The Not-So-Great Firewall of China

Social media won't drive the downfall of the Chinese Communist Party, but it is forcing government to be more transparent and responsive to the public.
April 17, 2012 |
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Every news organization needs a social media strategy. Even China's government-controlled Xinhua News Agency now "tweets" news bulletins through Twitter-like microblogs called weibo -- through which more than 300 million users share details of their daily lives, jokes, gossip, and news.

Chinese companies running weibo services are required by the government to censor and monitor their users, blocking politically sensitive content. Yet despite weibo's best censorship efforts, China's chattering classes have outsmarted the system, using literary allusions, code words, and innuendo to pass around juicy leaks and tidbits from the foreign media about the alleged murder of English businessman Neil Heywood by associates of Gu Kailai, wife of the former Chongqing Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai, whose fall from grace has precipitated the biggest leadership crisis in China since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.

Censorship has even backfired in bizarre ways. After a long silence by official media on the subject, last week at 11 p.m. Beijing time Xinhua attempted to tweet an official news bulletin announcing that Bo had been stripped of his party posts and was under investigation for "serious discipline violations." Sina Weibo, the most popular of China's weibo services, censored Xinhua's tweet.

The use of Bo's name had triggered the company's automated censorship system -- programmed, ironically, in compliance with central government orders to block all tweets containing Bo's name. At the same time, Sina posted the text of the same Xinhua bulletin to its own news feed. Five minutes later, in response no doubt to irate phone calls, Sina unblocked Xinhua's tweet. Xinhua then posted a tweet (later removed) complaining that its own breaking story had been scooped by Weibo. This provoked a flurry of sarcastic commentary by witty weibo users, joking about how the government's propaganda apparatus had fallen victim to its own regulations.

The lesson of this episode? China's censorship and propaganda systems may be complex and multilayered, but they are obviously not well coordinated. Writing in the Guardian this week, dissident artist Ai Weiwei declared that while China's Internet censorship system may be the envy of autocrats worldwide, China's leaders need to understand that in the long run "it's not possible for them to control the Internet unless they shut it off." He was half right: While the Chinese government's tactics may be ham-handed and likely doomed to failure in the long run, they are working well enough to keep the Communist Party in power for the short to medium term.

In unpacking social media's role in China's latest political power struggle, it is important to understand that Bo Xilai's political downfall actually strengthens the power of the central government, currently led by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.

Bo was a popular -- and populist -- challenger to the political and economic status quo. He built an independent power base in Chongqing, an internationally celebrated megalopolis in western China. His neo-Maoist ideology gained an impassioned following among conservative nationalists as well as members of China's growing urban poor who blame the current leadership's economic policies for unacceptable levels of economic disparity. Bo represented a political threat to the liberalizing economic and financial reforms that Hu and Wen say they are determined to carry out before they pass the baton to a new set of leaders in October.

Chinese blogger Michael Anti likes to describe weibo as a public opinion "battlefield." Shutting down weibo at this point, now that it has become such an integral part of so many Chinese people's social lives, would be impossible without provoking widespread public anger against the government. Instead, the central government's strategy is to "occupy" weibo to defeat challengers like Bo in the court of public opinion -- while doing all it can to weigh the scales in its own favor.

Almost every week, there are stories in the press or on Chinese social media about what even the official Chinese media call "hot online topics": stories about how people in a particular village or town used weibo to expose malfeasance by local or regional authorities. This calls the central government's attention to problems which it can then swoop in and solve, making the central government look like it is more concerned with the common people than are local officials. Citizens even manage to use cyber-vigilantism -- popularly known as the "human flesh search engine" -- to bring about the resignation of badly behaved officials. Sometimes laws and regulations are even changed, and policy reforms implemented, as the result of concerned citizens' online campaigning.

Clearly, China is no longer a classic Cold War-style authoritarian state. I call its new style of information-oriented governance "networked authoritarianism." Thanks to the Internet in general and social media in particular, the Chinese people now have a mechanism to hold authorities accountable for wrongdoing -- at least sometimes -- without any actual political or legal reforms having taken place. Major political power struggles and scandals are no longer kept within elite circles. In the case of the Bo-Gu-Heywood scandal, social media "is forcing a level of transparency in how the government handles this case that never used to exist," explains media entrepreneur and blogger Jeremy Goldkorn, who has been living in China since the 1990s. China's political system may not have changed, yet the public has become both a constituency and a pawn in the nation's political battles.

If anything, weibo may even help the Communist Party re-centralize its political power at the expense of local officials and regional governments, which over the past three decades of economic reform have gained greater autonomy from Beijing. The weibo companies are all headquartered in the capital and required to take orders from the central government. ("For a local government to have content blocked or deleted requires getting on a plane to Beijing," Anti explains.) The advent of weibo has created a cycle in which the public is increasingly emboldened to use social media to report on localized abuses by individual officials, with some reason to hope that once the central government is alerted to the problem justice will prevail.

At the same time, the consequences of any efforts to organize protests, meetings, or movements focused on criticizing or changing the central government remain the same as they been for more than two decades, since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. Liu Xiaobo, who circulated the "Charter 08" treatise calling for multi-party democracy and who won a Nobel Peace Price in 2010, is serving a 10-year jail sentence. Many signatories of his charter received visits from the police. In early 2011, dozens of people who re-tweeted calls for "jasmine protests" inspired by Tunisia's "Jasmine Revolution" were questioned or arrested. Weibo postings by intellectuals calling for political reform are quickly removed, and have not been allowed to go viral as the Bo Xilai rumor postings managed to do. Chinese journalists are being muzzled more tightly than ever to prevent them from conducting investigative reporting that might damage the central government's power.

Meanwhile, Beijing is doing everything possible to remind China's Internet users of who is in charge. Several websites popular with Maoist supporters of Bo Xilai have been shut down or suspended. The People's Daily issued an ultimatum against online rumors and people who spread them. The professional media has received strict instructions not to report unauthorized news on the Bo-Gu-Heywood case. More than 1,000 people have been arrested for "spreading rumors."

Last week, the "great firewall" system that normally blocks blacklisted foreign websites temporarily blocked all foreign websites. Since then, bloggers and Internet industry insiders report that the overall level of website-blocking has noticeably increased. Postings by weibo users with more than 10,000 followers will be individually vetted. The government is also pushing the weibo companies to implement a "real name" registration system by the middle of the year, which means at least in theory that it will become much more difficult for weibo users to disguise their identity from the authorities, if not from the general public. "If it is really implemented," says Beijing-based Internet investor and commentator Bill Bishop, "the real effect will be a reminder to people that the government is watching and they should be careful about what they say."

The paradox of the Chinese Internet is that despite all of these measures, weibo remain a lively place, where most Chinese Internet users feel freer to debate and discuss matters of public interest than ever before. A wide range of policy positions, political loyalties, and ideologies can be found throughout Chinese society, and thanks to the Internet those differences have become publicly visible for the first time. Millions of Chinese Internet users engage regularly in public-policy debates because they feel that at least in some cases, the weight of public opinion can make a real difference.

These trends in the long run are great cause for optimism about what the Internet means for China's political future. As Anti puts it, "The political change will come from non-Internet factors, but thanks to the Internet people will be more ready to do something positive with it."