Censor or censure?
“Type “Tibet” into the search engine a couple of times and watch your Internet connection slow down!”
– An expatriate friend to me, China, 2009
Both Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle For Internet Freedom and Now I Know Who My Comrades Are, Voices from the Internet Underground promote the idea that the Internet should be free and uncensored. Moreover, they accuse foreign corporations of being co-conspirators in the restriction of information. This blog post looks at whether these two accusations are fair.
Freedom & democracy
The ideas of self-expression and freedom are very Western concepts – and it must be said, very American ideals – that are intimately linked with democracy. Imposing these values on China, which developed economies are partial to do, fails to acknowledge the inherent difficulties in governing a population of 1.4 billion people.
As Parker emphasizes, censorship is pervasive but not ironclad, and the Communist Party’s top priority is to “reduce the probability of collective action”. Civil unrest in a country of 1.4 billion inhabitants is a real problem. The largest single protest in US history is estimated at 1 million people taking to the streets, or 0.4% of the population. If 0.4% of the Chinese population marched in a single city, that would equate to 5 million people. One only needs to look at the recent Ferguson riots to realize that for the sake of law and order, it is just not a good idea to have wide-scale riots in a populous country.
When in Rome, act as the Romans do
Over the last decade, a number of domestic versions of international websites have emerged, such as Weibo (microbloggin), RenRen (social networking platform) and Alibaba (online marketplace). Some have attributed their success to China’s protectionist technology policy, others to a Chinese business environment that is difficult for foreigners to navigate. As Parker joked in class, many a foreign company has attempted to capture the lucrative Chinese market and failed.
The fact that the likes of Microsoft censor material that the Chinese government may deem sensitive should come as no surprise. Just like you would not take MacDonald’s or Coca Cola into a foreign country without adaption, so too must technology companies adapt to the local operating environment and in China’s case, its “healthy and harmonious” Internet development.
The Communist Party has universal control. Party rules prevail over the rule of law. Party members are disciplined by a party mechanism called Shuang Gui which pays little attention to human rights and individual freedoms. . Shuang Gui (双规) is translated as stipulating the time and place (that is, double stipulation or 规定地点和时间) when you have to front up to account for your actions. It is a mechanism whereby members suspected of corruption are detained indefinitely and questioned endlessly
The power of the Internet to “do good” is not in dispute. As MacKinnon points out, it is a tool for promoting accountability and activism. Chinese netizens are increasingly using the Internet to enforce social justice, while the government gauges the sentiment of online communities to adjust its policies. In time, the Internet may present another avenue to exercise Shuang Gui.