Censorship’s Losing Battle in China

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Recently, Brad Pitt was the latest celebrity to join up to China’s foremost micro-blogging platform, Sina Weibo, joining the likes of Selena Gomez, Paris Hilton, Emma Watson, and, strangely, London mayor Boris Johnson. Sina Weibo is in Mandarin, of course, but companies such as FansTang in the US have found a lucrative niche translating content from celebrities into Mandarin and posting it to Weibo on their behalf.

Considering the 500-million-people-strong Chinese internet market, it’s no surprise that many Western celebrities have realized that Sina Weibo is just as powerful a medium as Facebook or Twitter. Even major Western companies such as Coca-Cola and Louis Vuitton have opened accounts to promote their products.

There is no question that Western companies and celebrities will suffer from the wrath of the Chinese censor just as much as the general population. Although most celebrities and major companies are unlikely to attempt to post contentious material, there are a few famous figures now posting, such as the band Radiohead, who have been known for their political statements and for their overt criticism of China’s human rights record. The very fact that so many Western figures and companies now have a presence on Sina Weibo does have implications, however, which point to the inability of the Great Firewall to prevent the continuing march of globalization and the spread of ideas.

At the end of last year, China tightened the Great Firewall and clamped down on the use of VPNs (virtual private networks) to circumvent its blockade. This was seen by many as a cynical move designed specifically to attack Western businesses operating in the country and to strengthen its domestic e-commerce industry. But if Western companies are able to market effectively through social media messages, underneath the Great Firewall by using China’s own social networks, then it is clear that any attempt to prevent Western influence is doomed to fail.

The Center for Media and Democracy defines the purpose of censorship as ‘to maintain the status quo, to control the development of a society, or to stifle dissent among a subject people.’ If this is indeed the case, then to allow Western celebrities and companies to post on Sina Weibo is to allow Western capitalist and democratic ideology to threaten that status quo and to change the development of Chinese society.

It has been clear for some time that users of Sina Weibo are managing to criticize government officials despite the 1000 censors who are said to be employed specifically to police Sina Weibo content. Last year they exposed a government official who was photographed grinning at the scene of a traffic accident, and they have previously been successful in forcing the resignations of several other local officials. The automatic censorship system searches for keywords, but many users are able to get around this system by using synonyms and homophones. This can only be detected by a real human censor, but 1000 censors fighting to read the posts of 300 million users is obviously a losing battle. It would seem that the nature of public debate in China has changed dramatically since the advent of the internet, and that, in spite of censorship, a forum has been created where dissidents can communicate and where ideas critical of the government can be expressed.

However, some prominent Chinese thinkers, such as blogger Michael Anti, believe that Weibo simply provides a convenient ‘safety valve’ for grievances, effectively preventing real action by diffusing feelings of frustration. He also believes that Weibo allows the authorities to monitor emerging dissidents, and to more effectively block the lines of communication between them. Sensitive accounts will, of course, be immediately deleted, and any directly critical comments will be blocked by the keyword system.

In the end, a system of overt censorship simply cannot win. Any attempt to prevent the spread of ideas will only fan their flame further. As Potter Stewart has said, ‘Censorship reflects society's lack of confidence in itself’. The very fact that the Chinese authorities feel the need to continually monitor and delete its citizen’s thoughts points to their inability to ‘manufacture consent,’ as Noam Chomsky would say. Allowing the Western mass media to infiltrate their social networks can only worsen this situation. 


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