China’s authorities have belatedly woken up to the news that it is not enough to just pull the plug when certain topics appear online if you want to hide the truth from the public you also need to provide an alternative story.
In the two current high profile cases currently circulating, the Bo Xilai scandal and the escape from house arrest of blind lawyer and activist Chen Guangcheng both techniques can be seen at work.
In the case of Chen the method has been to suppress information. Bejing based lawyer William Farris did a search for Chen and yielded 12 hits on Yahoo.cn, however on Yahoo.com the results were 155,000. And just to be clear the results on Yahoo.cn were all from state media.
Bo Xilain on the other hand went from being a person of high rank beyond criticism to being openly vilified on the social media and the internet. There is little doubt that this change of heart was sanctioned by the highest authority.
Though it should be kept in mind if you are going to secretly tape the top echelons of the Chinese leadership you probably have a lot worse coming than just having your reputation trashed online.
But what is of more relevant to netizens is that the facts surrounding the Bo Xilai case are becoming muddied as various politicians and others leak information and stories about him via social media on a far wider scale than ever before.
But as Rebecca McKinn0n says in the Toronto Star newspaper neither method ultimately works and that netizens find ways round both kinds of censorship. She argues it may not bring down China ruling communist party but clever and innovative netizens are ensuring a much greated degree of transparency in the country.
Her full article follow:
Every news organization needs a social media strategy. Even China’s government-controlled Xinhua News Agency “tweets” news bulletins through Twitter-like microblogs called “weibo” – through which more than 300 million users share details of their daily lives, jokes, gossip and news.Chinese companies running weibo services are required by the government to monitor their users and to block politically sensitive content.
Yet despite weibo’s best censorship efforts, China’s chattering classes have outsmarted the system, using literary allusions, codewords and innuendo to pass around juicy leaks and tidbits from the foreign media about the alleged murder of British businessman Neil Heywood by associates of Gu Kailai, wife of the former Chongqing Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai, whose fall from grace has precipitated the biggest leadership crisis in China since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. Censorship has even backfired in bizarre ways. After a long silence by official media on the subject, last week Xinhua attempted to tweet an official news bulletin announcing that Bo had been stripped of his party posts and was under investigation for “serious discipline violations.” Sina Weibo, the most popular of China’s weibo services, censored Xinhua’s tweet.Why? The use of Bo’s name had triggered the company’s automated censorship system – programmed, ironically, in compliance with central government orders to block all tweets containing Bo’s name. At the same time, Sina posted the text of the same Xinhua bulletin to its own news feed.
Five minutes later, in response no doubt to irate phone calls, Sina unblocked Xinhua’s tweet. Xinhua then posted a tweet (later removed) complaining that Sina Weibo had scooped its story. This provoked a flurry of sarcastic comments by witty weibo users.The lesson? China’s censorship and propaganda systems may be complex and multi-layered, but they are obviously not well co-ordinated. Writing in the Guardian this week, dissident artist Ai Weiwei declared that while China’s Internet censorship system may be the envy of autocrats worldwide, China’s leaders need to understand that in the long run “it’s not possible for them to control the Internet unless they shut it off.”He is half right. While the Chinese government’s tactics may be ham-handed and likely doomed to failure in the long run, they are working well enough to keep the Communist Party in power for the time being.In sifting social media’s role in China’s latest political power struggle, it is important to understand that Bo Xilai’s political downfall actually strengthens the power of the central government, currently led by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.Bo was a popular – and populist – challenger to the political and economic status quo.
He built an independent power base in Chongqing. His neo-Maoist ideology was gaining an impassioned following among conservative nationalists as well as China’s growing urban poor, who blame the current leadership’s economic policies for unacceptable levels of economic disparity.Bo represented a political threat to the liberalizing economic and financial reforms that Hu and Wen are determined to carry out before they pass the baton to new leaders in October.
Chinese blogger Michael Anti likes to describe weibo as a public opinion “battlefield.” Shutting down weibo at this point, now that it has become such an integral part of so many Chinese people’s social lives, would be impossible without provoking widespread anger. Instead, the central government’s strategy is to “occupy” weibo to defeat challengers like Bo in the court of public opinion – while doing all it can to weigh the scales in its own favour.
Almost every week, there are stories in the press or on Chinese social media about what even the official Chinese media call “hot online topics:” stories about how people in a particular village or town used weibo to expose malfeasance by local or regional authorities. This draws the central government’s attention to problems which it can then swoop in on and solve, making it appear like it is more concerned about the common people than are local officials.Clearly, China is no longer a classic Cold War-style authoritarian state. I call its new style of information-oriented governance “networked authoritarianism.” Thanks to the Internet in general and social media in particular, Chinese citizens now have a mechanism to hold authorities accountable for wrongdoing – sometimes, at least – without actual political or legal reforms taking place.
In the case of the Bo-Gu-Heywood scandal, social media “is forcing a level of transparency in how the government handles this case that never used to exist,” explains media entrepreneur and blogger Jeremy Goldkorn, who has been living in China since the 1990s.If anything, weibo may even help the Communist Party recentralize its political power at the expense of local officials and regional governments, which over the past three decades have gained greater autonomy from Beijing. The weibo companies are all headquartered in the capital and are required to take orders from the central government. (“For a local government to have content blocked or deleted requires getting on a plane to Beijing,” Anti explains.)The advent of weibo has created a cycle in which the public is increasingly emboldened to use social media to report on localized abuses by individual officials, with some reason to hope that once the central government is alerted to the problem justice will prevail.At the same time, the consequences of any efforts to organize protests, meetings or movements focused on criticizing or changing the central government remain as they have been since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, who circulated the “Charter 08″ treatise calling for multiparty democracy, is serving a 10-year jail sentence. In early 2011, dozens of people who retweeted calls for “jasmine protests” inspired by Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution were questioned or arrested. Chinese journalists are being muzzled more tightly than ever to prevent them from conducting investigative reporting that might damage the central government’s power.Meanwhile, Beijing is doing everything possible to remind China’s Internet users of who is in charge. Several websites popular with Maoist supporters of Bo Xilai have been closed or suspended.
The People’s Daily issued an ultimatum against online rumours and those who spread them. The professional media got strict instructions not to report unauthorized news in the Bo case. More than 1,000 people have been arrested for “spreading rumours.”Last week, the “great firewall” system that normally blocks blacklisted foreign websites temporarily blocked all foreign websites. Since then, bloggers and Internet industry insiders report that the overall level of website-blocking has noticeably increased.
Postings by weibo users with more than 10,000 followers will be individually vetted.
The government is also pushing the weibo companies to implement a “real name” registration system by the middle of the year, which means at least in theory that it will become much more difficult for weibo users to disguise their identity from the authorities, if not from the general public.
“If it is really implemented,” says Beijing-based Internet investor and commentator Bill Bishop, “the real effect will be a reminder to people that the government is watching and they should be careful about what they say.”The paradox of the Chinese Internet is that despite all of these measures, weibo remain a lively place, where most Chinese Internet users feel freer to debate and discuss matters of public interest than ever before.
A wide range of policy positions, political loyalties and ideologies can be found throughout Chinese society, and thanks to the Internet those differences have become publicly visible for the first time. Millions of Chinese Internet users engage regularly in public policy debates because they feel that, at least in some cases, the weight of public opinion can make a real difference.
These trends in the long run are great cause for optimism about what the Internet means for China’s political future. As Anti puts it, “The political change will come from non-Internet factors, but thanks to the Internet people will be more ready to do something positive with it.”