Online Technology Challenges Censors – Part I

When the internet arrived, China eagerly grasped the tool for joining global business, connecting its citizens and influencing attitudes. But China now finds that it’s impossible for any nation to both use the internet to influence the globe and restrict messages to a single ideology. This two-part YaleGlobal series examines the challenges awaiting those who strive for censorship. In the first article, Swedish author Johan Lagerkvist suggests that China, which has emerged as home to the world’s largest group of internet users, may find that the elaborate firewalls won’t last long. Every act of censorship attracts negative publicity, reducing international standing. Diligence turns to the absurd: Chinese officials recently censored even the offhand remarks by China’s Premier Wen Jiabao. To be effective, censors in the world’s second largest economy would have to eliminate the essential modern tool. Inquisitive youth test boundaries, and pragmatic leaders may eventually realize that, for promoting stability, allowing the battle of ideas is a better bet than repression. – YaleGlobal

Online Technology Challenges Censors – Part I

China risks destabilization and its reputation by censoring growing ranks of internet users
Johan Lagerkvist
Friday, October 22, 2010

Checking the wave: A public security official examines the identity of a Chinese surfer at an internet cafe

STOCKHOLM: Censorship by the Chinese government, its technological filtering and blocking of internet content, often make headlines across the world. This year, a series of remarkable events have led to increasing debate about media control, both abroad and in the Chinese Twitter-sphere virtually located outside China.

Criticism began with a brief battle between Google and Chinese authorities, prompted by Google’s statement on 12 January that Chinese hackers had accessed valuable software and broken into its Gmail system. The party-state played the nationalist card, branding Google a tool of the US government, and in part this kept debate on China’s censorship policy from materializing.

Domestic debate was taken to a new level on 11 October when 23 party veterans, journalists, and academics in an open letter criticized media control, after the Central Propaganda Department had censored, offline and online, a prominent voice – no less than that of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. The news blackout followed Wen’s call for further political reform and the statement that “the people’s wishes for and needs for democracy and freedom are irresistible” in an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria 23 September.

Attention on China’s censorship will not go away. In his 2011 report to the UN Human Rights Council, Frank La Rue, UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, will focus on the issue. China, labeled an “enemy of the internet” by Reporters without Borders, will likely become a target of the discussions.          

The rise of this authoritarian-capitalist power, the world’s second-largest economy, has been accompanied by an outpouring of investment, emigration and proliferation of soft-power initiatives such as the Confucius Institutes, but also the drawing of a new information curtain dubbed the “great firewall of China.” Behind the firewall is the world’s largest internet population of 420 million and counting. In addition, as many as 277 million Chinese access the internet on mobile phones; 231 million blog, Twitter or use other social-media platforms, regularly blocked by the Chinese authorities but which can be accessed through third-party clients. Their political impact is growing.

The internet became commercially viable in China in 1994 when China’s leaders chose to open access. The Chinese Communist Party, however, felt increasingly threatened. Between 1994 and 1999, commercial online journalism challenged the state’s news and information monopoly and the Communist Party’s ideological agenda. The new brand of journalism was reined in, but media space continued to expand and evolve. Between 1999 and 2004, bulletin-board systems and blogs shaped alternative channels of communication. As a consequence, these, too, were controlled.

A general media crackdown has been in place since 2004, continuing throughout the 2008 Beijing Olympics and persevering today. New ways to mobilize opinion, such as blogs, SMS texting and microblogging, have emerged, and in some instances affect policy, leading to continual attempts to restrict their impact. Since 1994 innumerable internet-related incidents provide evidence of the increasing influence of online opinion in China, empowerment of civil society and popular challenges to domestic policy and the Communist Party agenda.

To facilitate what I call a “locked-in sphere,” the one-party state has poured billions of dollars into technology, laws and human resources devoted to monitoring and demobilizing stirrings in civil society – a reinvented mission for the propaganda system to make it more difficult to consume news from sources other than state-owned media organizations. Massive state efforts to control the internet notwithstanding, Chinese people have found new ways to search for alternative views, discuss unorthodox ideas and, occasionally, mobilize public support. Peer-to-peer networks, citizen journalism and information-sharing certainly increased liberty for China’s citizens. That control and freedom have grown in parallel since the internet became commercially available is the central paradox of China’s internet.

As for the ongoing contest between the one-party state and civil society, an uneasy, unstable equilibrium remains. How far will the government go to protect social and political stability in the real world? It’s widely believed that the internet poses such a challenge that the Communist Party must inevitably compromise over its monopoly on information – if not its monopolies on power and violence. The question, however, is whether a regime that has crushed every inkling of political opposition since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown would hesitate to shut down the internet infrastructure if a genuine power struggle between state and society emerged? I think not.

The great firewall of China is the brainchild of an authoritarian country that has benefited immensely from access to the world market. Today’s information curtain bears little resemblance to the iron curtain of the Cold War. More subtle, the great firewall is a shield nonetheless. Its purpose is to herd the majority of China’s people into a “harmonious,” rationally patriotic and demobilized citizenry.

The outcome is a locked-in public sphere that occasionally, due to propaganda, spin and the “guidance of opinion,” becomes a nationalistic information sphere. Ethnic riots in Lhasa, the capital of the Tibetan Autonomous Region in March 2008 and in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Autonomous Region, in July 2009 are cases in point. During both events, the outside world criticized China, and as a result a nationalist information sphere formed.

Parallel growth in control and freedom, the equilibrium of social contracts, rarely last long. Parallel and contradictory growth end; contracts crumble or are renegotiated because of the impact of social and normative change.

It’s a fact that Chinese control of the internet is not so much an issue of sophisticated technology as a story of the successful fostering of self-censorship. To upset this equilibrium, some place hopes in rebellious and ironic Chinese youth; others assume that party-state technocrats, given their “wisdom” and pragmatic world outlook, will realize that control might restrict innovation and economic growth. In the long term, the normative change brought by the former may upset the balance. Unfortunately, rational insights are not to be anticipated from senior Chinese officials. As the crackdowns on inter-ethnic rioting in Tibet and Xinjiang showed, Chinese authorities are prepared to sacrifice international standing and national connectivity to retain stability. We cannot forget how far the Chinese government is willing to go – in terms of the expenditure of both political and economic capital – to protect its sovereignty and political stability. Because civil society is still too weak to challenge the censorship regime, the biggest threat to party-state internet control comes from parts of officialdom itself – the likes of censored Wen Jiabao.

The normative change and the impacts of two contrasting types of internet use in the end will force the monopolies on information and political power to succumb to the people’s power of civil society, with variegated social forces of every hue and nuance. First, the impact of news-sharing and the mobilizing activities of the vanguard of the micro-blogosphere, and second, the more mundane, everyday use by individuals that constitute Chinese officialdom will continue to grow. The members of these groups are Chinese “netizens” and they share a common goal: They enjoy the internet.

Taken together, the young officials and the young social-media activists are what ultimately in a pincer movement will unravel the current social contract on internet use and its utilitarian function to serve state ends.


Johan Lagerkvist is senior research fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. He is author of “After the Internet, Before Democracy: Competing Norms in Chinese Media and Society.”
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