Discussion Section: How Far Can Internet Censorship Go?

There’s been quite a bit of news and discussion of late as the government continues to tighten the screws of the internet (a good overview is Rebecca MacKinnon’s newest post). The blocking of Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites has given way to wider blocks on a variety of portals, including bittorrent sites and even the sites of some legitimate internet companies. Things certainly seem to be heading in the direction of less freedoms on the internet.

At the same time, some netizens and bloggers feel that despite the tightening screws, there’s actually more free discussion happening than ever before, thanks to the aforementioned social networking sites and the many netizens willing to “climb the wall”, i.e., find a way of getting around the Great Firewall (see Danwei’s video on the 2009 China Blogger Conference for more on this). Despite the blocks, things like this video (a documentary on Tan Zuoren’s investigation of the shoddy architecture that led to the deaths of many students during the Sichuan earthquake) are still finding their way onto the net:

(The video is only in Chinese, sadly, but if you speak it, we recommend watching it. Apparently, they’re also going to use it as evidence in Tan Zuoren’s trial to attempt to defend him against the charge that he was trying to subvert the state).

Anyway, the questions we put to you today are many: First, how much further do you think the censorship and tightening will go? Second, do you think this policy can be successful? Will there ever be a Great Firewall so tight no one can get around it? Moreover, could the government have an increasingly large dissent problem on their hands as the block stops just affecting the small minority of hardcore bloggers and porn enthusiasts and begins to affect the average Chinese internet user (as illegal purveyors of music, movies, TV shows, mobile content, etc., are beginning to be blocked)? And finally, does any of this censorship do anyone any good?

Also of note: If you weren’t already aware that housing prices in China were a problem, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has some news for you: 85% of Chinese families can’t afford a house. According to the article, the average house costs about the same as the average Chinese farmer’s income over thirty years. So, renting it is.

0 thoughts on “Discussion Section: How Far Can Internet Censorship Go?”

  1. My $0.02: I think the gov’t is more than capable of limiting (actually limiting and cutting down on the number of people 翻墙ing) internet access quite thoroughly (think what’s happening in Xinjiang right now), but I wonder when push comes to shove how much they will actually want to. Net businesses like Taobao are becoming an increasingly large part of China’s economy, and some of them will inevitably get caught in the crossfire if the gov’t continues cracking down on things (as mentioned in the post, some of them already have).

    Long story short, I don’t see more extreme internet censorship being something that benefits the gov’t or the Party very much in the long term. Blocking porno and pictures of Tiananmen 1989 is one thing; blocking websites that offer mobile downloads and popular Chinese TV shows is quite another. The big hubbub over SARFT pulling Dwelling Narrowness off TV (whether that’s actually what happened or it’s really a temporary thing like they say) shows that people can and will be vocally upset about restrictions on things they actually care about, so imagine what the response could be if much, much more than that is pulled from the internet even as the number of people interested in accessing that sort of thing on the internet continues to expand. Then, of course, there’s the added international pressure and negative exposure that would come from increasingly censoring the internet. I would be tempted to say that they don’t care about that, but they might care about the pressure from international businesses whose investments in China are complicated or ruined entirely because heavy internet censorship makes running an internet business from outside China next to impossible. Could happen, anyway.

    On the other hand, internet censorship does help one sector of the Chinese economy: pirated DVD vendors!



  2. Not a “house,” Custer. I think the report meant to say 85% of the families can’t afford “an apartment.” But I could be wrong. The so-called rent-to-price ratio is over 1:700 while it’s usually 1:100 to 1:200 in developed countries. I’ve been reading a sina (or is it sohu?) post where young urban white-collars disclose their incomes and expenses and it’s really a sad read. One could feel the young generation’s simmering resentment.

    One some level I understand the need to shut down bittorrent sites, because most of them, well nearly all of them, okay all of them, engage in illegal distribution of copyrighted stuff. But of course the recent “cleansing” has some ulterior motives. This drive is affecting a lot of young, Internet-savvy users. They can still find pirated songs of course, but for those who love to watch downloaded anime or American TV shows or films, the most prominent being Mop goers, it’s the end of the good days, at least for now. Back to the simmering resentment. If more and more young people dare not buy anything because of the out-of-this-world housing prices and join the ever-growing army of the “ant people” with the financially miserable lifestyle, and now they can’t have some fun in watching free, pirated Japanese anime, Korean soaps or US TV shows, the commies are really sowing the seeds of rebellion.


  3. I haven’t posted here (or on my own blog) in ages…

    Anyway, I think they will continue to crackdown. “Channeling public opinion” worked more or less in the lead-up to the Olympics and recent anniversaries—in preempting sympathetic responses to unrest if not the unrest itself—so why not take things a step or two further?

    Tougher censorship does seem shortsighted in terms of the government’s relations with the “ant people” Woodoo mentioned. It risks sparking the same combination among the barely-middle-class of personal frustration with narrow opportunities and broader political critiques that fueled the 1989 demonstrations. But opening up new terrains where people can say whatever they want may be a bigger risk for the Party.

    What’s interested me is the increasingly open approach of China’s official mouthpieces to the outside world, such as China Daily (maybe others have discussed this here—I haven’t been keeping up of late).

    I mean, they ran an article on “black jails” the other day and on the Panyu environmental protests and quite a few other topics. It’s like they’ve realized that they just aren’t credible without taking in the whole spectrum of news, so they’re making their headlines focus on the same boring stuff as they’ve always focused on, e.g. the official statement about the meeting between Hu Jintao and Uzbekistan’s leader or whatever (no analysis on the pros and cons of China’s relationship with Uzbekistan, no real info on what’s driving the meeting, etc.), but they slip in this other stuff on the side.

    The question is: is this the way the media in general will have to go in China, censorship of Facebook or no? Is there a natural slippery slope of accommodation of reality and dissident voices? Or can they keep a carefully tailored thing, where China Daily reports on x and y, but Southern Weekend can’t even have a low-key interview with Obama about nothing?


  4. @ wooddoo: Yeah, I figured that’s probably what they meant; I was just quoting the headline (which was in English, “house” was the word they picked).

    I know what you mean about the ant people, too. A lot of my Chinese friends are of the recently-grauduated or about-to-graduate variety, and they are often finding the only jobs available to them pay nothing at all at first (with the excuse that they aren’t yet trained), and then after that, very little, because they have no prior experience. I suppose the same thing happens to some extent everywhere, but in the States at least employers usually pay their interns and low-level employees enough to live as opposed to, well, nothing at all…

    @ OTR, they did do a good job of channeling responses to the unrest, although I wonder what would happen if/when it’s Han Chinese doing the rioting. I think channeling public opinion about rioting Uyghurs to be sympathetic to the government is probably a pretty easy job.


  5. “How Far Can Internet Censorship Go?”

    At the heart of censorship lies the fear of truth; it doesn’t have anything to do with breach of copyright. Ever.

    I think, for everyone’s sake, we have to believe that there’s a point beyond which even the Chinese government’s paranoia won’t take it. If not, the CCP will continue to push censorship – both at home and abroad – to its absolute limit.

    Only economic reasons (and maybe social stability) prevent the boys at Zhongnanhai adopting the DPRK’s approach to internet censorship. However, in a future world dominated by China don’t be surprised if the DPRK model sets the standard.

    I’m hopeful that the free world will continue to push back against any such efforts to infringe upon an individual’s right to open discourse and expression. Otherwise we’ll all be forced to watch re-runs of Yang Rui’s greatest dialogues.


  6. What is the DPRK model, exactly?

    And also, where’s s with his obligatory “There is no problem. I hate white people.” posts? His week-long suspension should be up by now.


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