Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

China's firewall

The firewall is political. It's becoming more effective.

The Internet was supposed to foster democracy. China has different ideas.
It is part of China’s larger effort to… disprove the notion that the flow of ideas across the World Wide Web would be an unstoppable force toward democracy. News and information that might threaten the Communist Party are kept out of the country under a system of censorship known as the Great Firewall, while foreign social-media networks such as Facebook and Twitter that allow private citizens to share ideas and join forces are also banned. Behind the wall, China’s own social-media networks are closely policed to ensure public opinion does not coalesce into a threat to one-party rule…

Indeed, social media is increasingly being harnessed by autocratic regimes to bolster their rule, says University of Toronto political scientist Seva Gunitsky. It helps dictatorships gauge public opinion and discover otherwise hidden grievances, while also allowing them to disseminate propaganda and shape the contours of public debate.

“China has been at the forefront of this, and they are quickly getting very sophisticated about it,” he said. “Social media can allow autocrats to become stronger, more informed and more adaptable…

Censors work selectively, especially targeting posts that threaten to spur some form of collective action. Pro-government voices generally do not engage critics in discussion or argument… but do often subject them to personal attack…

Ordinary citizens, meanwhile, were warned off with a threat of up to three years in jail for spreading rumors if their posts were viewed more than 5,000 times or reposted 500 times.

Real-name verification was introduced for social-media accounts, while the government warned Internet giant Sina last year to intensify its own censorship of online comments…

Broadening the campaign, China’s Internet regulator told news websites on June 21 to crack down on online comment sections, cleaning up comments that violated what are described as “nine don’ts and seven bottom lines,” including endangering state security, challenging socialism and inciting ethnic hatred…

Some posters are popularly believed to be paid — the ­“wumao” (the 50-cent Party) who are supposedly given half a renminbi ($0.08) for every post praising the government or denigrating its critics.

But a much larger number may just be employees of the state, doing part-time work outside their main jobs to support the party’s agenda.

Various arms of the Chinese government, together with individual state employees, by their own admission operate more than 150,000 official Weibo [a government-approved version of Twitter] accounts, but the real number of accounts run by state employees could be far higher…

Others are volunteers, reportedly recruited by the Communist Youth League in the millions to spread “positive energy” and “civilize” the Internet…

True believers could come from a new breed of young people, brought up after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, who are proud of China’s rising global power and suspicious of Western criticism as an attempt to block its rise…

President Xi says he wants an Internet that is “clear and bright” but in April told leaders of the country’s top Internet companies, as well as officials and academics, that he did not want to shut down criticism entirely.

Indeed, he called for “more tolerance and patience” toward netizens and said he welcomed online criticism “whether mild or fierce,” as long as it arises from goodwill, the People’s Daily reported.

Authorities then apparently censored negative reactions to his speech on social media…

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