored microblog tweets on Weibo that discussed political scandals during the Spring of 2012, some Swedish researchers have found that Chinese Internet users are more interested in criticizing certain activities of the Party than challenging its hold of power.
In fact, more and more scholars start to realize that consensus against the current regime in China is yet to be produced. More interestingly, despite pervasively expressed criticism of the government, in two highly respected surveys conducted by non-Chinese scholars (World Value Survey and Asian Barometer Survey), the rate of loyalty and recognition declared by the Chinese public to their government is much higher than those from western democratic societies. Instead of implying another uprising in China, these studies suggest that Chinese Internet users may become more critical and expressive, but they are not ready to demand fundamental democratization.
When creating Chinese Internet censorship stories, western media often fail with four things. First, it fails to look more closely at what is happening; second, it fails to avoid wishful speculations; third, it fails to account for complexity that disrupts clear storytelling; fourth, it fails to put incidents into the broad Chinese social and cultural context. With such failure, western media reduce the extremely interesting and complicated Chinese Internet to a monolith and create stereotypes.
I hope I have well explained some important aspects that go beyond the oversimplification of Chinese Internet censorship in western media, so that you, my dear readers, will not only have reservations next time you hear something about the Chinese Internet, but also suspend belief whenever you receive messages about a different society from the media. Bolstering critical thinking and avoiding stereotyping, that’s what media literacy is working at, and that is also what I am trying to do with this blog post.
Yue Yang is a PhD student at Annenberg School for Communication, USC. Being a native Chinese, she is constantly confused and therefore deeply fascinated by the complexity of her country’s culture and society, online and off. Her current interests range from Chinese people’s imagination of the West, to the tensional dance between the Chinese government, the grassroots and the intellectuals on the cyber arena (and she always hopes that one day she could write as fast as she eats and publish as much as she speaks.).