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Wed. October 04, 2023
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Pushing the Boundaries: Challenging Censorship in Today's China
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By Sophie Beach When a personal relationship was first uncovered between former Chongqing Party Chief Bo Xilai, his wife, and a British businessman, Neil Heywood, who had been found dead in a Chongqing hotel room, government censors worked overtime to try to keep the story hidden. But the news broke on weibo, China’s powerful microblogging platform, and soon the story made international headlines. Bo Xilai is now awaiting trial on criminal charges and his wife, Gu Kailai, was given a suspended death sentence for Heywood’s murder. Over the past 10 years, China’s media environment has been transformed by the explosion of the Internet and, since 2010, the phenomenon of weibo, which now has more than 500 million users. Weibo have created a new online ecosystem where news breaks and spreads faster than censors can catch it. However, while discussions on weibo are much more freewheeling and open than elsewhere in the Chinese public sphere, strict limitations on what topics can be broached are still firmly in place. Posts are censored, accounts are closed down, and search results are filtered for sensitive political content. The proliferation of rumors has justified widespread crackdowns on unwelcome content. Weibo users have been questioned and, occasionally, imprisoned for content that they post. Beijing clearly sees the economic benefit of fostering communications technology. While blocking popular global social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, the Chinese government has encouraged domestic equivalents as a way to boost growth and innovation. The results are impressive: Sina Weibo is a feature-rich, user-friendly platform that enjoys immense popularity, as do other social media sites such as Tencent, which provides the second-largest microblogging platform, YouKu, a video-sharing site, and Renren and Kaixin, Facebook-like social networking sites. Yet these companies are caught between their users, who often demand more freedom, and censorship authorities, who require them to self-censor their platforms or risk losing their license to operate. Microblog platforms use a variety of methods to comply with government censorship requests. Companies use a combination of technical and human-powered search to find offensive content, remove it, and on occasion block or discipline the person who posted it. Authorities also attempt to guide online conversations by employing large numbers of paid Internet commentators who post pro-government opinions on weibo and other online forums. Internet users have nicknamed these commentators the “fifty-cent party” for the fee they are rumored to be paid for each post. In the New Statesman in October 2012, artist and documentarian Ai Weiwei interviewed a member of the “fifty-cent party” who estimated that up to 20 percent of comments in online forums are written by paid commentators. Despite their obligations to government censors, Internet companies themselves find subtle ways to promote freedom of expression. In January 2013, a manager at Sina Weibo responded to criticism that his company had censored posts, explaining that even within the bounds of censorship, information can still be widely distributed before it is deleted. He wrote: You are all crazily posting weibo, and those “little secretaries” are busily deleting them all. But with the situation as it is, has your ability to see this information been hindered? If they didn’t delete individual weibo posts, they would just directly shut down entire accounts. […] In fact, pressure already exists right when, and even before, a situation breaks out. But we can deal with it. The fact that all information can make it out represents a hard-fought victory in itself. As Internet users have access to more varied sources of news and information, the tone of discussions online has changed. Several years ago, the loudest and most dominant voice online in China belonged to the “angry youth,” as strident young nationalists are called. This shifted when other social issues moved to the forefront and as the Internet has increasingly allowed a broader spectrum of voices to be heard. Hu Yong, a prominent media professor at Beijing University, marks the changing point as 2008; as he wrote for China News Weekly in 2012, “nationalistic agendas have increasingly taken a back seat to agendas relating to popular welfare.” People now go online to find solidarity with other citizens who see problems in Chinese society--such as corruption, abuse of power, and environmental degradation-- in their day-to-day lives. In his China News Weekly article, Hu Yong wrote: “The winds have shifted. When your child cannot drink safe milk, cannot sit in a safe car, when you go out to dinner and are served ‘gutter oil,’ when the air in your city is hazy and gray and you don’t know the true PM2.5 [air quality] reading, you become more concerned with the direction Chinese society is taking and the problems of Chinese people’s happiness, rather than fighting another Boxer Rebellion [a violent anti-foreigner rebellion in 1900].” This was evident during the anti-Japan protests that raged through Chinese cities in September 2012 over disputed claims to the Diaoyu Islands. On the streets, government-sanctioned protests were heated and often violent as participants uniformly condemned Japan and even called for war. Online, the discussion was more multifaceted, with many Internet users taking a cynical view of the protests and the government’s role in encouraging them. One weibo user wrote: “Actually, my biggest question is, who in China owns the Diaoyu? It certainly isn’t me, and it certainly isn’t you. Maybe it’s ‘the people.’” Internet users now feel much more empowered to counter official propaganda. Regularly, as the government publishes its version of events surrounding an important issue, Internet users respond with their own views, often questioning the official information. Weibo users who scaled the Great Firewall to read and repost the daily air quality readings on the Twitter feed of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing began to loudly question the Chinese government’s statistics, which showed significantly less pollution. When Beijing declared the U.S. Embassy’s collection of air quality data illegal in June 2012, weibo users were outraged. The attention focused on this issue eventually helped to prod some Chinese cities to provide more accurate readings, and in January 2013, the government announced a website that would post air quality readings in 74 cities. Also that month, when record high levels of pollution blanketed northern and central China, Xinhua and other official media showed a shift in attitude on the issue by reporting in an unusually transparent manner on the levels of pollution, the causes, and the need for public oversight in finding solutions. As a new generation of leadership takes power in Beijing, they rule over a citizenry that is far more informed, interconnected, and worldly than any of their predecessors. The Chinese people will no longer accept government propaganda as news, nor will they sit quietly when officials lie to them about issues that affect their lives. Already, before the new leadership even took the helm, the public knew far more about their new leaders than they have at any time in the past-- information that censors have fought hard to keep hidden. What is publicly known about the Bo Xilai scandal has likely only touched the surface of the whole story. But, as prominent blogger and free speech advocate Isaac Mao says: “Weibo gave Chinese common people a chance to ‘Know what they don't know,’ even under fierce and ridiculous censorship practices.” Sophie Beach is Executive Editor of China Digital Times. She previously served as senior research associate for Asia at the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based press freedom organization. Her writing about China has been published in the Los Angeles Times, the Asian Wall Street Journal, the South China Morning Post, The Nation magazine, and other publications

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