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May 31, 2013

Crouching people, snooping dragon

Web censorship in China lies at the intersection of history and technology.

“Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings” -Heinrich Heine

The last few weeks have seen an increasing number of articles, papers and social media commentary on both Chinese censorship and alleged Chinese cyber attacks. The cyber attacks story is still developing, with acrimonious exchanges between victims and allegations of Chinese culpability. But it is the ever present theme of censorship and the tactics used to keep the internet closed and censored in China that bring back memories of the First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang.

Legend has it that the First Emperor ordered the burning of books and the burying of scholars, to create a China that has been one under heaven, since. Those twin strategies had two effects. The first was to unite a mass of diverse sub-cultures and entities under one script, one set of rules and one style of governance. This created the massive nation that survives intact at the core and has expanded through hegemony. The second effect was to wipe out all dissent and dissenters, striking fear in the minds of would be dissenters.

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Harsh punishment was used then and unrelenting censorship is used now. Targeting celebrities — whether outspoken popular authors or senior business leaders, sends a message to everybody — that no one is immune. Chinese author Hao Qun, who writes under his penname Murong Xuecun and focuses on contemporary Chinese social and political issues, recently had his his social media accounts deleted. Rather eloquently, he described “being silenced on the internet is being put to death”. He is no pushover, as he said in this article in The Guardian:

“I am a “big V” [verified user] on Weibo, possessing over 8.5m followers across the four web portals, and 3.96m in Sina alone. In a period of over three years, I had posted more than 1,900 Weibo messages totalling more than 200,000 words, each written with deliberation and care. In a split second, however, they were all brought to naught.”

The other high profile victim is Kaifu Lee, who used to head Google China before the company shut down operations on the mainland, in large measure because of issues around censorship. With over a million Twitter followers and another 50 million followers on Weibo, Dr Lee is a significant voice on technology, a pioneer in speech recognition and Artificial Intelligence. None of these achievements prevents him from being a victim of censorship. Dr Lee’s posts are deleted regularly and his access to accounts is often barred.

These high-profile examples of Chinese censorship react differently to their victimisation. Dr Lee uses humour, ranging from dystopic science fiction to a more serious tracking of how often his posts are deleted. Murong Xuecun has ratcheted up his critique — a recent example is his open and explicit letter to his censor.

There are two significant programs, the first, the Great Firewall, and the second, The Golden Shield. The Great Firewall, much like the Great Wall which kept the Mongol hordes away, blocks foreign content and sites. When one travels to China, there is no Facebook, twitter, Gmail or New York Times. Most foreigners tend to use a VPN of some sort to access their sources of digital addiction. The Golden Shield is a program of domestic surveillance, embracing sophisticated search and delete algorithms to eliminate offensive keywords or sensitive issues. Deletion of accounts and entire blogs is also a part of the scheme.

How exactly does censorship work in China? Is there a monolithic mammoth structure? What do they censor? A spate of recent scholarly studies have focused on these issues.

A recent paper by Tao Zhu and David Phipps et al studied the velocity of censorship on Weibo, China’s twitter. They found that deletions happened most frequently within an hour of posting. When it comes to original posts, about a third of deletions are found to have occurred within 5-30 minutes of posting and 90 percent within the first 24 hours. Gary King, Jennifer Pan and Margaret Roberts, researchers from Harvard University, discovered How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression. Their title summarises the findings, which seem counter intuitive on first sight. Upon reflection, it is a rather sophisticated strategy of loose and tight control, that lets citizens let off steam individually but prevents them from congregating.

The Chinese censorship apparatus has multiple departments — central and local — and byzantine bureaucracies. Licensing terms often force private internet companies to employ censors to monitor and delete content which government censors might find objectionable. Second guessing would likely be rife, as private companies risk losing their license for any slips.

No scan of the censorship scene in China can be complete without mention of the 50 Cent party. A pejorative turn of phrase, it refers to people who have sold themselves cheap to the government. Their job is to post overwhelmingly positive comments, troll critics and crowd out dissenting voices. And perhaps to whip up passions. President Clinton had declared in 2000 that China’s attempts to crack down on the internet was akin to nailing Jell-o to the wall. He was optimistic that in the knowledge economy, economic innovation and political empowerment would go hand in hand.

From chasing world dominance, changing the world’s factories to its market place, creating path breaking innovations and inventions — China is the cynosure of all eyes. While the Chinese continue to be under the watchful and wrathful eyes of the censors, their first emperor would be proud of his descendants in the government.

Photo: The Lamp


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