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When Censor Meets Spin Doctor: Liberty, the Internet, and Power in China

An essay a couple of months ago in the Economist magazine by the pseudonymous columnist “Banyan” (August 27, 2011) described the ongoing struggle many governments in Asia are having with the Internet.  In part, it made the commonplace observation that “[s]trict controls over ‘old’ media, foreign and domestic, are increasingly anachronistic since ever more citizens have access to the bottomless shallows of the internet.”  Banyan compared approaches to censorship used in countries as diverse as Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, India, and China, describing a range of responses to “new media” ranging from what amounts essentially to resigned acceptance coupled with occasional post hoc legal proceedings against “defamation” (in Singapore and, increasingly, Malaysia) to full-throated efforts to block content that censorship authorities dislike (in China).  Ultimately, Banyan concludes that “Asian governments are stuck with the internet which, worryingly for the dictatorships among them, seems as integral to the future as black blotches on newsprint seem to the past.”

The conceptual framework of Banyan’s piece, however, seems to revolve around a straightforward dichotomy between content “blockage” and press freedom – a contest in which freedom seems generally to be getting the upper hand, especially with respect to domestic applications of Internet-facilitated “new media.”  Nevertheless, Banyan describes “[t]he battle between the Chinese Communist Party and the internet” as being “fairly evenly matched,” detailing some of Beijing’s efforts (and challenges) in the imposition of broad political content controls over new media.  I wonder, however, whether Banyan isn’t missing an important aspect of this struggle – and one which may help explain why, contrary to the expectations of so many Western observers, Chinese authorities, in Banyan’s own words, are still “convinced that they can win.”

In the West, buoyed by feel-good sloganeering such as the weirdly anthropomorphic “information just wants to be free,” we tend to assume both that the Internet is essentially uncontrollable, and that this is a good thing.  We may, to be sure, wring our hands about child pornography, online gambling, or leaks of classified information, but we are deeply convinced that on balance, the protean swirl of data available on the Internet is both a huge benefit to modern society and an essentially inevitable and irresistible force in 21st-century life.  One of these benefits, however, lies in how the Internet’s basic informational openness – or at least the openness it was engineered to have under the protocols established under U.S. tutelage in the 1990s – underpins liberty by opening wide the “marketplace of ideas,” facilitating contacts and exchanges between citizens, and making it ever easier for people to obtain information in ways outside the control of state authorities.

We commonly assume, therefore, both that the Internet and authoritarian dictatorship exist in opposition to each other and that information freedom will ultimately – and inevitably – emerge as the victor in this struggle.  This is not really a new idea, for it has become a minor element of Western popular mythology that the spread of copiers and fax machines helped facilitate the collapse of Soviet authoritarianism in the late 1980s, providing some of the grease to lubricate the development of a civil society increasingly outside (and inimical to) Moscow’s stifling totalitarian control.  Much more recently, this idea that the tools of information acquisition and exchange are a powerful solvent for tyranny has received new impetus from the anti-authoritarian uprisings of the “Arab spring,” which seem to have been greatly advanced by the spread of Internet-facilitated “new media” technologies such as text-messaging, blogging, e-mail, and “tweets.”  It is only a matter of time, we tend to assume, before the irresistible forces of information freedom similarly undermine other dictatorships.

The Obama administration is quite enthralled by this idea, announcing in 2009 an effort to encourage the grass roots development of cyberspace tools around the world in a mushrooming growth of civil society initiatives.  According to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Washington aims by such initiatives to “empower citizens and leverage our traditional diplomacy.”  This is not an idea unique to Team Obama, however, for these initiatives build on a “Global Internet Freedom Task Force” formed under George W. Bush.  Official Washington, of both political flavors, looks at Internet freedom with fond affection.  And indeed Banyan’s column, too, would seem to be based upon such assumptions.

Don’t get me wrong: these assumptions may be quite correct.  Perhaps the Internet’s information freedom is ultimately irresistible, and the eventual collapse of political dictatorships in modern developed economies is assured.  One can hope.

As this “information freedom” discourse has developed and spread, however, there has also developed a counter-narrative.  Evgeny Morozov, for instance, has challenged the simplistic discourse of inevitable freedom, and he and a new generation of “cyber-skeptics” have emerged to point out the increasingly sophisticated ways that authoritarian regimes are using Internet-facilitated approaches to improve how they monitor and suppress political dissent, block or manipulate Web content, and distribute their own propaganda.

There seem to be a depressing number of examples of this phenomenon in the world today, but one of the latest examples can be seen in the discovery in Libya of a high-tech Internet spying center, full of the latest equipment from Western firms, and devoted to monitoring Libyans’ use of e-mail, text messaging, online chat rooms, and so forth.  Since the beginning of the “Arab Spring,” in fact, it has been reported that Bahrain has been using Internet tools provided by Western companies to monitor internal dissent, and that the Mubarak regime in Egypt employed a new British technology to eavesdrop on Skype conversations.  In a sense, this should not be terribly surprising – after all, it has been known for some time that Cisco helped supply Chinese web censors with some of the tools with which they built their “Great Firewall” – but the point seems increasingly to be understood that the Web can cut both ways.

This counter-narrative does not necessarily precisely rebut the dominant Western story, for it may well yet be that despite such adaptations, dictatorships will still ultimately prove unable to cope with the informational freedom that the Internet and “new media” promise.  The skeptical riposte, however, stresses that this is not a simple dialectic: modern information technology provides tools for tyrants as well as for subject peoples.  (It also tends to stress the ways in which the Internet is not quite, even in the West, the unequivocal liberating force for good it is often declared to be, but that’s a subject for another day.)  How long any such “ultimate” resolution takes, and indeed whether there will be one at all, is unknowable – and many of the world’s dictatorships are apparently playing their hand more shrewdly and effectively than predicted by the starry-eyed apostles of “Twitter revolution” and other Web utopianisms.  Is it enough?  Who knows?  But it looks like a closer contest than Westerners once wanted to believe.

So back to Banyan, to Asia, and – in particular – to China.  My impression is that the columnist is right that the contest between political control and informational freedom is presently “fairly evenly matched” in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) today.  One of the reasons that the ruling Communist Party of China (CCP) is doing as “well” as it is in this regard, however, is precisely because this game is not simply the contest between official blockers and unofficial evaders that Banyan’s account would seem to suggest.

Make no mistake.  The land behind the “Great Firewall of China” is indeed subject to an extraordinary amount of straightforward Internet “blocking.”  E-mail, Internet searches, and other forms of Web traffic are monitored and censored, disfavored websites are blocked and dismantled, user identities are tracked, and so forth.   Just to give one example recounted by New Zealand scholar Anne-Marie Brady, in one particularly revealing episode in 2004, hackers broke open the computer coding of an instant-messaging program commonly used in China, and discovered embedded therein a list of banned words and phrases the use of which the software itself would automatically block.  (A third of these words related to the Falungong spiritual movement, which is feared and detested by authorities in Beijing, and another third related to political topics.)

Despite all this, it apparently remains the case that clever users can mask their identities and escape many of these restrictions by the sophisticated use of proxy servers, anonymizing software, and other hacker tricks.  Nevertheless, most of China’s more than 1.3 billion people, of course, have neither the skills nor the time – nor, presumably, the inclination – to go to such trouble, however, so the official “blockers” win most of the time.  A degree of real Internet “freedom” may perhaps still be had, but it is available only to a technology-savvy and highly-motivated few.

But Internet control in China isn’t just a story of an iterated game of cat-and-mouse between Chinese “netizens” and their rulers, and here is where Banyan should perhaps have offered a richer account.  The cutting edge in Web control – as suggested by developments in both Russia and China, though perhaps with the greatest sophistication (and certainly scale) in Beijing’s case – appears to involve a marriage between (a) “blocking” techniques to limit access to disfavored information and impede undesired communication between citizens and (b) public relations “spin-doctoring” designed to skew and shape the aggregate of information available to the public, drowning out, manipulating, or simply countering what cannot be controlled directly.

Through this prism, censorship per se may be viewed as only part of the government’s effort – in the words of Marcus Alexander – to “monopolize the information space.”  I refer to techniques far more subtle and sophisticated than old Nazi- or Soviet-style “Propaganda 1.0” agitprop bluster.  This is now a 21st-century game for relatively psychologically-aware media-age sophisticates.

In his analysis of authoritarian Russian responses to the challenges of putative Internet freedom, especially during the Putin era, Alexander describes an initial phase of “reactionary,” Soviet-style efforts simply to censor and block content outright.  This was succeeded, however, by a much more sophisticated phase of “proactive” and “more aggressive” approaches that involve such things as the encouragement of government-owned or -controlled Internet content providers to compete with, divide, shape, or drown out those voices that cannot simply be stifled by traditional censorship.   (One can perhaps see an analogy to this in the Kremlin’s efforts to encourage the establishment of political parties “independent” of those most favored by the ruling siloviki elite in order to dilute the influence of political movements under opposition parties the government really fears while yet preserving the appearance of real democracy.)

In this second phase, the government itself “enters the information market” vigorously, in ways far more elaborate than both the traditional provision of official propaganda and the traditional blockage of disfavored content.  In Alexander’s description, this is a canny reaction to the difficulty of completely controlling Internet-facilitated “new media” by such old-fashioned means:

“Once a government decides it is unable to control the Internet medium completely (either for the moment or permanently), the incentive for its engagement in it rises and it starts to prop up Internet content providers to compete against independent ones. Once this competition starts, the structure of the information space is radically transformed, both in relation to that of totalitarian states and that of democratic states. What emerges is a third way, as an undemocratic government enters competition for maintenance and propagation of its image and power among its population.”

Alexander’s account looks at Russia, but one can also see some of these same dynamics in China – where CCP officials have studied Moscow’s success in what the hard-line party journal Seeking Truth last year described approvingly as “what the West calls a ‘rolling back of democracy,’ including a strengthening of controls on the media ... [which] has resulted in … political stability in Russia.” Indeed, it appears that China may have developed some of these techniques even further than today’s neopropagandists in Moscow.

As noted, an extremely pervasive electronic net of traditional censorship continues to exist in the PRC, notwithstanding the growth since the mid-1990s of a considerable number of “commercial” media outlets and a veritable explosion of Chinese Internet usage.  In addition to restraining what citizens may read and netizens may say, however, the Party-State apparatus has become more proactively involved than ever before in injecting content into the information space, sponsoring chat rooms, encouraging the proliferation of nonpolitical (e.g., entertainment) programming, and “spinning” public discourse through the use of techniques which Brady recounts having been self-consciously copied from the annals of Western public relations literature and left-critical political discourse.  In a perverse twist, for example, writers such as Noam Chomsky famous for their critiques of Western imperialism – including their analyses of how hegemonic capitalist ideology allegedly pervades and distorts media coverage – are studied by CCP cadres not simply as “proof” that Western media freedom is fraudulent and the United States is a dangerous global empire, but also as operational plans for how the Party elite can itself better control the information space in China.

The CCP has employed a number of slogans to characterize this hybrid approach of censorship and media “spin doctoring.”  In the era of CCP General Secretary Jiang Zemin after the Tiananmen massacre of 1989, cadres spoke of “guidance of public opinion,” but under Hu Jintao – who seems to have particularly stressed this approach – the preferred term is apparently “public opinion channeling.”  (For their part, Chinese journalists reportedly refer more informally to the government’s technique of “grabbing the megaphone.”)  According to Hu Xiaohan, then the head of the Central Propaganda Department’s Information Bureau, this game is all about “grabbing hold of the discourse in the midst of news campaigns,” and “[s]tanding on the offensive in the war for public opinion” in order to

“hold the commanding position on the Internet, this critical battlefield for the contesting of public opinion. We must extend the fibers of propaganda, and we must disseminate the mainstream [CCP] voice, ensuring that [the Internet] becomes an effective platform for the channeling of public opinion ….”

Whatever buzzword one prefers, however, the basic idea is clearly to undertake what the Chinese publication Global Times described in June 2011 as “grabbing discursive power,” which is based upon the idea that “[i]f you do not take the initiative in setting the agenda, you will be afflicted by the agenda others set.”

As an example of how this approach has been taken to new heights of sophistication beyond what has so far (to my knowledge) been reported out of Russia and elsewhere, consider the issue of “internet commentators” in China – obscure Party-State part-time employees or freelance contractors who were once known in Chinese media circles as “50-centers” because of the rumor that they at one point were paid the equivalent of 50 cents for each pro-CCP comment they made in online chat rooms, the commentary sections for news stories on major Chinese Web outlets, and other Internet fora.

Once apparently kept secret, the work of such Internet commentators is today increasingly acknowledged.  As one official from the CCP Party School in Fuzhou has bragged, that city’s propaganda department established a team of online news commentators as early as March 2005, and experience with it “has shown that such teams can effectively ensure the correct guidance of online public opinion, and help the masses of Web users rationally discriminate information in the online public opinion sphere.”  Similarly, the CCP magazine China Youth Daily has declared that “[i]n order to deal with negative online information and channel public opinion, a number of government departments have set up special Internet commentator teams as well as part-time teams, and this is no longer a secret.”

In an important blog he published shortly before his arrest and detention in April 2011, the Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei actually persuaded one such Internet commentator to sit for an interview, and it makes fascinating reading.  According to Ai’s interlocutor, these workers – operating within the parameters set by “the guiding ideology of your superiors” – are assigned individually or in small groups to be “responsible for certain major websites,” where they spend their time “making posts to channel public opinion.”

Receiving instructions from above, generally by e-mail, on “what orientation to take” with respect to particular issues in the news, their job is to participate by preparing their own comments, posts, blogs, and the like as if they were ordinary citizens and not CCP-sponsored spin doctors.  In the words of Ai’s contact, this requires assuming multiple fake identities online, and using them gradually to steer discussions in officially-approved directions so that others, following the interchanges online, will believe that real Chinese citizens are exchanging views.

“[T]his requires a lot of skill. You must hide your own identity. And you can’t write in too official a way. You have to write articles of many different styles. Sometimes this means talking, fighting, and disputing with yourself.  Essentially, it’s about creating a facade and then channeling web users over to you. The art of doing this is actually quite profound. …”

This is just the sort of thing that Banyan’s short piece in The Economist seems to miss – though, as I suggested earlier, it probably helps explain why Chinese media control officials disagree with the prevailing Western assumption that a vibrant Internet is fundamentally incompatible with dictatorship.  The game is not just a contest between official blockers and net-savvy evaders; it is far more nuanced and sophisticated than that, and we miss much by trying to fit it into conceptual stereotypes established during the “bad old days” of mid-20th Century media controls.

As indicated above, I am myself not sure who has the stronger hand right now in the PRC.  The inhabitants of modern China still live in a place that is profoundly unfree by Western standards, and one in which political expression is very carefully policed indeed.  Nevertheless, China has been changing at a dizzying pace in many respects, and the subjects of the Party-State regime enjoy vastly more personal autonomy and economic, social, and expressive freedom than under the mad arbitrariness of Maoist dictatorship.  Online opinion is becoming a potent force in today’s China, and investigative journalists and netizen bloggers alike enjoy a sometimes surprising power to expose and torment corrupt and brutal officials in local or municipal government.

So far, the political Center in Beijing – symbolized by the leadership compound at Zhongnanhai, China’s Kremlin – has limited and controlled these processes, turning them to its advantage by actually enlisting such dynamics of public accountability and outrage as tools of its own political power by permitting (or encouraging) periodic so-called “human flesh searches”  as a means of controlling low-level officials.  New and old media investigations and exposés of high­-level Party-State bureaucrats remain verboten – except perhaps where the Center itself finds it useful, for instance, to disgrace the loser in some subterranean Party power struggle – but they help Zhongnanhai manage the powerful centripetal forces that exist in a country as large, diverse, and rapidly changing as modern China.

Paradoxically, permitting and encouraging anger against lower-level officials also serves the interests of the CCP leadership by promoting an ancient “petitionary model” of control, reinforcing the authority and perceived legitimacy of Zhonghanhai as a locus of distant but ultimately benevolent governance to which it is the citizenry’s role to appeal for the redress of grievances.  As historian Kenneth Hammond has pointed out, as early as the ancient Zhou dynasty, it was the practice of China’s ruling elite to study folk sayings as a way of gauging the mood of the country’s famously restive peasantry; this helped better equip officials both to govern and to forestall movements that might challenge their authority.  Modern Chinese conditions would seem to offer high-tech analogues to this practice.

Through this prism, otherwise seemingly anomalous CCP pronouncements about “online democracy” and a popular “right to supervise” the government make a good bit more sense.  Perhaps they aren’t just propagandistic doublespeak.  By helping provide officials in Zhongnanhai with information about the state of affairs in their dominions, encouraging the myth of a benevolent Center to which one can appeal in the face of local mistreatment, allowing citizens some ability to “vent” dissatisfaction in a system otherwise notoriously neuralgic to criticism, and providing a means by which independent-minded lower-level authorities can often be brought to heel, such new-media-facilitated processes are to some extent tools of Central power, not symptoms of its collapse.  They represent the Party-State’s precarious – but not wholly unsuccessful – attempt to ride the tiger of the modern communications explosion in ways designed to facilitate the regime’s continued survival and monopoly upon power.  These concepts are not meant to suggest what we in the West would understand as real democracy, but rather reinforce the authority of top power-holders as they remain in their current positions indefinitely.

But will all this be enough?  What is at the time writing the most recent edition of The Economist (November 5, 2011) carries an article recounting ongoing attempts of Chinese citizens to use Internet tools (e.g., microblogs, a.k.a. weibo) to collaborate in ways that make Zhongnanhai terribly uneasy – coordinating supporters’ efforts to visit a handicapped-rights activist currently being held under house arrest without charges, for instance, or in building support for independent candidates seeking positions in low-level “people’s congresses.”  In response, the CCP Central Committee has apparently called for strengthened “management” of the Internet.  Here we see China’s ongoing “new media” cat-and-mouse game replicated in miniature.

Will the theorists of Web-facilitated liberty have the last laugh?  Or will the CCP continue its tradition of shrewdly opportunistic malleability, writing another episode in the story arc of what David Shambaugh calls its atrophy and adaptation?  I do not know.   Even if Internet freedom proves irresistible in the long run, however, I’d imagine that this will take more time and be more difficult than one would imagine from listening to breathless Western commentary about the rising tide of “Twitter revolutions” and other such Net-utopianism.

For my money, at least, it seems likely to be a bumpy ride.

-- Christopher Ford

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