Social Media Hasn't Weakened Censorship in China

Despite a free-wheeling micro-blogging scene, traditional media sources still operate under heavy government constraints.


The vast majority of China's citizens get their news from traditional sources of media (Reuters)

It's easy to get excited about Sina Weibo. A microblogging service akin to Twitter launched in 2009, Weibo is easily the most intriguing feature of China's media landscape as well as a real challenge to Beijing's control of information. Like social media services everywhere, the vast majority of Weibo's content is an apolitical mix of trends, memes, and jokes. But the possibility of political subversion is real. When in 2011 two high-speed trains collided in Zhejiang Province, killing 40 people and injuring hundreds, China's official media ignored the incident until tweets and photos on Weibo forced them to acknowledge what had happened.

Without question, the rise of Weibo -- and similar services powered by Sina's competitors -- has fundamentally altered the flow of information on China's internet. But has this shift actually changed Chinese society as a whole? The country's army of Weibo users -- numbering over 500 million -- have intrigued observers with their insouciance, cynicism, and irreverence. But it's nonetheless important to remember that the Internet isn't representative of how the media works as a whole -- and it's the latter consideration that's ultimately most important in China.

The Democracy ReportThe precise workings of internet censorship in China is not known, mostly because censorship is applied so inconsistently. But the basic idea is this: Foreign social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, as well as YouTube, are firewalled. Many Google services, including Gmail, work intermittently or are aggravatingly slow. On Weibo and other bulletin board systems, government-funded censors delete posts deemed politically incorrect, typically through targeted key-word searches. (For example, the phrase "Tibet independence" wouldn't last long on a Chinese website before being deleted). The government also appoints individuals to write posts or tweets supporting Beijing, a group dubbed "50-centers" in reference to the small sums they receive for their patriotism. This isn't to say that all pro-Beijing content is manufactured by the Party; in fact, the government receives plenty of indigenous support.

Are all criticisms of the government then prohibited? Not exactly. Despite Beijing's willingness to devote considerable resources to controlling internet content, the government simply cannot ensure that all objectionable content is removed all the time. So they prioritize. Researchers at Harvard found, in a study published earlier this year, that Beijing tolerates some criticism but not calls for collective action. Complain about government corruption? No problem. Attempt to organize a protest on Sina Weibo? No way.

Does this relatively permissive attitude to Internet speech mean that China is softening on censorship? Not exactly. When it comes to traditional media, Beijing's heavy hand remains firmly in place. Consider this fascinating New York Review of Books article by Sinologist Perry Link, detailing a list of "directives" -- ranging from the general to the highly specific -- issued to journalists and editors in China:

  • Downplay stories on Kim Jong Il's facelift
  • Allow stories on Deputy Mayor Zhang's embezzlement but omit the comment boxes
  • Censor stories promoting Western democracy
  • Censor stories that obfuscate the great historical achievements of the Party
Other directives asked editors to "use small banners" on some stories, while putting others "on the back page." These rules form part of a censorship system that is, despite some competition from Iran and elsewhere, the most sophisticated in the world. And while there are publications that push these boundaries -- Caijing and Southern Weekend are two that come to mind -- the vast majority of Chinese journalists cooperate with these constraints; after all, their career advancement largely depends on it. In the event of any ambiguity, according to Rebecca MacKinnon, an expert on censorship at the New America Foundation, journalists in China "err on the side of caution."

In effect, China has two parallel levels of censorship. The first is the relatively free-wheeling atmosphere of sites like Sina Weibo, where the government uses paid advocates -- prisoners, for example, can get their sentences reduced by writing pro-Beijing content online -- and selective censorship to prevent objectionable content from gathering momentum. The second, more insidious type of censorship is that used to manage China's official media, including directives and top-down pressure to hew to the government line.

Which level is more important? Though Sina Weibo is certainly popular, it's influence is often overstated in the Western media: A study reported by the Wall Street Journal revealed that, of the site's more than 500 million users only 220 million have ever posted on the site -- and only 30 million of these people write as often as once a week. 30 million is still a lot of people, but how many of these people write about politics? And of the ones who do, how many dare criticize the Communist Party? When you peel apart the layers of what is actually written on Sina Weibo, the amount of subversive content is actually quite modest.

Furthermore, the vast majority of Chinese people still get their news from traditional sources of media -- television, radio, and print -- and thus rely on information that has been carefully directed, vetted, and censored by Communist Party officials. The Chinese internet may be the most interesting aspect of the country's media, but it's still small beans compared to everything else -- and until that changes, stories of censorship's demise in China will be premature.