Chinese Leaders Remain Committed to Censorship

Stephen DeAngelis

June 22, 2009

Earlier this year, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao held an online chat with Chinese Internet users [“In Crisis, China Vows Openness,” by Ariana Eunjung Cha, Washington Post, 5 March 2009]. It was a remarkable scene and Wen admitted that “he was ‘a little bit nervous’ because it was his first time talking directly to his compatriots on the Internet.” Most people took it as a good sign that the Premier was going online and addressing the people in a very candid way. Cha wrote this about Wen’s online chat:

“The most revealing part of his talk … may be what Wen said about government transparency and accountability. ‘I have always believed that the public has the right to know what its government is doing and thinking about, and the right to criticize and make comments on government policies,’ he wrote.”

Since then, however, the Chinese government has doggedly stuck to old habits and has shown a reluctance to allow a free exchange of ideas. The clamp down on remembrances of the Tiananmen Square protest earlier this month is one example. Despite Wen personal belief that people have a right to criticize the government, Cha reports that protesters often face retribution [“In China, Would-Be Protesters Pay a Price,” Washington Post, 11 March 2009]. Cha details the fate of Ji Sizun, “a self-taught legal advocate who had spent 10 years fighting against corrupt officials in his home province of Fujian on China’s southeastern coast.” Ji was thrilled when he heard that Chinese officials were going to establish areas for protests during the Olympics and he was one of the first in line to apply for a permit. Cha reports that it turned out to be an empty promise.

“Only 77 applications were officially filed. Even so, all but three were subsequently withdrawn, the state-run New China News Agency said, after authorities ‘satisfactorily addressed’ petitioners’ concerns. Of the rest, two were rejected because the applicants did not provide adequate information, and the last because it violated China’s laws on demonstrations. Since the Games in August, the situation for the Chinese citizens who had tried to apply for the Olympics permits has worsened, and some of the more outspoken applicants, such as Ji, have been harassed or detained.”

Cha goes on to describe the fate of a number of other people who felt forced to protest against government actions, but it’s Ji on whom she concentrates.

“Ji was an optimist and believed that change was possible from within the system. He decided he would learn the letter of the law so that he could help laobaixing, or ordinary people, deal with their grievances. He took on cases for free and lived on 3 yuan, less than 50 cents, a day. Starting in 2000, he began to gain fame in his area after he won case after case against officials who had illegally detained citizens, mafialike gangs that tried to pressure villagers to leave their land and a mining and steel factory that was polluting the local environment. He was so successful that his family became worried that his freelance legal work would eventually land him in jail if he crossed the wrong person. … The very thing that drove him: his faith in the rule of law. When Ji went to Beijing in August armed with carefully prepared documents about a dozen local cases — including one about a man who died in detention and others about illegal land seizures — he was convinced that because China had passed a law allowing him to file a protest application, nothing bad could come of it. He had recently been evicted from his home office in Fuzhou on suspicion of trying to incite people to petition in Beijing, friends said, but even then he didn’t waver from his conviction that China’s central government would keep its promises to allow public dissent during the Games, according to his sisters and friends.”

It turned out that Ji’s optism was falsely placed. His persistence eventually led to his arrest. Presumably he is still in jail. Public protests are not the only form of free expression that receives harsh government treatment. The Internet has also been singled out for special attention. According to Andrew Jacobs, “China has issued a sweeping directive requiring all personal computers sold in the country to include sophisticated software that can filter out pornography and other ‘unhealthy information’ from the Internet” [“China Requires Censorship Software on New PCs,” New York Times, 8 June 2009]. Jacobs continues:

“The software, which manufacturers must install on all new PCs starting July 1, would allow the government to regularly update computers with an ever-changing list of banned Web sites. The rules, issued last month, ratchet up Internet restrictions that are already among the most stringent in the world. China regularly blocks Web sites that discuss the Dalai Lama, the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters, and the Falun Gong, the banned spiritual movement. But free-speech advocates say they fear the new software could make it even more difficult for China’s 300 million Internet users to obtain uncensored news and information.”

In a demonstration that it is serious about the new censorship software, the Chinese government has already ordered security patches be created for it [“China Orders Patches to Planned Web Filter,” by Edward Wong, New York Times, 15 June 2009]. Three years ago I wrote a post that discussed censorship in China. One of the articles I cited in that post was column by Nicholas Kristof, who wrote:

“The Internet is chipping away relentlessly at the Party, for even 30,000 censors can’t keep up with 120 million Chinese Netizens. With the Internet, China is developing for the first time in 4,000 years of history a powerful independent institution that offers checks and balances on the emperors.”

I wrote: “Kristof got the chicken-and-egg argument right, “the Communist Party’s monopoly on information is crumbling, and its monopoly on power will follow.” We don’t want a redux of the fall of the Soviet Union, we desire a soft political landing — the negative impact on the international economy of a hard landing would be severe. The best way to achieve the soft landing is let connectivity continue to perform its magic even as Chinese leadership continues to fool itself into believing it has the situation under control.” The latest edict demanding censorship software on new computers is an admission that 30,000 censors can’t keep up with Chinese Netizens. The software is called Green Dam. Jacobs continues:

“Industry experts and civil libertarians say they are worried the software may simply be a Trojan horse for greater Internet control. The software developers have ties to China’s military and public security agencies, they point out, and Green Dam’s backers say the effort is supported by Li Changchun, the country’s chief propaganda official and a member of the decision-making body of the Communist Party, the Politburo Standing Committee. The software will be provided free, paid for by the government, and according to the official Green Dam Web site, it has already been downloaded 3.2 million times. That figure includes thousands of schools that were required to install the software by the end of May. The site claims that Chinese manufacturers, including Lenovo, Inspur and Hedy, have already agreed to install 52 million copies of the software on new computers.”

In a complementary move, the Chinese government has disabled some of the features on the Chinese language version of the Google search engine [“China Disables Some Google Functions,” by Edward Wong, New York Times, 19 June 2009]. Wong reports:

“The Chinese government disabled some search functions on the Chinese-language Web site of Google on Friday, saying the site was linking too often to pornographic and vulgar content. Government officials met with managers of the Chinese operations of Google on Thursday afternoon to warn them that the company would be punished if it did not remove the offending material from the Web site, according to a report on Friday by Xinhua, the state news agency. Earlier Thursday, a government-supported Internet watchdog group, the China Internet Illegal Information Reporting Center, criticized the search engine for its erotic content and threatened punishment by the government. It said Google had already been warned twice, in January and April, about its content.”

Although the report mentions only vulgar content, many analysts believe the real target is continuing online political content. Eventually, Chinese leaders will understand how quixotic their efforts to control Internet content are. They have declared that they want China to be a leader in science and technology yet they cling to the belief that they can control information. Surely they realize that they’re swimming against the tide of history. I suspect, they are trying to push grass root challenges to their authority (e.g., Falun Gong, Tibet, and Tiananmen Square) as far down the road as they can in order to give them time to deal with other challenges they feel are more pressing. Their hope, it seems, is that once they have created the world’s greatest economy and dealt with domestic income inequalities people will be more content to let the Communist Party continue its rule. That may be a false hope. Premier Wen’s instincts are good. The government needs more openness and transparency rather than more censorship. The best hope for the Communist Party is to become a governing body that people want rather than one they are forced to endure. China is generally headed in the right direction. Economic reform almost always precedes political reform and China has been reforming economically for thirty years. The pace of globalization, however, is increasing the world’s rate of change and China’s traditional “long view of history” approach will be tested to the limit.