Chinese Media Censorship and Fighting Corruption

What gets censored in Chinese online media? The University of Toronto Citizen Lab  and the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University have been among the leaders in research into online censorship in China.

 In 2013 some Harvard researchers experimented with a discussion website within China that they set up and then manipulated using a variety of censorship tools used in China.   This kind of article is interesting as was an earlier one analyzing microblog activity by the same research group are helpful though only part of the picture methinks.  

Local and provincial Party propaganda committees tend to get overlooked in western examinations of Chinese censorship. Intimidation by local propaganda authorities is a big part of the story and aimed at guiding or eliminating future postings.   That kind of control of postings avoided  (should it be called future-oriented censorship?)   is hard to quantify!  Then there is telephone call monitoring — in Chengdu a well-connected Chinese man told me at the county seat of his suburban Chengdu county a whole floor of a government building is dedicated to telephone and internet monitors and that this is true for many counties around China. 

My friends in China would talk about getting calls from police, visits, pressures on employers, then on to indirect pressure by threatening their relatives and co-workers.  Only after running through many levels of increasing pressure would the authorities move on to rougher stuff including jail. 

 Makes me think of a passage from Singapore National University Prof. Zheng Yongnian’s article  “Fighting Corruption and China’s Second Political Revolution”   

Corruption in China’s Communist Party Runs from the Top to the Bottom

Naturally the anti-corruption campaign should not be presented as just a political campaign. The current anti-corruption campaign, although it appears to resemble the anti-corruption campaigns of the past, has already broken the mold in at least three ways. First, this anti-corruption campaign is not a populist mass movement. In fact, the space allowed for a mass inspired bottom-up anti-corruption campaign through the Internet has been tightened very greatly. This is particularly evident when we reflect how in past years Chinese people spontaneously created anti-corruption by agitation on the internet. That had become almost the predominant type of anti-corruption campaign. But no more.

The present anti-corruption campaign, however, is a top-down anti-corruption campaign conducted within the Chinese Communist Party. Although enterprises are sometimes involved in specific cases, this campaign is aimed at Communist Party and government officials, and particularly at high-ranking officials. The concept of the anti-corruption campaign itself is not problematical; the issue is whether the campaign is conducted according to the law. Democratic countries also have anti-corruption campaigns. This campaign has tended to be put on a legal basis more than previous anti-corruption campaigns. In any institutional environment, corruption will tend to accumulate and so a campaign will be needed to clean things up. The format of the anti-corruption campaign does not necessarily conflict with rule by law as long as the anti-corruption campaign is conducted in the spirit of rule by law.

I have run across a number of articles by Chinese scholars that share this theme.   Could the the scholars be informing the thinking of the leaders or the leaders informing the thinking of the scholars.  Most likely it runs both ways! 

Especially interesting are articles about the effect of exposure of corrupt officials by outraged citizens online. Some scholar have argued these private anti-corruption ‘campaigns’ against individual officials or groups of officials harm the reputation of the Chinese Communist Party and government. That could be one of the rationales for the steady tightening on online expression we have seen in recent years.

For example:

In Chinese:

The Effectiveness and Limits of Fighting Corruption Online: A Framework for Institutional Analysis   网络反腐败的有效性与有限性:一个制度分析的框架   by Chen Guoying, Wang Hejiang and Xu Jing 
Critique of the Argument that Online Corruption Fighting Increases Political Trust   络反腐提升政治信任的逻辑批判   by Cheng Tongxun and Zhang Wenjun
Social Mechanisms of Corruption Fighting in the Age of Self-Publishing Media and Meshing it with State Mechanisms  自媒体时代反腐败的社会机制及其与国家机制的衔接  by Guo Lirong and Meng Xiangwei of the Criminal Law Research Center, Beijing Normal University

In English:

He Qinglian’s 2008 book The Fog of Censorship: Media Control in China is a great book and a free download from Human Rights in China. 

“Reverse-engineering censorship in China: Randomized experimentation and participant observation” by Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and  Margaret E. Roberts.

Abstract: Existing research on the extensive Chinese censorship organization uses observational methods with well-known limitations. We conducted the first large-scale experimental study of censorship by creating accounts on numerous social media sites, randomly submitting different texts, and observing from a worldwide network of computers which texts were censored and which were not. We also supplemented interviews with confidential sources by creating our own social media site, contracting with Chinese firms to install the same censoring technologies as existing sites, and—with their software, documentation, and even customer support—reverse-engineering how it all works. Our results offer rigorous support for the recent hypothesis that criticisms of the state, its leaders, and their policies are published, whereas posts about real-world events with collective action potential are censored.

Iditotizing the People: It Goes Way Back

Suining police interrogators found Liu Xianbin’s statement that the PRC evening news broadcast was aimed at idiotizing the Chinese people one of the grounds for subversion charges they recommended to the Suining, Sichuan prosecutors. On March 25, 2011 Liu Xianbin was found guilty of subversion for this and other statements such as calling the “people’s democratic dictatorship” not a type of democracy but a kind of autocracy.  The Chinese text of the Suining Public Security’s recommendation to the Suining Prosecutors on the case is here , my bolding. 中共当局“就靠赤裸裸的暴力”,《新闻联播》“是当局进行愚民宣传的重要喉舌”.

A Google search turn up many “idiotizing the people” compounds, including idiotizing the people propaganda, idiotizing the people policy etc.   It goes (or is projected) a long way back, there are controversies about whether Confucius was in favor or opposed to idiotizing the people policies and teachings.   Chinese continue to argue about the position of the sages of former days was on the question of idiotizing the people.


About 高大伟 David Cowhig

Retired now, translated Liao Yiwu's 2019 "Bullets and Opium", and studying some things. Worked 25 years as a US State Department Foreign Service Officer including ten years at US Embassy Beijing and US Consulate General Chengdu and four years as a China Analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Before State I translated Japanese and Chinese scientific and technical books and articles into English freelance for six years. Before that I taught English at Tunghai University in Taiwan for three years. And before that I worked two summers on Norwegian farms, milking cows and feeding chickens.
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