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Challenge 4: Authoritarian rule and the internet

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.

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