Harvard Professor Gary King and Harvard PhD candidates Jennifer Pan and Margaret Roberts and their coauthors have just released a new study, How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression. – A 33-page PDF of the study can be found here.
It's sensible, readable, and offers an important insight into censorship in Chinese social media: “Contrary to previous understandings, posts with negative, even vitriolic, criticism of the State, its leaders, and its policies are not more likely to be censored. Instead, we show that the censorship program is aimed at curtailing collective action by silencing comments that represent, reinforce, or spur social mobilization, regardless of content.”
In other words, Chinese netizens can criticize the government all they want and they won’t be censored. What gets the censors’ attention is anything which looks like it may actually mobilize netizens to take action in the real world, because the government’s most important objective is to maintain social harmony and stability. This might seem sinister to Westerners accustomed to distrusting their governments' statements and policies. But not to the Chinese. 85%–95% of them both trust and approve of their government, its policies, and its media.
How did the Harvard investigators reach this conclusion? They simply lexamined topics which inflamed the blogosphere creating what they term “volume bursts” of tweets. The authors think that these volume bursts might trigger censorship because they make real-world collective action more likely. It didn’t matter if the hot topic was not particularly political. For example, the government censored tweets about a 2011 rumor that iodized salt could protect against Fukushima radiation wafting across the sea. When you're dealing with 1,300,000 excitable people, they'd rather be safe than sorry.
The censored tweets were equally likely to be (1) against the state, (2) for the state, or (3) irrelevant or factual reports about the events.” The only topics regularly censored without “volume bursts” were pornography and criticism of the (apparently thin-skinned) censors
And what about direct criticisms of the government? The report says: “Negative posts do not accidentally slip through a leaky or imperfect system. The evidence indicates that the censors have no intention of stopping them. Instead, they are focused on removing posts that have collective action potential, regardless of whether or not they cast the Chinese leadership and their policies in a favorable light.”
The paper makes some other interesting points:
Social media chatter is valuable in its own right: “In the past, studies of Internet behavior were judged based on how well their measures approximated ‘real world’ behavior; subsequently, online behavior has become such a large and important part of human life that the expressions observed in social media is now important in its own right, regardless of whether it is a good measure of non-Internet freedoms and behaviors.”
Social media are a good way to learn about public opinion: “So long as collective action is prevented, social media can be an excellent way to learn the views of the citizenry about speciﬁc public policies and experiences with the government and public ofﬁcials.”
Censorship is very efficient: Among those topics studied, “the vast majority of censorship activity occurs within 24 hours of the original posting, although a few deletions occur as long as ﬁve days later. This is a stunning organizational accomplishment, requiring large scale military-like precision.”
China’s censors often say they are censoring partly to go after “dirty” content: “Similar to American politicians who talk about pornography as undercutting the ‘moral ﬁber’ of the country, Chinese leaders describe it as violating public morality and damaging the health of young people, as well as promoting disorder and chaos; regardless, censorship in one form or another is often the consequence.”
A woman buying salt. March, 201
China’s leaders don’t care about looking bad: “The evidence suggests that when the leadership allowed social media to flourish in the country, they also allowed the full range of expression of negative and positive comments about the state, its policies, and its leaders. As a result, government policies sometimes look as bad and leaders can be as embarrassed as is often the case with elected politicians in democratic countries, but, as they seem to recognize, looking bad does not threaten their hold on power so long as they manage to eliminate discussions with collective action potential.”
This last point surprises many Westerners, accustomed as we are to thin-skinned politicians. But Chinese officials grow up under heavy criticism, first as children in "Tiger Mother" homes, and then in the Party, which insists that its members be given regular, no-holds-barred, face-to-face criticism. They can, in other words, take a lickin' and keep on kickin'. For real-life examples, see this...
This Just In: (Xinhua)Editor at Communist Party mouthpiece blasts leaders | South China Morning Post Offering a contrasting view to the official line, which has hailed the decade-long reign of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao as "golden and glorious", Deng Yuwen, a deputy editor of the newspaper, which is run by the party's central school, said they had "created more problems than achievements". The rare, scathing critique of the political legacy of incumbent state leaders came at a particularly sensitive time, with Beijing scrambling to finalise preparations for the upcoming national party congress. Highlighting the sensitivity of the topic, two-thirds of the article, believed to have first appeared on the website of Caijing Magazine late last week, has been removed by government censors. However, the full version of Deng's article could still be found on blogs. [Gone, but not forgotten–Ed]