Say what you like, but say it quietly

In 2013 the Chinese government unveiled new laws regarding the Correct Use of the Internet. The laws provide for jail sentences of up to three years for people who post “rumours” or “slanderous comments” online if their post is viewed by at least 5,000 people or “retweeted” 500 or more times. (The use of the term “retweeted” by Xinhua is amusing given that the Great Firewall of China blocks access to Twitter. This hasn’t stopped Xinhua from opening it’s own Twitter account much to the annoyance of some Chinese netizens, see here and here.)

One of the reasons given by the Chinese government for the creation of the new laws is they are concerned that rumours spreading online has “done greater social harm than traditional offences, with some even disrupting social order and triggering unrest.”

The importance of social stability

One of the primary goals of the Chinese Communist Party (at least since the mid-1970s and the wrapping up of the Cultural Revolution) is to maintain social stability: Deng Xiaoping proclaimed “stability overrides everything else” (稳定压倒一切, wending yadao yiqie), Jiang Zemin said “without stability, nothing can be achieved” (没有稳定,什么事也干不成, meiyou wending, shenmeshi ye ganbucheng), and Hu Jintao is famous for his emphasis on creating a “harmonious society” (和谐社会, hexie shehui). Every day that there is social stability in China is one more day in which the Party will remain in control.

The Party’s social stability mechanism has two main leavers. The first is for social control; the second is for social management. In the authoritarian state of Oceania conjured up by George Orwell in the novel ‘1984’ the Ministry of Love represents social control through its detention of potential political activists. Social management is represented by the Ministry of Truth, which uses propaganda and censorship to manage political space.

In China the Party has been developing two leavers that help it to manage the online political space. The first represents censorship, which is a measure of social management. The second represents social control, which is where the new Internet rumours laws come in.

Stiffling the potential for collective action

In 2012 researchers from Harvard University published the results of their study on the censorship of 3,674,698 posts made over a six-month period in 2011 on 1,382 Chinese social media websites. They excluded Weibo (Twitter-like microblog) posts and focused instead on sites “in which it is at least possible for writers to express themselves fully, prior to possible censorship”. The researchers defined two theories as to the goals of censorship: state critique theory, and collective action potential theory. The former is based on the idea that the Party uses censorship to suppress dissent and limit criticism, while the goal of the latter is to prevent collective action (e.g. public protests).

Overall they found that 16% of posts on topics they assessed as having low-level political sensitivity (e.g. video games) were censored. This figure rose to 17% for topics with medium-level political sensitivity (e.g. the one-child policy), and 24% for posts with high-level political sensitivity (e.g. Al Weiwei).

They also found that rates of censorship of posts on a given topic rose substantially if the topic was one with a relatively high level of collective action potential. For example, if there is a burst of public interest in a sensitive topic, the proportion of posts on that topic that are censored increases sharply. Posts about a sensitive topic that might not ordinarily be censored are more likely to be blocked if they appear during one of these bursts of public interest. And censorship of these posts increased even when the theme of a post was pro-government. The researchers give the example of posts about Chen Fei, who is an environmental activist who works with the support of the Party. They founds that supportive posts were censored “apparently for their collective action potential.”

The researchers concluded that “the purpose of the censorship program is to reduce the probability of collective action by clipping social ties whenever any localised social movements are in evidence or expected.”

Using both levers to make the machine work

If a social media post draws sufficient interest that it has been “retweeted” 500 or more times, or has been seen by 5,000 or more people, one could expect that it would have come to the attention of the censors. If it is a rumour (or ‘unofficial news’) that could be politically sensitive one could also expect that the post (and subsequent re-posts) would be deleted; the social management lever would have been pulled. The new Internet laws provide a lever for social control: a measure that works to compliment social management. The detention of an online activist shows that the Party can be present in a very real way to take concrete steps should social management fail to have the desired effect.

There is also a secondary feedback mechanism resulting from measures of social control. The most effective way to censor is to train people to individuals to censor themselves. Hearing reports of bloggers who have been arrested acts as a warning to the more rebellious members of the Chinese online community that the most egregious examples of online revolt will be punished, which may make them think twice before they post. Meanwhile the average online citizen can continue to be managed primarily by the less visible system of social management.


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