Egypt, China, and Revolution (Part 2)

I can’t help thinking that some of this is all my fault. You see, having been one of the few people in China who stayed awake all night last Friday, I was (I think) the first person to report that China was censoring the news about the protests in Egypt, kind of. What I said was this:

Word of the revolutionary protests is spreading on Weibo and through BBS forums, but appears to be being scrubbed just as quickly. Attempts to link to Al-Jazeera’s live coverage of the story resulted repeatedly in Sina’s Weibo service displaying an error message about “forbidden” content. Some Weibo messages have mentioned Egypt, but the topic appears to have been scrubbed from the trending topics on Weibo, where it hasn’t appeared in the top 50 all night.

I believe I beat the AP on this by several hours, in light of the fact that they were probably sleeping, like sane people, at the time I posted it.

In the days since then, of course, the situation in Egypt has worsened, and comparisons to China are becoming rather difficult to avoid. And the springboard from 1989 to now is pretty apparent. If a pro-democracy movement is spreading across North Africa, in this global age, could it spread to China? And what is China doing about that?

“They’re censoring it,” is the obvious answer, and while that’s true, it’s also complicated. Has that complexity been reflected in the coverage?

First, let us start with the Straits Times, whose coverage is (perhaps unsurprisingly) appalling:

China has continued to censor online discussions of the protests in Egypt, wary that images of tanks in Cairo would evoke memories of its own bloody Tiananmen struggle in 1989.

Keyword searches of the word ‘Egypt’ are blocked, and foreign news websites reporting on the ongoing uprising have been disabled and remain inaccessible.

As much as I like to joke, the Tiananmen comparison is entirely apt here. But then things go downhill quickly. First of all, what the hell is a “keyword search”? Is it the same thing as a regular search (yes)? Because searching for “Egypt” isn’t blocked on any Chinese search engine I know. And in fact, Baidu.com’s auto-suggest feature currently suggests “Egypt riots” as soon as you type in Egypt. It’s also the second response on the results page when you search for Egypt.

Searches for the term “Egypt” are blocked on Sina’s Weibo microblogging service. But, as I reported originally, people are still perfectly free to talk about Egypt and the riots on Weibo, “Egypt” just can’t be searched for and is blocked as a trending topic.

Similarly, the Straits Times reports that “foreign news websites reporting on the ongoing uprising have been disabled and remain inaccessible.” I wish this was more specific, because I can’t find a single foreign news website reporting on the uprising that has been disabled. Even Al Jazeera, with its 24-hour live video coverage, is accessible, as it has been since the protests began.

Again, the Straits Times folks may be talking about Sina Weibo, where links to Al Jazeera’s site are currently blocked. But that is absolutely not something that’s true of the Chinese internet as a whole. Moreover, it’s important to remember that private companies like Sina generally censor themselves preemptively. It’s possible the decision to block the Al Jazeera site was made without input from the government itself. In fact, that seems likely, since the Al Jazeera website is still totally unblocked.

Of course, not everyone is doing as terrible as job as the Straits Times. But lots of people have been making this mistake, seen here in TIME’s coverage but widely available in a variety of Western media outlets:

As the unrest in Egypt stretches on, China has blocked the country’s name from micro-blogs and is scrubbing related comments from the web.

No. Sina has blocked searches for Egypt, and disabled it as a trending topic. But the word Egypt is not blocked, as evidenced by this post I made last night. It says the word “Egypt” seventy times. It went through fine and has been there for over a day without being deleted. Note also tweets like these, actual information about the riots in Egypt, that went through without a problem and a day later, still haven’t been deleted. And here are a couple posts I made on Jan 29th about Egypt. Those weren’t deleted either.

This may not be a significant distinction for everyone, but I do think it’s important. Simply saying “China censors news about Egypt!” is easy, but things are not that simple. In fact, China has created a much more elaborate system to deal with the unrest in Egypt, which seems to be focused more on misdirection than direct censorship. Sina and other web portals are scrubbing Egypt-related content from their front pages, search functions, etc., which makes it less likely to become a big story. At the same time, though, people are still allowed to tweet about it, and even read news coverage about it (both foreign and domestic), which decreases frustration.

Of course, Chinese coverage has predictably focused on the destabilizing effect of the protests, the violence, and the heroic government effort to rescue Chinese citizens in Egypt (although there was an ugly rumor going around on Twitter that the first plane they sent left behind a group of schoolchildren so as to ensure that all the “important” government-connected folks could be rescued first). The message is generally: what’s happening in Egypt is bad and no good can come of it. Not a big surprise.

But everyone seems to be ignoring the most significant thing about the Egypt-in-China story: no one cares, because it’s Spring Festival time ((Imagine, for example, that on December 25th, China sentenced a highly visible pro-democracy dissident to a harsh prison term. How many Americans would be paying attention? It’s happening in a far-away country, it doesn’t have immediate ramifications for US foreign policy, and it’s Christmas, goddamn it. No one would care (well, almost no one).)). When the protests got serious on Friday, many people were already on their way home. When things got really violent last night, almost everyone in China was busy either watching the horrible, horrible spectacle that is Chunwan or burning down expensive buildings with fireworks. The government holiday lasts for another week, and most people won’t begin returning to their regular lives until at least a few days after that. If the riots in Egypt are still going by then, it could pose a danger to the Chinese government. But so far, there’s no big threat.

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0 thoughts on “Egypt, China, and Revolution (Part 2)”

  1. Custer. Unfortunately, you will never make your key point to some readers….. “In fact, China has created a much more elaborate system to deal with the unrest in Egypt, which seems to be focused more on misdirection than direct censorship.”

    Misdirection is the key work, and what you are arguing is borne out by this older piece by James Fallows.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/03/-ldquo-the-connection-has-been-reset-rdquo/6650/

    The Chinese internet is also designed to plain exhaust anyone looking for sensitive information.

    “The unpredictability of the firewall actually makes it more effective,”

    Sections of Fallows article reward a close reading.

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  2. Browsing through the comments all I can say is that most people here don’t have much knowledge about modern Egyptian history nor the geopolitical implications of what is going to happen in the Arab world. While the Chinese media censored what is going on in Egypt, the Western media has instead reported on how great the revolutions are while ignoring the obvious question: why have the Western governments supported Mubarak for so long if his government was so shitty to its people all this time? You see US politicians talking about how Mubarak should “respect democracy” and at the same time have Egypt to be a pro-West/pro-Israel/anti-Islamist state, as if they don’t know these concepts are mutually exclusive at this point in time.

    The anti government riots are clearly a wake up call not only to the Chinese but to any society with high living of standards gaps. The people want better lives and they think that a new government can help them achieve that. This is a natural mechanism which has allowed for regime changes all over for thousands of years. Of course the current Chinese leader are afraid of changes, which is exactly why they have to do more to stabilize the country.

    Besides what I just wrote I don’t see the point of drawing more parallels between TAM and what’s going on over Egypt right now. Most of the comments from politicians and nobodies on all sorts of forums are mostly about how THEY want Egypt to turn out. The question they really should be asking themselves is how will they react if Egyptians don’t turn out the way they envisioned.

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  3. Pingback: Anonymous
  4. There are differences between Tienanmen and Egypt. TAM was the result of the failed reforms of China in the months before 1989 protests. In Egypt, Mubarak is just plain greedy hoarding Egypt’s riches, failing to enact the necessary reforms, while suppressing its people. Still, protests in both countries started with high inflation which results in the increase of cost of food.

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  5. And oh look:

    http://www.cbc.ca/world/story/2011/02/18/egypt-march.html

    A just release news about Egypt with comment closed. Isn’t this the same thing you guys are complaining about China? Look Ma, supposedly free media does it too.

    Or this is proof our media is also sophisticated censorship of the Egypt news, now that Egypt’s undemocratic riot had garnered so much chaos and statelessness, Egypt put is under military dictatorship?

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  6. @Justrecently

    I am responding to the complains sina closed article comment on Egypt protest too quickly. The CBC comment is either closed at the time of publish or was open for no more than a day.

    Here’s another example. Far more people showed up at Madison for the “Cheese Revolution” than all of China that turned out for the “Jasmine Revolution”, yet our media coverage is complete asymetrical. Here’re article count from Google News:

    “Wisconsin Cheese Revolution” – 16 articles
    “China Jasmine Revolution” 1,245 articles

    Where’s the media speculation on Scott Walker’s legitimacy? Seems when popular uprise happens in America, our media is doing all everything to censor/control the news – isn’t this what we accuse the Chinese of?

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  7. The article you linked to here does actually discuss the legitimacy of governor Walker’s actions.

    When a website decides to keep its commenter thread closed, or to close it after a few hours, that’s perfectly legitimate. I can do that as a blogger, and a paper can do that, too. Anyone is free to open another platform for open discussion. The suggestion that a corporate or individual decision would be as objectionable as centralized, nation-wide censorship doesn’t convince me.

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  8. Then do you think the same rule should be applied to Sina for closing comments at their discretion?

    I’m merely applying the same criticism levied against Sina.

    I’ve already demonstrated the asymetry in our media attention on Jasmine/Cheese revolution.

    The Chinese government should be so lucky that our media focus so little on de-legitimizing it, as the scant opinion by our media on Governor Walker’s legitimacy:

    “But Walker’s camp has dismissed all the accusations as lies.”

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  9. The Chinese government should be so lucky that our media focus so little on de-legitimizing it, as the scant opinion by our media on Governor Walker’s legitimacy:
    You are avoiding the issue, Charles. The Chinese media are censored by the government.

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  10. And our media is controlled by the military-industrial-complex. Show where Sina was told to close comment early. If u can’t then it’s no different than CBC.

    Here’s another example, just heard on NPR today about protrst in Iraq. Shots in the air and police killed were the emphasis, pushing the POV protesters were violent. Initial protrst was also violent but our media down played police killed and building torched, to push the POV they were peaceful protester.

    All this demonstrate the control we accuse the Chinese of also exist here.

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  11. Again with the “our media” from a troll who shills for the PRC and is semi-literate at best when it comes to actually reading and understanding Western media reports. Your ridiculous non-point was correctly and fully dealt with by Just Recently. Game over. Give up. Get over it.

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  12. And our media is controlled by the military-industrial-complex.

    Platforms like Sina can keep its thread open or comments undeleted as long as they contain nothing sensitive. And they have to delete comments or stop threads once they do become sensitive. If they don’t, they’ll be closed down. Suggesting that what happens on a CBC thread and on a Sina thread is the same would ignore China’s policy of censorship.

    The military-industrial complex you are complaining about won’t keep you or me from continuing a closed thread wherever we wish to, and to keep it open as long as we like. That may be the same thing as Chinese blogging and publishing from your perspective – but many Chinese nationals would strongly disagree with you.

    Show where Sina was told to close comment early.

    You may as well say that no censorship occurs in China, because I’m in no possession of an official Chinese document that stipulates which catchwords and contexts need to be deleted. Of course it would be nice if all those red-headed papers were all published before taking effect.

    I’m sure you will keep finding “another example”, and “another example”, Charles – but so far, they all share the same logical flaw. You are avoiding the issue of censorship.

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  13. “Here’s another example. Far more people showed up at Madison for the “Cheese Revolution” than all of China that turned out for the “Jasmine Revolution”, yet our media coverage is complete asymetrical. Here’re article count from Google News:

    “Wisconsin Cheese Revolution” – 16 articles
    “China Jasmine Revolution” 1,245 articles”

    If you search for something as simple as “Wisconsin unions Walker” you get nearly 16,000 results from a variety of different ideological viewpoints detailing what is happening in Madison. You only have to turn on the TV or read the newspaper to know what’s going on there. If you’re only reading articles that describe it as the “Cheese Revolution,” a term which doesn’t seem to have entered the mainstream lexicon yet, you’re bound to find far fewer results.

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  14. Frankly, as much coverage as industrial relations within budget negotiations deserve – the events in North Africa do deserve more attention. Google News’ coverage may or may not be asymmetrical, but I don’t see much reason to doubt that it reflects the interests of the global readership quite accurately – the interests of the readership, not the “military-industrial complex” which has been blamed on this or another thread before.

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  15. Keep fooling yourself about the fact our media is so well controled with self-censorship and market-driven media(information consumers, sources, access to sources), official censorship is not necessary.

    Here’s yet another example that just keeps going one is willing to critically examine our own media. According to Democracy Now!, pre-Iraq invasion our media collectively reported 300 pro-war piece, with 4 anti-war reporting.

    Trust me, there is a reason that overwhelming majority of our media choose to self-censor and downplat the label “cheese revolution”, yet twist the facts on the ground in China’s basically non-event where far fewer people show up for the entire China than in Madison, Wisconson.

    Where’s the objective report on China’s non-event in our media? Are the facts on the the ground the prevailing narrative, or is the emphasis by our supposedly free and independenet media continue to enforce the “official narrative” on China?

    There’s no difference between Sina turning off comment early and CBC turning off comment early. Criticizing one while rationalizing the other is hypocrisy. The end is the same, matters not if it’s official censorship or sea of dis-information from the military-industrial-MEDIA-complest to drown out the alternative voice.

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  16. As I said on February 26, 2011 at 03:11, Charles: you’ll find another example, and another, and with every example, you will conscientiously ignore that there is centralized, politically-willed censorship in China.

    You are obsessed with an “official narrative” on China in America, because you can’t think of any stream of news stories that evolves in accordance with what people want to read. A story that doesn’t sell is no story.

    There’s no difference between Sina turning off comment early and CBC turning off comment early. Criticizing one while rationalizing the other is hypocrisy.
    Bullshit. Your accusation is of the same quality as that of a commenter who cries “censorship” because a blog admin locks him out. It’s not the same, because the CBC website doesn’t need to take orders from a propaganda department.

    That you equate the Chinese and the American press is a logical flaw you are free to indulge in – but don’t accuse others of hypocrisy, only because you can’t make a better point in a debate.

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  17. Here’s another example to illustrate the “sea of misinformation” that drowns out the truth:

    http://www.zonaeuropa.com/20110226_1.htm

    When well respected blogger like Roland Soong pipes up, you know there’s something wrong with our media. When expat bloggers ignores ESWN and echos the official narrative, you know we have a will oiled military-industrial-MEDIA-complex that surpasses any notiong of Ministry of Truth out there.

    I would even say the invisible, easily rationalized censorship if more dangerous than the overt kind.

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  18. When Roland Soong points something out, I listen and read, because he keeps his standards straight, Charles. It would be great if there were more people of his kind.

    But that’s a different story. As I said on February 26, 2011 at 03:11, and on other occasions, you are using, once again, another example, and like all your other examples, it is again beside the point. The well-oiled military-industrial MEDIA complex you are complaining about does not switch off websites and threads that it dislikes or fears. To the degree it may exist (and you are not very specific there, other than taking an “official narrative” for evidence, this “complex” is no centrally-controlled organization, and it mainly serves as your poorly-defined excuse for ignoring that there is centralized, politically-willed censorship in China.

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  19. And I assert our orchestrated self-censorship and market controlled media, (not only consumer, but also media source and access to said source, manifest in the military-industural-MEDAI-Comples), is more dangerous than the overt kind of censorship that exists in China.

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  20. Now that Wisconsin Cheese Revolution peaceful protesters’ demand were rejected, do they have the right to camp out on roads blocking traffic? Torch the state building?

    Where’s our media’s “pro democracy” reporting and NED to stoke anti-goverment sentiment, giving money to civil society to foment unrest, chaos?

    Suddenly, when it comes to our own democracy, some things are off the table.

    Like

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