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. 3/5 |

From Censorship to Self-Censorship: a Systematic Evolutionary Process

Prior to analyzing the merits and faults of the theories presented in the previous section, it is necessary to examine the mechanics and evidence behind the complicated system that China has established. Important elements that need to be explained include how and why self-censorship is induced, and also the mechanisms of control that have evolved in the process in regards to both Internet and media censorship. The first part of this section will examine two seemingly reoccurring themes in censorship while the latter part will scrutinize the theories presented in the previous section.

Coercive Control

The first of the two reoccurring themes is coercive control. The advent of the Internet as an electronic medium was unprecedented in that it enabled the massive spread of information. For the first time, individuals around the world could access literally millions of newspapers, articles, and various other databases with a simple Google or Baidu (China’s version of Google) search. Within years, the Internet fostered a realm in which individuals could engage in intellectual conversations in places such as online forums. However, as the Internet’s prominence increased, the Chinese government realized the harm that this type of unrestricted ideological communication could potential pose to its sense of absolute control. Authoritative governments like China have since developed ways to make the Internet work in its favor in its endeavors to maintain absolute control—thereby making the Internet no longer the liberating force that, as scholars have argued, it was destined to become.

Although the CPC’s control of the propaganda apparatus is no longer as strong as it was during the Maoist era, it has adapted to focus on controlling the Internet by making the Internet a key tool for surveillance. Internet users who commit crimes deemed by the government, such as attempting to rally a protest at Tiananmen Square, or, more commonly, spreading false rumors, are punished. The government has been taking measures to make the Internet no longer anonymous so that it can be aware of what, when, where, and how netizens commit online crimes. With this information, the government is able to track down and punish transgressors at its discretion. Individuals’ knowledge of the government’s ability to do this, along with the foreseeable consequences of speaking out against the government, deters individuals from doing so. This is the foundation for how citizens are beginning to censor themselves on an everyday basis. To dive deeper into the specifics of this, three methods of surveillance will now be examined: the roles of ISPs and ICPs, Internet registration attempts, and the Internet Police in China.

First, there are the roles of ISPs and ICPs in eliminating online anonymity. As mentioned by Morozov, ISPs and ICPs need operating licenses in order to operate, which makes them fully loyal to the government. ISPs have the ability to track users’ information such as their IP addresses, etc. This informs the government the exact computer and location that certain Internet content originated from. In addition, ICPs, and especially social media corporations, have the information of everyone registered on their respective websites and databases. Knowing this, the government has been forcing multimedia corporations such as Weibo (website similar to Twitter with 300 million users) to enforce strict registration policies.42 These policies would essentially mandate that all users register with their real names and identification numbers as a prerequisite to accessing the website. With this information, the government is able to easily track those who attempt to undermine the party. Recently, according to Xinhua News, a “rumormonger” in a publically owned media corporation was sentenced to jail for committing one of the most common crimes: spreading false rumors online.43 When individuals know that punishment can potentially be ensured if they were to post something online that the government would find unfavorable, they are deterred from making the post in the first place. This mindset often forces them to take precautionary measures prior to posting and censor themselves.

In China, not only are measures in place for the government to track transgressors, but there is an online police force that constantly patrols the Internet. CNN reports that China currently employs over two million active Internet police agents, which is a direct result of the massive influx of resources invested into Internet surveillance.44 Internet police agents use keyword searches to filter criticism and other content that the CPC would consider unfavorable on popular ICPs and other social media websites such as Weibo. They also create reports of their findings and deletions for the Propaganda Department. If a topic were to become popular enough, the government is immediately alerted. Internet police agents serve to further the government’s ability to survey the Internet for potential dissenters. With these police figures on duty 24 hours a day, their presence inclines citizens to self-monitor their own behavior in order to avoid confrontation with authorities.

Not only does the government use the Internet for surveillance purposes, it also uses it to spread propaganda. As Shambaugh points out, even with the government trying to censor as much of it as feasible, the massive amount of information available on the Internet in the current digital age, along with social polarization, economic marketization, and globalization, has contributed to a rising sense of skepticism amongst citizens. The government has responded by diverting its propaganda efforts. Instead of bombarding citizens with propaganda like it did during the Maoist era, it now uses the Internet to spread propaganda in an untraditional manner.

Business Insider points out that the government pays citizens of what is known as the Fifty Cent Party fifty cents in Chinese Yuan to leave falsified, pro-government comments on the Internet, and especially on popular social media websites such as Weibo, Renren, and WeChat. As of today, there are approximately 250,000 to 300,000 people who belong to this group.45 An internal leaked directive noted five fundamental purposes of the Fifty Cent Party:

“(1) To the extent possible make America the target of criticism. Play down the existence of Taiwan. (2) Do not directly confront [the idea of] democracy; rather, frame the argument in terms of “what kind of system can truly implement democracy.” (3) To the extent possible, choose various examples in Western countries of violence and unreasonable circumstances to explain how democracy is not well-suited to capitalism. (4) Use America’s and other countries’ interference in international affairs to explain how Western democracy is actually an invasion of other countries and [how the west] is forcibly pushing [on other countries] Western values. (5) Use the bloody and tear-stained history of [once] a weak people [i.e., China] to stir up pro-Party and patriotic emotions. (6) Increase the exposure that positive developments inside China receive; further accommodate the work of maintaining [social] stability.”46

In addition to the Internet police, who persecute dissidents, Fifty Cent Party members serve to not only spread pro-government propaganda, but also dilute negative government criticism. Their ability to anonymously mobilize and control online discussions allows the government to deviously defend its ideology.

The cascading hierarchy of surveillance that was discussed earlier plays a prominent role in media censorship by adding another layer of surveillance on top of what the Propaganda Department has already established. This has created what can be considered a multi-layer process of filtration in the media: from the individual to the supervisor, and finally to the Propaganda Department. First, individual journalists censor themselves. In recognizing what is and is not acceptable in the eyes of the government, they become conscious of their publications and will not publish content that the government does not consider favorable. The second layer of filtration is the work of the supervisors. Those in a higher position within a company are fully aware of what is and is not acceptable. These figures will not go against the government because of the stern repercussions that are associated with doing so. Thus, they automatically censor and suppress controversial content prior to publication. Lastly, there is the government. While supervisors have a significant amount of power within a given media corporation, once again, the government-backed Propaganda Department retains ultimate jurisdiction over all matters related to the media in China. It retains the ability to censor and ban whomever it wishes. This sense of unchecked power makes it the ultimate gatekeeper that all figures within the media industry must yield to. Coercive control and the fear of potential punishment have contributed to the self-censoring tendencies of citizens.

Normative Control

In addition to coercive control, the second reoccurring theme in censorship in China appears to be normative control. The premises put forth by Constructivism, a widely cited theory in international relations, provides a solid foundation for understanding the pivotal role that social norms play in inducing self-censorship. Constructivist theorists contend that actors are motivated by more than material goods because their identities and interests are continuously shaped and reshaped through both social context and interaction. While the ability to survey and punish transgressors may be important in motivating self-censorship, norms play an equally important role in the cognitive process of self-censorship amongst both netizens and media figures.

Constructivists contend that individuals live in an environment that is influenced by norms that have been constructed through learning and socialization, a commonly overlooked process.47 By interacting with broader institutional contexts (norms or discursive structures), actors are able to acquire new interests and preferences in the absence of material incentives.48 When making decisions, actors look at social variables such as social context, identities, and their relationships with others. In the end, individuals “do what’s right.” Furthermore, “norms, ideas, and even cultures shape, and sometimes change, the identities and interests of political actors.”49 The social context in which individuals live in gives them an identity by telling individuals who they are, which in turn influences their decision-making process. The identities of actors are in many ways shaped through social interactions. Decision makers adopt prescriptions embodied in norms, or in simpler words, they adapt to changing social conditions. Checkel notes, “they then become internalized and constitute a set of shared intersubjective understandings that make behavioral claims.”50

But according to Constructivists, this is a process that requires development. First, there are intelligent individuals who can share their individual beliefs with others through communication. By doing so, this individual belief is potentially able to evolve into a shared understanding. This allows for the second step, the opening of policy windows to be unlocked. In this step, the fixed preferences of individuals are able to break down when they are willing to engage in cognitive information searches. Finally, this allows for the creation of social norms while simultaneously paving the way for new norms to be created to replace the older ones.51 The importance of institutions is that they are social formations. They construct, “through a process of interaction, the identities and interests of member states and groups within them.”52

Lastly, there is what James March depicts as the ‘logic of appropriateness.’ As March notes:

“[t]he logic of appropriateness is a perspective that sees human action as driven by rules of appropriate or exemplary behavior, organized into institutions. Rules are followed because they are seen as natural, rightful, expected, and legitimate. Actors seek to fulfill the obligations encapsulated in a role, an identity, a membership in a political community or group, and the ethos, practices and expectations of its institutions. Embedded in a social collectivity, they do what they see as appropriate for themselves in a specific type of situation.”53

According to this logic, while contemplating decision-making, actors will make the appropriate action given two factors: the situation that they are in and their own identity. By doing this, inappropriate decisions are virtually eliminated, which thereby shrinks to the domain of choices to a set of behaviors that are deemed socially appropriate.

Relating this back to China, in addition to surveillance, normative pressure (pressure to abide by pre-established norms in society) is increasingly important in inducing self-censorship. As explained by Constructivists, individuals live in an environment that is subconsciously influenced by norms that have been constructed over time. And according to March, this serves to limit the realm of what is considered an appropriate action. Through numerous cases in which the government has persecuted dissidents, netizens are taught the real consequences of going against the government. On a psychological level, this inevitably makes them think twice before posting about controversial issues. The very same logic applies to the media industry. As noted by Shambaugh, “[t]he international monitoring group The Committee to Protect Journalists, reports that, at the end of 2004, 42 journalists were imprisoned in China—more than any other nation in the world.”54 Each and every one of these cases serve to remind journalists that there will be foreseeable consequences for deviation. This puts a significant amount of pressure on individuals to abide by established norms. In China’s case, this is exemplified through citizens adapting and sacrificing actions such as dissent that are deemed as not appropriate. Taking into account the social context that Chinese citizens are in, individuals are in theory increasingly exercising self-censorship because not only would dissent encompass real consequences, it is also deemed as an inappropriate action as norms are continuously established and solidified. From the evidence presented above, it appears that there are two reoccurring themes in inducing self-censorship: coercive control and normative control.

Futility of Current Literature in Explaining Self-Censorship

Now that the evidence has been presented, the theories by scholars mentioned earlier will be analyzed in light of the evidence. First, Tong contends that the oversight process promotes the filtration of articles. He argues that this empowers more voices to be heard. Although this may be true in instances where the government does not have a vested interest in a particular topic, this cannot be said for more controversial topics. Regardless of the filtration, there are topics that are banned at an absolute level. These topics include Tibet, the Tiananmen Square Massacre, etc. Thus, these voices are not heard in society. In the end, the filtration cannot override the commands of the party.

Next, King, Pan, and Roberts argue that the censorship system enables small-scale criticism of the government while silencing collective action. However, the evidence at hand contradicts this notion. First, many measures have been taken to ensure that the individual is not free. For instance, the cascading hierarchy of surveillance shows how individuals within media corporations are constrained in regards to the content that they can produce. As long as the Propaganda Department exists, citizens, both as individuals and as a collective, have been, and will likely remain in chains. Furthermore, on the Internet, the ISPs, ICPs, and the Internet police are constantly cracking down on viral (popular) topics. Therefore, even though government criticism may be enabled at a small scale on some social media websites (quantitatively speaking, according to their data), the governmental criticism that King, Pan, and Roberts speak of remains largely unseen.

Shambaugh put forth the argument that the Propaganda Department is gradually losing control because social pluralization, economic marketization, and globalization have been gradually diminishing the effectiveness of propaganda. Shambaugh points to the decrease in quantity of propaganda in society and to the notion that the government has shed its reliance on massive propaganda campaigns. The main flaw in Shambaugh’s argument is that he overlooks other strategic ways in which the government is exercising propaganda. The evolution of the Fifty Cent Party is unparalleled in that the anonymity of those who are propagating online forums helps deceive netizens. The emergence of the Fifty Cent Party has allowed the government to systematically inject its position on controversial subjects without netizens knowing the true source of the content. This strategy arguably makes propaganda even more effective than ever.

Lastly, Castells credits the success of self-censorship to the government’s ability to punish dissidents. He argues that the fear of total punishment at all levels motivates firms to carefully micromanage their operations. In the end, this ensures that material produced from the media does not contradict, or speak of topics in which the government would find unfavorable. If Castells’ theory were to hold true, the ability of the government to punish figures within corporations would be ample in bringing about self-censorship. Morozov makes a similar argument by attributing the success of censorship to the role of ISPs and ICPs who are not only able to survey the population on the Internet, but also divulge valuable information such as Internet browsing logs to the government so that it can carry out punishments. This sense of loyalty to the government goes against the interests of citizens.

However, although punishment itself may be a necessary portion of the equation, it is by no means sufficient. A significant part of self-censorship is the ability of the CPC to psychologically deter citizens from posting dissenting comments and publishing unfavorable news articles before any sort of punishment comes into play, which force alone is unable account for. Citizens are deterred by punishment and by norms. Although Castells’ and Morozov’s theories do mention the role that surveillance and punishment play in preventing dissent, both theories largely neglect the role of normative action that Constructivism puts into perspective. There are two main kinds of deterrence and control: coercive and normative.

Coercive control and deterrence is when the government or another authoritative figure threatens individuals with force. For example, the threat of publishing an anti-government article may be the revocation of an operating license. This deters individuals and companies from publishing content on certain subjects. Normative deterrence and control, on the other hand, is when social norms that are established pressure individuals to act a certain way. An instance of this would be instead of publishing an article criticizing the government, a journalist realizes that it would not be appropriate to do so given their position and the circumstance that they are in. Normative action is another important factor that contributes to the self-censoring tendencies of Chinese citizens.

The reoccurring problem with the theories at hand is that they fail to account for one of the most important contributors to self-censorship: normative deterrence and control. The theories that have been examined thus far do not account for the fact that individuals’ actions in China are heavily influenced by social norms, and thus fail to illustrate the entire picture. Chinese citizens spend practically their entire lives learning what is appropriate given the social context that they are in. This, as March points out, is known as the logic of appropriateness. The theories at hand, specifically those by Castells and Morozov, oversimplify the process by merely arguing that surveillance and punishment alone are sufficient in inducing self-censorship. They seem to be fastened on the notion that there is in fact an objective truth to political authority, which drastically overlooks the role that norms may play in the decision-making process of individuals. The task at hand is to find a theory that encapsulates more aspects than just coercion, one that accounts for how individuals may be motivated by more than material goods and conditions, and one that does not neglect the important role that norms play in deterring individuals’ actions before punishment comes into play.

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