An Explanation of Self-Censorship in China: The Enforcement of Social Control Through a Panoptic Infrastructure

By Simon K. Zhen
2015, Vol. 7 No. 09 | pg. 2/5 |

Summary of Traditional Discourse on Censorship in China

In the next section of this paper, I will proceed to examine some of the mainstream empirical theories and the evidence that each theory uses in seeking to explain censorship in China. In Communication Power, Manuel Castells argues that China’s success can be attributed to the structure of punishment in which the government has installed. Although it may appear difficult to control the media in a country as big as China, the Chinese have gradually mastered the technique for maintaining control over the media by using one the most direct forms of media politics: surveillance.25 Surveillance is implemented through a system of guilt. Castells points out that “the most effective system of controlling the internet in China is one that reproduces the time-tested method used over the years to control the media: the cascading hierarchy of surveillance that ultimately induces self-censorship at all levels, and makes the culprit pay at each level when a significant failure is detected.”26 It is critical to understand the specifics of the cascading hierarchy of surveillance in order to comprehend the structure of censorship in China. In order to perform daily operations in the country, companies need operating licenses, which are granted by the Publicity Department. These licenses can be renewed as long as companies such as news agencies do not violate any major policies set forth by the government.

Moreover, the government establishes a system in which orders are trickled down from the Communist Party to appointed state supervisors to local supervisors, and lastly to individual journalists. This structure allows the government to transmit its demands to everyone in the entire system. For example, if a journalist publishes a story that the government does not favor, that journalist can get fired, fined, and have their salary cut. Not only that, the immediate supervisor of that journalist also faces similar consequences. If the offense was severe enough, the company could have its license revoked, face a fine, and the people in charge could face jail sentences. This may seem severe, however, the government does maintain the ability to feasibly implement any of these measures if it so desires to. Thus, the hierarchical structure of the system, which holds everyone operating within the realm of the system accountable, effectively mitigates dissent.27

Similar to Castells, J. Tong also discusses the system of punishment in China. Tong focuses on the role of filtration and editing within a given media corporation. Tong examines and analyzes the content of articles before and after publication. Even though the original unedited reports may represent the journalist’s position, the final product almost always represents the political views of the newspaper that will publish the actual article.28 Thus, it is argued that by looking at the discrepancies between the two products, the real political views of the companies themselves become apparent. After deciphering these views, Tong concludes that although it may seem as if the concealment of social conflict may be harmful to society, it actually empowers entities in society such as underprivileged groups and ordinary citizens. Tong explains:

“Self-censorship is an efficient way for newspaper organizations to deal with the clash between their interests and those of the interests of journalists and the public. The self-censorship in Chinese newsrooms nowadays is not a strict “No” policy. Instead, it helps maximize the possibility of getting reports published at the same time as minimizing political risks. Newsrooms do not absolutely refuse reports on highly politically sensitive topics. With greater concern over political safety, newspaper organizations act as gatekeepers via self-censorship, thus avoiding potential risks caused by the violations of propaganda taboos in journalists’ reports.”29

Tong agrees that the government does possess control over newspaper agencies. However, he contends, controversially, that the self-censoring tendencies within each publication company have enabled strategic publishing tactics in China.

Evgeny Morozov, on the other hand, argues that China’s success is due to the watchdog role that corporations play within the system. The government exercises a relatively similar policy of licensing for Internet service providers (ISPs) and Internet content providers (ICPs) as they do for media companies. Licensing policies essentially create a sphere in which all players must be loyal to the government. ISPs and ICPs are the ones, as Morozov explains it, “doing the dirty work.”30 In other words, they are the ones doing the actual censoring. Morozov points out that there is an increasing tendency for governments like China to “ban their own nationals from accessing content by requiring ISPs to simply stop serving requests for a particular URL.”31 In order to do so, the government has held ISPs and ICPs liable for the people they choose to give Internet service to. Not only that, they are also required by the government to keep Internet logs and records of everything, including confidential user browsing information. The government has the authority to seek these confidential logs and records whenever it wishes. ISPs and ICPs must forfeit them or face the consequences of going against the party. ICPs are not exempt from this either. In addition to all that applies to ISPs, ICPs must attend government-training classes in order to get a certificate that allows them to operate.32

Morozov adds that appeals to the freedom of expression by netizens are usually unsuccessful because corporations such as Weibo are for-profit and have no vested interest in promoting human rights like the freedom of speech. Companies are mainly concerned about their economic welfare, which solely depends on their ability to retain and renew their licenses. The inability of domestic companies to empathize with dissidents is another reason why censorship is highly effective in China. By articulating these measures to get everyone on board with the overarching government agenda, the government is able to exercise a high level of control over the Internet—making browsing no longer as private as it alludes. 33

Morozov’s overarching argument is that the Internet’s triumphalism has in essence become a democratizing tool for authoritarian regimes. Governments such as China have developed sophisticated ways to control the infrastructure of the Internet. Due to this, they are able to monitor, survey, and control citizens at an unprecedented level. He cites everyday examples such as the government’s role in mass surveillance, ideological repression, and the spread of propaganda.

In a 2013 article published in the American Political Science Review, Harvard professors Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret Roberts argue that the success of the system is due to the notion that it allows for government criticism while silencing collective action. They analyzed the contents of over 1,400 different media services over time before the government censored it using “modern computer-assisted text analytic methods that we (King, Pan, and Roberts) adapt to and validate in the Chinese language.”34 They concluded:

“Contrary to previous understandings, posts with negative, even vitriolic, criticism of the state, its leaders, and its policies are not more likely to be censored. Instead, we show that the censorship program is aimed at curtailing collective action by silencing comments that represent, reinforce, or spur social mobilization, regardless of content. Censorship is oriented toward attempting to forestall collective activities that are occurring now or may occur in the future—and, as such, seem to clearly expose government intent.”35

In contrast to popular belief, the findings imply that on various social media outlets, the purpose of censorship is not to undermine criticism of the CPC. The purpose of censorship is to undercut collective action against the party when evidence hints at the potential formation of a collective movement—that would truly threaten the CPC’s power. Seemingly, although China may be appeasing the masses through a liberalizing trend in social media, King, Pan, and Roberts contend that the results suggest that social media may merely be assisting the government in its attempt to maintain legitimacy in the eyes of citizens. Chinese people are, in essence, “individually free but collectively in chains.”36

Departing from surveillance, David Shambaugh evaluates the role of propaganda in China. Censorship through massive propaganda campaigns was the main way in which the government utilized censorship throughout most of the 20th century. Propaganda played an enormous role in the suppression, persecution, and censorship of certain groups of individuals during eras such as the Anti-Rightist Movement, Great Leap Forward, and Cultural Revolution. It was rather effective because it had a huge impact on the ideology of the proletariat class. Namely, by hyper-emphasizing a set of ideas such as Maoist beliefs to the extent that hanging propaganda posters in the home became mandatory, the hegemonic status of the emphasized belief in essence delegitimized competing ideologies.

Shambaugh analyzed the institutions, processes, and efficacy of China’s contemporary propaganda system.37 Previous studies have argued that propaganda, and in particular Mao’s manipulation of propaganda campaigns, have significantly assisted the CPC in establishing an ideological control system. Examples include incarceration in brainwashing camps, control of citizens taught in the educational system, control over all aspects of the media, loudspeakers that reached into villages, and even groups of propaganda soldiers who essentially served as watchdogs of the government. However, these methods have significantly declined since the era of Mao along with the evolution of other aspects such as the commercialization of the media. Shambaugh argues that in contemporary China, the Propaganda Department, which oversees all media and propaganda endeavors, has lost a lot of its control with the rise of technological modernization, social pluralization, economic marketization and globalization.38

With an increase in quantity of information available on the Internet partially due to the commercialization of the media, there has been a growing sense of skepticism amongst Chinese citizens. In effect, they no longer fully believe what state media organs tell them. Shambaugh argues that this sense of cynicism was fueled by the government’s attempt to cover up and censor the 2003 SARS outbreak. Following that, Peking University professor Jiao Guobiao published an unprecedented article calling for the abolition of the Propaganda Department. Although he was dismissed and exiled, his rhetoric would still have a social impact. In a highly confidential letter to the CPC, Communist Party elders also expressed their concerns. They warned the CPC that “the turning point in our history from a totalitarian to a constitutional system, depriving the public of freedom of speech will bring disaster for our social and political transition and give rise to group confrontation and unrest. Experience has proved that allowing a free flow of ideas can improve stability and alleviate social problems.”39 Although the Propaganda Department still retains control of all aspects of ideological expression in China, it no longer has the absolute control that it once did, especially with the market-driven structure that is increasingly starting to define the system. Shambaugh concludes:

“[t]he overall image one derives at present is of a bureaucratic system that has atrophied compared with its Maoist past, yet remains capable of controlling the content of most information available to the Chinese public. It remains an important instrument in the Party-state's toolbox of control. Yet it is also clear that the system is being buffeted by the forces of commerce, technology, globalization, public sophistication and cynicism. These forces inexorably erode the Party-state's control over the dissemination and content of available information, and cumulatively and progressively undermine the system and the regime's ability to control the minds and beliefs of its citizenry.”40

Ultimately, Shambaugh believes that the government’s inability to shape how people think will inevitably cause it to lose a key mechanism of its control, and also a source of its legitimacy. Foreseeably, if the Party-state loses the battle for minds, losing the battle of hearts will not be far behind.41

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