Discussion Section: Does Internet Censorship Work?

Much has been said, on this site and others, about the recent spate of websites — even English ones — being blocked. Perhaps a more interesting question is what, if anything these blocks accomplish. Generally speaking, the Chinese government and supporters hold that the blocks contribute to national stability and security as well as helping maintain moral standards. Detractors might argue that the blocks are ineffective in stopping those dedicated to accessing “illegal” content, and that they undermine the legitimacy of the Chinese government by implying a promise of something (a completely censored, government-approved internet) that they arguably cannot achieve.

So what do you think? What, if anything does internet censorship do for the Chinese government? Is it worth the bad play they get in the international press every time a new site goes down, and futhermore, can it really ever be used as a tool to prevent unrest or will it always remain a step behind, with sites like Facebook being closed only after the damage is done?

0 thoughts on “Discussion Section: Does Internet Censorship Work?”

  1. I figure I may as well toss in my two cents here first. Personally, I think the censorship doesn’t help anyone. It makes the government look weak to those who are paying attention because ultimately anyone who knows how to find the “On” button on a computer can find a way of circumventing the GFW. Certainly, Uighur terrorists bent on inflicting violence are dedicated to their cause enough that we can assume they are aware of VPNs and Proxies, and thus could access Facebook and plot more destruction even post-blocking. Who, then, does the blocking control or affect, and what does it say about the government that in a country with state-controlled internet rioters organized violence using the internet? It says, in essence, that the government is weak.

    Granted, this message may not be evident to the majority of Chinese people who likely aren’t even aware of the Facebook ban and very possibly aren’t even aware of the riots. Still, if stability is the concern, the response of those people is largely irrelevant. Facebook, ostensibly, is blocked to prevent another Xinjiang riot-like event from happening, but does anyone really believe it will have that effect? After all, the gov’t blocked Twitter, Flickr, etc. etc. already; the rioters still found a way to organize.

    The bottom line is that the internet is simply too dynamic a form of media. It’s possible for the Chinese government to control it in a reactive sort of way, but proactive measures are nearly impossible because it’s extremely difficult to predict the vast variety of new things that appear on the internet every day.

    A boarding high school I’m very familiar with might serve as a useful microcosm for this. Said school censors their internet, blocking pornographic websites and flash-based gaming sites on the basis that they are at best counter-productive to the goals of a school and at worst illegal. The result of this block, however, has been an ongoing war of one-upping between students and the schools IT department. The students find a hole in the censoring software, and when the IT people detect the hole and close it, the students quickly find a new one, or a new way to circumvent the wall entirely. Perhaps more disturbing, the block has actually served to increase the popularity and proliferation of pornographic materials on campus. Since not all students have the technical know-how or patience to break through the block, those that do amass vast libraries of pornography, titles from which are then lent or even rented to classmates. The block was first instituted nearly a decade ago, but to date it does not seem to have reduced the amount of pornography on campus, and may in fact have increased it.

    Of course, a high school does not have the vast resources of a nation-state like China, but the results appear similar. China has been monitoring and censoring the internet, reportedly with a force of over 30,000 net cops, since 1997, and yet in 2009 they still are utterly incapable of preventing internet-organized chaos and their block of Facebook was circumvented in a matter of seconds by anyone with a VPN.

    Were I a terrorist, the message I would take from all this is that China is incapable of controlling the internet, and that I should organize future attacks via the internet because it makes the government look weaker if the people can see internet censorship failed to prevent this. Were I a regular Chinese person, I probably wouldn’t care too much, but I doubt I’d feel much comforted by a Facebook block going into effect AFTER brutal riots have resulted in scores of deaths.


  2. The blocking of facebook is unnecessary. If it’s about Xinjiang, then since the whole region’s internet access has been cut, it wouldn’t matter anyway.


  3. @ Custer,

    I think China’s censorship is counterproductive for some of the reasons you mention. It makes China look bad. It’s a sign of weakness. It stunts the political maturity of its people, making them sometimes surprised and hurt at foreign criticism because they (the Chinese) just haven’t been debating an issue until it bursts onto the international scene. And it makes rampant commercialism dominate the net (though, of course, commercialism is pretty dominant in places with an uncensored internet, too, like the U.S., so maybe this last point is a tad weak).

    But I also think censorship basically works, inasmuch as it directs the general flow of conversation. People are lazy—I certainly am—and don’t always look for technical fixes. And as Wahaha pointed out on another thread just now, they simply don’t always want other information. If you really want to get around a wall, you will, of course. But most folks will just do that to get pornography, like the high schoolers in your example—not the original speeches of HHDL or the truth about the Anti-Rightest Campaign or whatever. For the remaining political malcontents, well, they’re outliers.


  4. I can’t agree more with what Custer has said in his response.

    Although this is unrelated to the subject of censorship, Custer, you may be interested in the debate happening on James Fallows’s blog about equal opportunity employment and how it may be one of the causes of the riot. Note that they don’t say that explicitly, but my feeling is that the two Uighurs killed in Guangdong was more of a “last-straw” situation and that one of the main causes is actually the long term disenfranchisement of the Uighurs in general.


  5. C.Custer,

    How many Marines have been killed in Iraq war ? 4,300

    How many Marines have been killed in Iraq war ? 31,000

    Arent you surprised that there were hardly any pictures of coffins of heros being sent home from Iraq ?


  6. Correct mistake :

    How many Marines have been injured in Iraq war ? 31,000

    Think of this : when Bush won the 2nd term, at least 50 % of the people are against the war. why didnt they use the pictures of coffins of heros to prove their point ?



  7. @ Wahaha,

    Yes, that was bad. Those pictures should have been released. I’m glad that policy was changed. Happy?

    You spoke in the other thread about how you are more interested in outcomes than right and wrong. But you never lay out what you think a path to resolution of different issues would be—to Uighur grievances, to censorship, to photographing Marine coffins, etc.

    You simply find a corresponding or hypothetical problem somewhere else.


  8. @ Wahaha, yes, that policy was also bad, what’s your point? Once again, this is a blog about China, not the US. Since we’re comparing them, though, I think there are some really significant differences. For one, this was a ban on the mainstream media publishing photos of homecoming coffins. While that’s censoring a certain type of visual image, the information the media was allowed to report wasn’t restricted: the number of deaths, who had died, and even often where and how they were killed, wasn’t banned. Furthermore, as I understand it, this was just a restriction limited to the mainstream TV and print media, bloggers and the like could still post those photos legally if they were to come by them. Certainly, I know I saw photos of the coffins of dead soldiers from Iraq well before Obama took office and nullified the ban.

    That is in contrast to the censorship that (at least theoretically) exists in China, where certain pieces of information (for example, free tibet information or pro democracy information) aren’t allowed to be reported in any form.


  9. HMMM,

    I didnt criticize America for banning those pictures.

    It was a very very bad starting this war. But as the war had started, what should Americans do to help to win this war ?

    Certainly by the pinciple of freedom, such pictures should not be banned. But if not banning these pictures, what would be the result ? while tens of thousand american soldiers were fighting in Iraq, people in their homeland nonstop argue about if this war was right or wrong ? That would be ridiculous and wouldve brought chaos to America.

    There are some issues that a country must unite together, it can not be argued.


  10. When some Americans openly supported Muhammad Ali’s refusal to join the army, there would be no chance for America to win the war in Vietnam.


  11. @ Wahaha,

    Maybe I’m repeating Custer and I don’t mean to pile on but…

    I think you’re operating on the assumption that no one in the U.S. cares that those coffins were not being shown. On the contrary, the whole liberal / left blogosphere—Talking Points Memo, Daily Kos, Huffington Post, Firedoglake, etc.—condemned practice at the time, as did much of the mainstream media. Some people who left comments on those blogs and papers then may even be commenting here now. The fact that not every American problem gets a full discussion on a blog about China doesn’t mean much.

    I’m afraid each time I take up one of your points, I drift further from the topic at hand… which may be your purpose, but I still can’t help it! So… I do think Ali was right to oppose the Vietnam War, because the war needed to be stopped, even at the cost of losing. It was a morally and strategically wrong conflict to its very core.

    As to the Iraqi soldiers, I think people opposed to the war did a pretty good job of distinguishing their support for the soldiers as brave people from their opposition to Bush’s decision. A much better job than during the Vietnam War. And, eventually, public opinion has begun to end the conflict. Good. Very, very good.

    There are no issues that a country *must* unite together on.


  12. There are no issues that a country *must* unite together on.

    Now it is time :

    If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we can not merely take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline, because it makes possible a leadership which aims at a larger good. This I propose to offer, pledging that the larger purposes will bind upon us all as a sacred obligation with a unity of duty hitherto evoked only in time of armed strife. 17

    With this pledge taken, I assume unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army of our people dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems.

    Franklin D. Roosevelt


  13. ” There are no issues that a country *must* unite together on. ”


    There are !!!!

    Imagine Russian had sent money to Hawaii seperatists each.

    Imagine all the media in Russia, China and Europe talking about Hawaii seperatists.

    Actually, this happened before Iraq, the media all over the world was against this war, except in US. Did you see those reports in American TV and media ?

    Yeah, you had access to those website, but none of you went to those site, American people basically self-censored the information from outside US.


  14. Sure, you can always ask people to come together, as FDR did—and just about every politician does in any country. But even in the case of WWII, there were principled pacifists who resisted the war and, while I don’t agree with them, I’m glad they existed and added to the national debate. Having literally everyone agree on a policy can only be a bad thing.

    If Russia supported Hawaiian separatists, I imagine it would bug the U.S. government to no end. If the support was for peaceful activities, though, I’m not sure there would be much Washington could do. I, for one, have always felt that Hawaii was acquired in a rather dastardly way, so I’m sympathetic to it seceding. But that’s just my opinion.

    Anyway…. I’m afraid we’re going to annoy everyone else on this list with our constant back and forth on an ever-expanding list of non-China issues and hypothetical situations. I’ll leave this thread now for a bit, though you, of course, have a right to respond.


  15. I just watched porn with my chinese girlfriend today, because she said she was curious. I asked her why, and she says it’s because it’s difficult to get.

    At the local bar, the bartender sometimes flicks his TV to Japanese porn shows just to show he can get them.

    I have officially watched more porn with other people in China than I ever did in America. My mind wanders…


  16. Wahaha: what are you talking about? Half of the AMERICAN MEDIA was against the war in Iraq, and there were plenty of international reports as well. There was a HUGE debate about the whole thing going on in the media for a WHILE.


  17. I’m going to play Devil’s Advocate and to get the discussion back on track say that Internet Censorship does work to the ends that the CCP wants it to work. As much as they spout the goal of establishing a harmonious society, harmony is a “shoot the moon” type of goal. Unless the CCP are complete idiots, they have to realize that blocking certain sites/topics will not keep people from organizing dissent via the Internet. There will always be a minority of people who will get around the censors and start trouble one way or another. Therefore, the true purpose of censorship is the preservation of an ignorant/complicit majority who will either never hear the complaints of the minority or if they do hear them, will have been sufficiently indoctrinated with the “mass line” to outright oppose or at least apathetically ignore such criticism. As long as the CCP has this majority on their side, these minor flare-ups will be ineffective in establishing a significant threat to the government’s legitimacy.

    I find it funny that we still wonder why the CCP is not more concerned about its international image after the events of these past two years. To put it simply, the CCP only cares about its international image in relation to its domestic image. International voices at this point in time do not hold much water with the Chinese majority, therefore most of the time, the International response to an issue can be dismissed by the government in favor of their own viewpoint as the CCP’s position is most often conflated with the “Chinese people’s” position in the mind of the public. It is only under rare circumstances where the international response and the domestic response mirror each other, that the government may be seen as “caring” about international viewpoints. The Green Dam software pullback is a case in point, on this issue both the international and domestic audiences seemed to independently come to the conclusion that they did not like this policy move, and the Chinese government had little choice but to capitulate. If the domestic audience had welcomed Green Dam with open arms, you can bet international misgivings would have held little weight.

    So basically, censorship does what it sets out to do by 1. limiting the avenues through which the dissent of the minority can be published 2. creating a strong majority of people who do not trust/care about foreign/minority dissension. Censorship is not necessarily a blocking mechanism, it is a preventive mechanism that ensures that when dissension does occur it will be occurring in an inhospitable political environment that limits its broader influence.


  18. @ AndyR,

    Well put. I would add, though, that China’s attitude toward developing world opinion may be a bit different than its attitude toward what the U.S. or Europe think. Americans’ complaints about China are long-standing, whereas it seems that opinion in Africa is still malleable. There are some good memories of Chinese revolutionary solidarity back in the day and some suspicion of “neo-colonialism” and some excitement about a non-Western country taking such a prominent place on the world stage and some worry about cheap Chinese goods…. i.e. it’s all in flux. China has a real interest in making sure that things don’t harden to its disadvantage.


  19. C.Custer,

    There was massive media campaign to justify the invasion of Iraq, American media even went into war with France and Germany. It is simply not half-half. it is more like 95% to 5%, while most major media and TV stations were selling the story of WMD.


  20. C.Custer,

    It is certainly not 50-50, more like 95-5.

    There was a massive media propaganda war to convincing America the war was necessary for the safety of America, America even went into war with French and German media.


  21. ” Having literally everyone agree on a policy can only be a bad thing.”


    Did you watch movie “last samurai ” ?

    then read Meiji restoration.

    I dont think Japanese people will say their government did the wrong thing.


  22. Let us face the reality here :

    Stalin was voted the 3rd most popular Russian in Russia history by Russia people (and all Russia know what he did.)

    If China enjoys another 20 to 30 years of economy development, most Chinese people will forgive what it did in 50s and 60s. CCP knows that and CCP knows that it is the only way to legitmate its power.

    One more thing, CCP is recruiting middle class,which is the fundation for democracy. So the only way to establish democracy in China is West rebuilding people’s confidence in that democracy can deliver materially.


  23. Wahaha: That simply isn’t true. Having been in the country, and paying close attention, I think that’s a gross mischaracterization of the MEDIA response. There was a push to sell the WMD story from the GOVERNMENT, but those arent the same


  24. I’d say that the U.S. media was rather soft on the Bush administration after 9/11, but it wasn’t 95 percent to 5 percent, either.

    Regardless… Wahaha thinks overly positive coverage of the Iraq war was a *good* thing, thinks it provides further proof somehow that censorship in China is beneficial for national unity or something. That just doesn’t make sense, however you look at it.

    If the war was a huge mistake, as it seems to me to have been, then the media didn’t do its job in giving people the full picture and, potentially nipping a tragedy in the bud. If the war was the right thing to do, then the media set people up for a let-down by sugarcoating things at the beginning.

    I’m not taking the bait on the Meiji restoration or Stalin or any of the other red herrings. I’m guessing Wahaha’s point is that good things have happened in history and therefore it is essential that people unite whenever a good thing happens or, alternately, that bad things happen but from a long perspective they’re actually good and therefore people should unite like robots regardless of whether things are good or bad….

    Wahaha needs to either explain the analogies he’s making or stop making them. Just constantly throwing in new topics doesn’t advance things.

    AndyR had a good point back there. Someone else should follow up.


  25. @OTR You’re right, I’m kind of white-washing “international opinion” in my response. China obviously has different PR strategies for different “international audiences” reflective of its interests in different parts of the world. China has a major interest in promoting the “Chinese model” to developing countries and assuming a leadership position as the “voice of the developing world”. It also has an interest in securing natural resources. The fall out from the race riots in Xinjiang is certainly a testing ground for how much China is concerned with its image in the developing world as it pits internal affairs against international image. China now has to defend its internal policies towards Uighers to the greater Muslim world. From what I’ve seen, beyond asking Turkey to “take back” the genocide remark, they have taken a less strident tone towards Muslim world than they usually do towards the West in such situations. Why? Most likely economic interests in the area. China can’t afford to piss off oil producers as it jockeys to secure resources.

    Anyway, I’ve gotten way off on a tangent in my response, to bring it back to censorship, I would say that if we narrow our focus to China’s image in the developing world, censorship is not such a big issue. For instance, I don’t think Iran or Zimbabwe care very much if China censors the Internet. Maybe in the future they will, but at this point it doesn’t hurt the relationship.


  26. OTR,

    I never said “overly positive report” about Iraq war is good thing.

    ONCE the war started, people’s focus should be how to make things better, it should not be whether US should start this war.

    Yes, on theory, government should give people more details but the reality is that unfortunately some people would use those pictures for political use. I think that would make the soldiers in Iraq feel terrible and lose concentration in combat, just like the marines in Vietnam war.

    Obviously, US media knew that and agreed with me, like the mother who protested in front of white house for several months, rarely did media report her situation.

    You are talking about absolute freedom, or hyper individualism. In China, there is too much restriction; in America, there is too much freedom. Neither of them is good for any country.


  27. Wahaha: Again, are you kidding? The media was ALL OVER that story. That mother’s name was Cindy Sheehan. I didn’t look that up on Google — I remember it because you couldn’t turn on any TV news for like two months without hearing about her. Seriously, what are you talking about? That story was EVERYWHERE, to the point where I even got kind of annoyed by it.


  28. OK,

    Show me a picture of her camping outside Bush’s ranch by some major newspaper.

    After two years, “she was exhausted by the personal, financial and emotional toll of the past two years.” according to CNN report.

    Did you ever see a famous activitist being exhausted by finanical problem ? That is the clever trick of media, they mentioned her somewhere in the papers that you will never turn to, mentioned her camping, but never question how Bush still refused to meet her, and no detail of how she lived, ate and slept.

    CCP are so stupid on public relation. like the school collapse in SiChuan earthquake, they dont have to defend themselves, all they have to do is mentioning the corruption of india school, the collapse of national stadium of Malaysia. Just like the 700 billion dollar rescue plans, media never gave us who got those money, but kept talking about AIG’s bonus, which is only fucking 0.165 billion dollars.

    See 0.165 vs 700 ?

    That is how media manipulates people, CCP’s media is simply too stupid to know how to manipulate.


  29. @ Wahaha:
    Why are you comparing China with the US? It certainly has nothing to do with the debate at hand, which is whether internet censorship works in China or not.

    Anyways, I think that even though internet censorship is not as potent as those in 1984, it still works to some extent. Mainlanders, even knowing that Chinese sources are untrustworthy, still use Xinhua and Sina to find information. Actually, I think that China’s lax censorship actually succeeds in what it sets out to do – not all stories on Xinhua are false. Personal stories are usually true, while foreign stories are usually false (Note “usually). This gives Chinese people a false sense of security in which they think they can tell apart true stories from propaganda, while in reality, they can’t.


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