Sections

Services

Information

UK United Kingdom

Challenge 4: Authoritarian rule and the internet

In part four of our multi-disciplinary Millennium Project series, John Keane takes a look at the Chinese regime’s troubled relationship with the cyber world. Global challenge 4: How can genuine democracy…

China’s citizens are catching up to the government-monitored web. Mike Licht

In part four of our multi-disciplinary Millennium Project series, John Keane takes a look at the Chinese regime’s troubled relationship with the cyber world.


Global challenge 4: How can genuine democracy emerge from authoritarian regimes?

US President James Madison famously remarked that a popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy.

Two decades ago, the government of the People’s Republic of China set out to disprove this rule. Rejecting talk of farce and tragedy, its rulers now claim their authority is rooted within a new and higher form of popular government, a “post-democratic” way of handling power which delivers goods and services, promotes social harmony and roots out “harmful behaviour” using state-of-the-art information-control methods more complex and much craftier than Madison could ever have imagined.

The phrases “resilient authoritarianism” and “authoritarian state capitalism” roll easily from the tongues of many China analysts but, in practice, state censorship and control in that country is no straightforward matter.

In contrast to the period of Maoist totalitarianism, the new Chinese authoritarianism does not demand total submission from its subjects.

In such matters as the clothing they wear, where they work and which social company they keep, most citizens are left alone by the authorities. Belief in communism is no longer compulsory; few people now believe its tenets and the ruling Party (as a popular joke has it) comes dressed in Nike trainers and a Polo shirt topped with a Marxist hat. The regime officially welcomes intellectuals, foreign-trained professionals and private entrepreneurs (once denounced and banned as “capitalist roaders”) into its upper ranks.

The Party is everywhere. It prides itself on its active recruitment strategy and its organisations are rooted in all key business enterprises, including foreign companies. The methods of governing are clever. Ruling by means of generalised in-depth controls, or through widespread violence and fear, mostly belong to the past.

While the authorities reject both independent public monitoring of its power and free and fair general elections, they actively solicit the support of their subjects. Protesters are crushed, but also bribed and consulted.

Obsessive controls from above are matched by stated commitments to rooting out corruption and the rule of law. There is much talk of democracy with “Chinese characteristics”. Top-down bossing and bullying are measured. The regime seems calculating, flexible, dynamic, constantly willing to change its ways in order to remain the dominant guiding power.

Nowhere is this trend more strikingly evident than in the field of information. Heavy-handed government censorship methods, popularly known as the “Great Firewall of China”, are still used frequently to suppress points of view that diverge from the dominant positions formulated by the information office of the state council (the cabinet) and the propaganda departments of the ruling Party.

Yet information flows in China are not simply blocked, firewalled or censored. The productive channelling of dissenting opinions into government control mechanisms is a basic feature of the political order. Especially remarkable is the way the authorities treat unfettered online citizen communication as an instrument for improving the ability to govern, as an early warning device, even as a virtual steam valve for venting grievances in their favour.

The co-option strategy draws upon the efforts of thousands of government employees who post anonymous online commentaries designed to support policies favoured by the Party. There is also a vast labyrinth of surveillance that depends on a well-organised, reportedly 40,000-strong internet police force.

Skilled at snooping on Wi-Fi users in cyber cafés and hotels, it uses sophisticated data-mining software that tracks down keywords on social networking sites such as RenRen and search engines such as Baidu, along the way issuing warnings to Web hosts to amend or delete content considered unproductive of “harmony.” A combination of URL filtering with the blanking of keywords labelled as “harmful” or “anti-social” is also a common strategy used to block tens of thousands of websites.

The 2012 concerted campaign against Bo Xilai and his family shows that state media can be instructed to take a certain line on any particular issue; and that news websites can be told whether or how they should cover the matter, for instance by sensationalising reports in order to silence critics, or by keeping the coverage short, so as to bury it down deep memory holes.

Calls for “discipline” and “self-regulation” are commonplace. So-called “rumour refutation” departments, staffed by censors, pitch in. They scan posts for forbidden topics and issue knockdown rebuttals.

What are we to make of these techniques of repressive tolerance? They certainly confirm the paradoxical rule that the governments of authoritarian regimes are much more sensitive to popular resistance than those of democratic regimes.

Looking from the top down, likening the Chinese authorities to skilled doctors of the body politic, some observers wax eloquent about the new surveillance tactics of “continuous tuning” (tiao) of the body politic. The simile understates the ways in which the labyrinthine system of unusually well-coordinated do’s and don’ts is backed by pre-digital methods: fear served with cups of tea in the company of censors; reprimands, sackings and sideways promotions; early-morning swoops by plainclothes police known as “interceptors”; illegal detentions; violent beatings by unidentified thugs; disappearances and imprisonment, sometimes (reports suggest) in “black jails” operated by outsourced mafia gangs employed by the authorities.

Such restrictions breed public resentment and resistance, which (unsurprisingly) is most pronounced within the world of on-line communications.

China first hitched itself to the web in 1994; the country now has an estimated 500 million users, twice as many as in the United States. Two-thirds of them are younger than 30.

What is not officially reported is that the sphere of text messages, bulletin boards, blogs and other digital platforms nurture the spirit of monitory democracy, often with remarkable vigour.

The range and depth of resistance to unaccountable power are astonishing. The regime comes wrapped in propaganda, but counter-publics flourish.

Helped by sophisticated proxies and other methods of avoiding censorship, salacious tales of official malfeasance circulate fast, and in huge numbers, fuelled by online jokes, songs, satire, mockery and code words that develop meme-like qualities and function as attacks on government talk of the “harmonious society” (hexie shehui).

Digital media users commonly re-tweet their posts (a practice known as “knitting,” the word for which sounds like “weibo”). Messages easily morph into conversations, illustrated with pictures. The consequence: instantly forwarded posts tend to keep ahead of the censors, whose efforts at removing online material are countered by such tactics as re-tweeted screenshots.

The aggregate effect is that conversations readily go viral, causing large-scale “mass internet incidents” (daxing wangluo qunti shijian), as happened (during 2010) when a citizen nicknamed “Brother Banner,” a software engineer in Wuxi, was catapulted into online celebrity overnight after holding a banner that read “Not Serving the People” outside the gate of a local labour relations office to protest its failure to intervene in his pay dispute with his former employer.

The banner challenged the Party’s slogan, “Serving the People.” Officials were deeply embarrassed by a one-person protest that won national prominence through the internet and, eventually, coverage in official media.

The great significance of citizens’ initiatives of this kind is the way they put their finger on hypocrisy. Relying heavily upon networked media, they project locally specific goals that for the moment do not challenge the state’s legitimacy as such but instead call on the government to live up to its promises of “harmony”, to listen and respond to the concerns of citizens in matters of material and spiritual well-being.

The upshot is that the authorities now find themselves trapped in a constant tug-of-war between their will to control, negotiated change, public resistance and unresolved confusion. They may pride themselves on building a “post-democratic” regime which seems calculating, flexible and dynamic, willing to change its ways in order to remain the dominant guiding power. Yet they also know well the new Chinese proverb: ruling used to be like hammering a nail into wood, now it is much more like balancing on a slippery egg.

Whether the authorities can sustain their present balancing act, so proving James Madison wrong, seems at least an open question.

Within the China labyrinth, the 21st century spirit of monitory democracy is alive and well. Whether and how it will prevail, probably with Chinese characteristics, against the crafty forces of digital surveillance, is among the global political questions of our time.

A longer version of this piece appeared in the New York Times.

Comments welcome below.

Join the conversation

18 Comments sorted by

  1. Gil Hardwick

    anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

    Somewhat confused by further diatribe against China within the context of this Millenium Project challenge on authoritarian rule and the Internet.

    I grant that China may appear authoritarian by contemporary Western measures, from the perspective of the universal Western subject, but China is not the West.

    China, as has been pointed out often enough, has a culture over 5,000 years old, dating back to when the Britons were running about naked, painted with woad. Historically, China today is more…

    Read more
    1. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      People used to say that capitalism was a western construct, but that has clearly shown to be false.

      Now the suggestion is that democracy is a western construct, well, maybe.

      But human rights are not a western construct and ancient suppression of human rights doesn't justify current suppression of human rights.

      report
    2. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      Rights to do what? We live in a civil society which to work requires as much respect for obligations to others as it does 'rights' for oneself.

      The question of what it is to be human much less an 'individual' can also be queried, varying immeasurably from environment to environment, culture to culture and society to society.

      Here in Australia, of course I am able to accept someone's 'human right' to go off into the bush by themself without telling anyone. But I also accept everyone else's human…

      Read more
    3. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      [Sorry, glitch] It's simply the case that in China there are some 1.3 billion people on 9.6 square Km, and here 23 million on 7.6 million square Km. The logistics alone are beyond anything Australia can begin to conceptualise.

      report
    4. Will Marmol

      Devil's Advocate

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      Ahhh, "human rights". Our newest form of soft imperialism.

      I would like these to be defined and quantified. I want to know what constitutes a "right" - human law, God, are they intrinsic, and if so, how can something like that be intrinsic? I also want to know why countries needing human rights improvements are always located near natural resources, or are our political enemies.

      These aren't serious questions. I think anyone with more than an inch of forehead who is old enough to live on their own gets the game by now. China has now joined the game and is publishing human rights reports about the West. Now we are in a nasty unfounded philosophical battle. Our governments need to up their game and preserve their credibility.

      report
    5. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      To people who are actually following the internet censorship issue more generally, it's painful to only hear about China in this discussion, as though they were the only ones doing it.

      So called liberal democracies are literally at the behest of shady corporate interests in the grand quest to filter out anything that interferes with what they claim to be their bottom line, even if that is actually increased by the word-of-mouth style promotion of various products the internet is prone to foster…

      Read more
  2. Wei Ling Chua

    Freelance Journalist and Author at Self Employed

    The extent of China censorship has often been exaggerated. For example, WANG DAN is supposed to be a 1989 Tienanmen dissident, in his recent article, he claims to "have tens of thousands of followers on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter." [ http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/05/opinion/mr-chen-welcome-to-america.html?_r=1&nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20120505 ];

    The Foreign Policy published an article by Robert Fogel on "China $123 trillion dollar economy" also mentioned about freedom of speech…

    Read more
  3. Daryl Deal

    retired

    The reality of the Internets, which has no borders or boundaries!

    There are a number of computer software packages, now readily available, which will easily circumvent and by pass all firewalls, including the Great Firewall in China, that of the Ayatollahs in Iran, or the Drug lords of Myanmar. One of them, is called the "TOR PROJECT". link: https://www.torproject.org/

    In addition, there are other numerous other software packages, purely designed to circumvent censorship including the relatively…

    Read more
  4. Con Zymaris

    Untethered Polymath

    The following may be of interest to readers:

    http://gking.harvard.edu/publications/how-censorship-china-allows-government-criticism-silences-collective-expression

    "How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression"

    Abstract:

    We offer the first large scale, multiple source analysis of the outcome of what may be the most extensive effort to selectively censor human expression ever implemented. To do this, we have devised a system to locate, download…

    Read more
  5. Will Marmol

    Devil's Advocate

    Western Internet is actually quite controlled. Actually, some reporters who try to comment on this site have their comments censored, which is not only censorship, but goes against the very reason for this website.

    We Westerners do have a considerable amount more freedom online than countries like China though. Our Internet freedom is mostly because of the fact that our media overpowers theirs, so it takes less energy to maintain order. We will see this change when China increases its number of Internet users to 80% of their population and then their users start politically affecting our world. Our censorship will increase at that time, if it comes.

    report
    1. Con Zymaris

      Untethered Polymath

      In reply to Wei Ling Chua

      Will Marmol and Wei Ling Chua make rather over-bloated claims about Internet censorship in Western countries.

      The fact that we can talk about the possibility of censorship in this forum is but one example of a differentiator with practices of actual authoritarian countries that this piece focuses on.

      Rather than bandy about hear-say and personal anecdote, perhaps we should look at the yearly Press Freedom Index for 2011-2012

      http://en.rsf.org/press-freedom-index-2011-2012,1043.html

      Here's…

      Read more
    2. Wei Ling Chua

      Freelance Journalist and Author at Self Employed

      In reply to Con Zymaris

      Con, I have just posted this article: Julian Assange: The Price of Being a Western Dissident: [http://dissidentvoice.org/2012/06/julian-assange-the-price-of-being-a-western-dissident/ ], read in detail how western countries, media and corporations treated Assange for exposing human rights violations by NATO and the US, and you will understand the kind of freedom in the West.

      There is no culture as nasty as the western media and right wing politicians. These people cannot live without smearing…

      Read more
    3. Con Zymaris

      Untethered Polymath

      In reply to Wei Ling Chua

      Wei Ling Chua,

      you have not responded to the following:

      Press Freedom Index for 2011-2012
      http://en.rsf.org/press-freedom-index-2011-2012,1043.html

      This lists most Western countries at the top of the press freedom rankings.

      This is not to say that there is perfect freedom of the press in Western countries, or that there aren't problems to be overcome, such as in situations where powerful players with vested interests can bring substantial pressure on those who speak truth to power, such as Assange & Wikileaks.

      You will note, however, that even with immense political pressure, Wikileaks continues to publish its material from within Western countries. This would *not* be the case if Wikileaks was housed in China.

      And this is the crux of the discussion at hand.

      -- Con

      report
    4. Wei Ling Chua

      Freelance Journalist and Author at Self Employed

      In reply to Con Zymaris

      Con, Press freedom index is created by US funded reporter without border. The assessment has often been bias. Read this very popular article acknowledged by more than 2,000 readers within 48 hours on this site: [ http://dissidentvoice.org/2012/06/julian-assange-the-price-of-being-a-western-dissident/ ], you will find that, the so-called press freedom group condemning WilkiLeaks leaking documents relating to US and NATO mass killing of civilians and involvement in torture. You need just to Google the full title of this article and you will find massive acknowledge of the article by the world with more than 10 pages of recommendation by other websites including some major media like Time of India. I am writing this to let you know that, the double standard and hypocrisy over human rights and Press Freedom by the West are the sources of resentment across the world. It is in the interest of the western elites to spend a bit of time for self-reflection.

      report
    5. Con Zymaris

      Untethered Polymath

      In reply to Wei Ling Chua

      Wei Ling Chua,

      in order to be taken seriously, you must do your homework before making assertions. You say:

      "Press freedom index is created by US funded reporter
      without border."

      I suggest you read this first:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reporters_Without_Borders

      "Reporters Without Borders (RWB) is a French-based international non-governmental organization that advocates freedom of the press and freedom of information. This organization, which has consultant status at the United Nations., was founded in 1985, by Robert Ménard, Rony Brauman and the journalist Jean-Claude Guillebaud."

      Regardless, we appear to be talking cross-purposes here, so I'll post no more on this topic.

      -- Con

      report
    6. Wei Ling Chua

      Freelance Journalist and Author at Self Employed

      In reply to Con Zymaris

      Con, read under the sub-title 'funding'. The funding including from NED - an organization fully funded by the Congress. Again read under the sub-title 'Criticism of RWB', "Lucie Morillon, RWB's then-Washington representative, confirmed in an interview on 29 April 2005 that the organization had a contract with US State Department's Special Envoy to the Western Hemisphere... " and many more, read everything in: [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reporters_Without_Borders ]. It is important that you should not let your personal prejudice to blind you from the facts. A great civilization is a civilization that are able to accept mistake and make progress from there.

      report