Written by Jun Fu.

The International Communication Association recently gave its Outstanding Article Award of 2015 to an article addressing the question “Does the Great Firewall Really Isolate the Chinese?”1 As noted by Prof. James G. Webster in his nomination letter, the question is “of broad interest to academics, policy-makers and many members of the general public”. Indeed, censorship might be one of the most discussed topics relating to the Chinese internet.

The Chinese government employs four approaches to shape people’s online behaviour. First, the government issued a series of laws and regulations to discipline people’s usage of the internet. Through practicing media censorship and promoting its social contract, the government has cultivated a norm of self-censorship and mutual surveillance among internet users, which constitutes the second approach to internet control in China. Third, the government controls online commercial spaces through internet service providers (ISPs). Since the government owns the main internet infrastructure, ISPs need to comply with government’s requirements for online content censorship as a pre-condition for running their businesses and services, and this sector is characterized as a government-regulated commercial space. The government even gives an “Internet Self-Discipline Award” to a group of ISPs for their efforts in fostering “harmonious and healthy Internet development”. Fourth, by taking advantage of the different structures and set-up of the Internet in China, the government can disconnect the localized internet when necessary, as it did in Xinjiang in the summer 2009.

Studies usually draw the picture of internet censorship in China through two perspectives. First, how the Chinese government censors online space. Approaches include the “Great Fire-Wall”, keyword screening, coercion of multinational technology corporations, device and network control, localized disconnection and restriction, self-censorship and mutual surveillance. Second, how Chinese internet users bypass censorship imposed by the government. Frequently used methods in this regard include using proxy servers and virtual private networks (VPN), playing with words, images, puns and homophones to discuss sensitive topics.

However, as a result of fast-changing Chinese society and the advancement of digital communication technology, the simple dichotomy of censorship and anti-censorship is no longer enough to depict the ecology of Chinese internet. After users become aware of the value of the internet in helping them enacting their citizenship rights (such as free speech and public participation), the government also realized its value to mobilize social support for its own cause. To actualize the value of the internet, the Chinese government adopts a more flexible strategy in managing Chinese internet rather than simply control and suppress online participation.

First, the Chinese government went to great lengths to allow free expression online. There is a belief in some quarters that allowing free expression to a certain extent can relieve social dissatisfaction and unrest, which is beneficial to social stability. Nowadays, criticisms against the Chinese government are widespread on mainstream social media. The government is unlikely to intervene in those cases of online dissent unless it is coupled with civil unrest in the physical world. Similar results were also found in a recent study of the censorship on Sina Weibo2, which concludes that “posts with negative, even vitriolic, criticism of the state, its leaders, and its policies are not more likely to be censored”. Censorship is mainly oriented toward information and attempts to initiate or mobilize collective actions.

Second, free online discussion could be beneficial for the government. Not only can online posts and discussions can create political pressure for the regime, and disclose real concerns of the general public to the government, the public opinions generated from online participation can also give external support to the initiatives of the reformist faction within the party. On top of this, the Chinese government also uses proactive approaches, such as e-government and dynamic manipulation of online discourse, to communicate with internet users and influence online public opinion.

From a macro level perspective, the development of the market economy, together with the establishment of socialist democracy and the development of the legal system have weakened the authority of the authoritative state. This has enabled other players to step onto the stage, and the flexible strategy adopted by the Chinese government in controlling the internet is a result of negotiation among multiple stakeholders in today’s China. Yang Guobin, an established scholar in the field of Chinese internet studies, argues the framework of the internet control in China encompasses institution building, legal instruments, ethical self-discipline, technical instruments and proactive discursive production. He understands China’s internet censorship as a dynamic balance achieved through the interaction among the Chinese government, foreign Internet technology companies, and Chinese Internet users. This understanding is consistent with the opinion of Zhao Yuezhi about the key stakeholders of communication in China, which include the state, market power and the Chinese citizenry. Therefore, instead of treating it as a static dichotomy of suppression and anti-suppression, it is more appropriate to regard the internet censorship/regulation in China as a dynamic equilibrium between government, commercial benefit of internet service providers, and the participation of Chinese internet users.

Jun Fu is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne. He was a full-time lecturer in the Department of Media and Communication at the South China Normal University. Image Credit: CC by Scott Beale/Flickr.

1* Harsh Taneja & Angela Xiao Wu (2015). “Does the Great Firewall Really Isolate the Chinese? Integrating Access Blockage with Cultural Factors to Explain Web User Behavior”, The Information Society, 30(5), 297-309.

2* King, G., Pan, J., & Roberts, M. E. (2013). How censorship in China allows government criticism but silences collective expression. American Political Science Review, 107(02), 326-343.