China’s Shifting Censorship Regime Puts Squeeze On Internet Giants
By allowing two Hong Kong journalists to be attacked by a group of unidentified men in Beijing on Friday as they covered an activist’s visit to the wife of jailed Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, the central government showed “the kind of thuggery and tactics seen in less developed countries,” according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a nonprofit group that promotes press freedom.
“The people protecting Liu [Xia] at that house are not general level village thugs, or tough guys attached to some corrupt Party members in a small township,” said Bob Dietz, the CPJ’s Asia Program Coordinator. “These are people acting on ministerial orders from the central government. They are there to protect China‘s reputation, to stifle coverage, for what is for them, of great international embarrassment.”
Dietz was speaking Tuesday at a press conference to release the CJP’s latest report, “Challenged in China: The shifting dynamics of censorship and control.” The committee says the flow of information in China has been transformed by the power of the Internet, and more specifically by Weibo, or microblogs. Although controls are in place to monitor and sway public opinion while stamping out dissent, the mere fact that information can still make it out has convinced some observers that progress is being made, albeit achingly slow.
“People now go online to find solidarity with other citizens who see problems in Chinese society—such as corruption, abuse of power, and environmental degradation—in their day-to-day lives,” writes Sophie Beach, the executive editor of China Digital Times, a website that maintains a list of the government’s 2,000 banned or temporarily banned search terms. China’s journalists and bloggers refer to new censorship instructions as “Directives from the Ministry of Truth,” a reference to the propaganda department in George Orwell’s novel 1984.
The report cites an exposé by Hong Kong-based Phoenix Weekly that says Sina, the country’s largest Weibo service, uses automated keyword filters along with in-house staff charged with searching new posts before they’re published. Sina’s Chief Executive Charles Chao reluctantly told FORBES Asia that his company has at least 100 staffers devoted to monitoring content 24 hours a day, but many believe the figure is much higher. (See: Sina Weibo). And those staff come at a substantial cost. Baidu’s CEO Robin Li told Bloomberg that his company had to spend a lot of resources to make sure it abides by Chinese law (See: Baidu Says Google Gains by Avoiding Censorship Cost).
All Chinese Internet companies have to abide by the same rules, and Dietz points out they’re often caught between their responsibility to control content while trying to avoid antagonizing their users. The common reality of the Internet is that it provides a growing latitude of expression and criticism of the government, and that’s happening in China, too.