The events of the last several years have led to a general impression that social media and authoritarian governments don’t mix very well. Countries such as Egypt and Tunisia were, and still are, well known for their censorship of political statements made online. Others, Bahrain and Iran among them, have even moved toward constraining public access to the Internet writ large. The point of these operations, it is generally assumed, is to avoid discourse “dangerous” to the state. Yet, when it comes to identifying the biggest user of censorship and governmental subversion of popular expression, most would point to a country outside the Middle East—China.
The communist government in Beijing is legendary for its ability and willingness to stifle the statements of its people. From the maintenance of strict guidelines on how national press organizations could report on Olympic proceedings in 2008 to the direct blocking of websites and foreign media services like Twitter and Google+, China’s efforts to suppress anti-state rhetoric are identified by innumerable Western commentators and policymakers as the most sophisticated and pervasive regime of societal “protectionism” ever developed. Freedom House, the organization dedicated to democratic vigilance, goes as far as to list the country’s media as “not free” and asserts that authoritarian control is affected by complex mechanisms at every level of society.
How accurate is such a perception of China’s online censorship efforts? Do authorities in Beijing really command an apparatus of content suppression that aims to effectively subvert the course of any societal dialogue deemed hazardous to the establishment? More importantly, is it really the case that China actively tries to answer the question of censorship with such an all-encompassing strategy? Though prominent examples of online suppression certainly point to an elaborate effort to prevent outspoken citizens from voicing criticism, it’s easy to assume that continued and blanketed social containment on such a large scale might encourage popular mobilization and backlash from groups that feel strongly about particular grievances.
But according to the findings of a new study by Gary King and his research colleagues at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science, Chinese government censorship organizations refer to a much more tactically nuanced playbook than most foreign commentators have thus far assumed. In an article published in the May 2013 edition of the American Political Science Review, the researchers demonstrated, using data compiled during 2012 (via an undisclosed method of collection that allowed for data to be captured before it could be altered by censors) that the likelihood of domestic censorship in China does not increase alongside the harshness of a critical statement made in traditional or social media.
Instead of blanket censorship of antistate criticism, they conclude, the purpose of China’s media suppression programs is to prevent the rise of movements centered on such expressions of political or social discontent. Rather than undertaking the arduous and potentially destabilizing process of removing all critical content, national organizations and state-owned internet-service providers simply clip whatever is necessary to prevent the bud of collective action from becoming something more. Social media is thus relatively unconstrained and able to flourish as a component of everyday society.
China’s lively domestic political arena in recent years seems to fit with this nuanced and less-enveloping story—particularly in terms of the seeming vulnerability of many political leaders to embarrassment or indictment in matters of scandal and corruption. There seems to be recognition that the Party’s hold on power is not harmed by popular commentary – as long as collective action is headed off, the authoritarian government can effectively keep both relative freedom and societal control a reality, with the added side effect that approved expressions of protest can help curb the excesses of systemic corruption. Even embarrassments can provide good results, as corrupt pariahs are culled and citizens come to feel involved. As King and his colleagues put it, “the Chinese People are individually free but collectively in chains.”
This groundbreaking study could shape future engagement with China. On issues of stated national significance, most notably territorial and historical issues related to the China Seas and Taiwan, it is important to realize that the actions of the Chinese government can be broadly supported, encouraged and even catalyzed by popular political pressure. While press coverage and the statements of national organizations are probably not free of governmental influence, statistically significant social media trends are likely to give a more complete picture of the legitimate inclinations of the Chinese population than has been credibly possible in the past. The fact that nationalist and societal rhetoric might actually play a significant role in China’s foreign-policy considerations could make it easier for policymakers to understand the causes and context behind otherwise secretive PRC decision-making processes in instances of international political bargaining.
Perhaps more importantly, the security and intelligence communities around the world should realize that specific censorship patterns focused on collective action might aid in the prediction of political actions to be taken by the Chinese government. Just as King et al. noted that topic-specific suppression of social-media content occurred just days before several prominent events took place, it is probable that future actions taken by the government could be marked in advance by rises and dips in normal patterns of censorship behavior. Knowing that such variation could signal action, particularly on those issues of historical and territorial dispute that are increasingly the subject of domestic discourse in the region, might allow other states to understand the relative strength of Chinese resolve and conviction—eventually leading to a more sensitive and effective policy of engagement.
The assumption that authorities in Beijing direct the outputs of Chinese society through a massive censorship effort is not wrong. The government’s penetration of social processes is pervasive and effective. But suppression of free speech is not a blanket fact of life. By targeting the buds of collective action, it seems that the communist state has effectively had its cake and eaten it too: much of the population is given general freedom when it comes to social expression, but political control is still guarded vigorously.
The United States and its regional partners must continue to recognize that Chinese foreign policy is not simply the product of high-level central government or elite processes. Doing so might lead to doorways for engagement previously undiscovered. Perhaps as importantly, diversifying analyses of the Chinese state to include consideration of nationalist sentiment and its place in the country’s societal and strategic environment might allow for greater state-to-state engagement in the future, particularly over issues of common concern like the potential for crisis on the Korean Peninsula. After all, the Chinese government is clearly willing to let national expression have at least part of a role in the operation of the state. Beijing’s neighbors could benefit from the assumption that favorable Chinese domestic perspectives could lead to an increasingly cooperative foreign policy.
Christopher Whyte is a program assistant at Center for the National Interest and a WSD-Handa Fellow at CSIS Pacific Forum. He is an analyst for the geostrategic analytic firm Wikistrat, Ltd.