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The impossibility of completely censoring the Chinese blogosphere

I don’t know how long this fascinating New York Times article about blogging in China will survive as something you can read without any payment or other complication, so I quote from it now at some length.

Chinese Web logs have existed since early in this decade, but the form has exploded in recent months, challenging China’s ever vigilant online censors and giving flesh to the kind of free-spoken civil society whose emergence the government has long been determined to prevent or at least tightly control.

Web experts say the surge in blogging is a result of strong growth in broadband Internet use, coupled with a huge commercial push by the country’s Internet providers aimed at wooing users. Common estimates of the numbers of blogs in China range from one million to two million and growing fast.

In my opinion, that is the key to this development. What matters most is its sheer scale. Sure, censorship works, in the sense that you are not allowed to say that the entire government – listed by name – are a pack of corrupt scoundrels who should be replaced by this other group of virtuous persons, again listed by name. You cannot praise democracy, or freedom, or Falung Gong, or whatnot. But how do you stop this kind of thing?

“The content is often political, but not directly political, in the sense that you are not advocating anything, but at the same time you are undermining the ideological basis of power.”

A fresh example was served up last week with the announcement by China of five cartoonlike mascot figures for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. They were lavishly praised in the press – and widely ridiculed in blogs that seemed to accurately express public sentiment toward them.

“It’s not difficult to create a mascot that’s silly and ugly,” wrote one blogger. “The difficulty is in creating five mascots, each sillier and uglier than the one before it.”

Answer: you stop it. But only after countless thousands of bloggers have had their chuckle, and after many dozens of them have copied it and pasted it.

By far the biggest category of blogs remains the domain of the personal diary, and in this crowded realm, getting attention places a premium on uniqueness.

For the past few months, Mu Mu, the Shanghai dancer, has held pride of place, revealing glimpses of her body while maintaining an intimate and clever banter with her many followers, who are carefully kept in the dark about her real identity.

“In China, the concepts of private life and public life have emerged only in the past 10 to 20 years,” she said in an online interview. “Before that, if a person had any private life, it only included their physical privacy – the sex life, between man and woman, for couples.

“I’m fortunate to live in a transitional society, from a highly political one to a commercial one,” she wrote, “and this allows me to enjoy private pleasures, like blogging.”

What those concluding paragraphs hint at is the real punch of something like blogging. It is not that defiantly political things are being shouted from the rooftops. That is still far too dangerous. What blogs are doing is enabling an alternative attitude to assemble itself, as it were, and an alternative tone of voice to develop and to be communally celebrated. What is at stake here is not only what is said, but how it is said. Friendly chat around the table replaces the booming official megaphone. (Thought while proofing this: banning overt politics may actually amplify this particular contrast.) Once assembled, these blog communities develop their various code phrases and metaphors, so that they always know what they are saying but so that the censors are running around in a state of permanent confusion, mostly because they now, suddenly, are faced with just too damn much stuff to censor. (One of the things that the cryptic metaphors will refer to will be links by means of which the censors can be got around.)

Beneath and behind all this is the brute fact of economic development. The CHinese government has bet the farm on this. So, although I am perfectly sure that groups of censors get together in their corridors and shout in chorus: “Shut the whole f***ing thing down, you idiots!”, the government is in no position to do that. I further bet you that among the ranks of the censors are to be found some of the Chinese government’s most thoughtful and well-informed critics, because nobody understands the weaknesses and foolishnesses of a weakening system better than the people who are paid to try to keep it going. (I well remember in the old Alternative Bookshop, that some of our best and best informed and most rabidly anti-statist customers were the ones working in the middle to upper reaches of the British Civil Service. They knew it was crazy.) The Chinese government wants its cake, economic development, but to eat it too, to keep the commercial classes and their children politically docile. Hm. How can it do this? Difficult, very difficult.

So, blogs form an alternative attitude, and they simultaneously sap the will to power of the ruling elite. All that is then needed is some genuine – although not especially outrageous – outrage to be committed by the government, and the whole Chinese blogosphere (now many millions in number) may then erupt with more explicit rebellion, on a scale which again overwhelms the censors. If and when that happens, the blogs will then do something else unprecedented. They will report what is happening, to each other, and to the outside world, such as to the New York Times person, Howard W. French, who wrote this article. Some will report what is happening while simultaneously saying that they oppose what is happening. Makes no difference.

And yes, if you are thinking this, this story does indeed illustrate that the much maligned Mainstream Media can indeed make a big difference in circumstances like these. Although, saying that the MSM are essential is something else again. I am sure that there are plenty of English language blogs out here – “web experts” is all that French calls them, no doubt in many cases being vague about it for very good reasons – where all these possibilities are understood and explained in great detail, and by using which French did a lot of his background research. Besides which, I only read French’s article because Instapundit linked to it.

Meanwhile, French notes, the Chinese censors have resorted to leaving critical comments, supportive of the government, on Chinese blog entries. They might as well just put: “We surrender!” Now, suddenly, they must persuade the bloggers and their readers. Talk about reversing the burden of proof. So all the bloggers have to do is keep their peckers up. Many will not last. Having come, they will fade. But others will persist.

No doubt I am being, as is my taate, too optimistic about how well things in China might turn out. But I really do not see how the Chinese government can now expect anything better (for them) than merely to manage the demise of even the pretence of communism, and the emergence of a more participatory and democratic political culture. The idea that they can indefinitely sustain the communist power monopoly in the face of a new communicational world strikes me as far too pessimistic.

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18 comments to The impossibility of completely censoring the Chinese blogosphere

  • Bernie

    A fundamental thing about blogs is the sudden realisation that you are not alone in thinking unthinkable thoughts. Good article Brian and I agree with you on being optimistic about it.

    On using the word “communism” with regard to the Chinese state, isn’t it about time we started calling it facism? It seems to be a more accurately descriptive term.

  • It is much more accurate Bernie. “Communist” is just the name of the party, not its nature.

    I thought the article was a bit too optimistic, but I really appreciate the point that an alternative attitude is fostered by blogs here. Yes, Chinese can find interesting and forbidden stuff if they’re determined, but not many are persistent enough to use the proxy servers and other workarounds necessary. You wouldn’t believe the hoops I have to jump through to read BBC news…..very few Chinese would do it.

    And then email is filtered, so mailing articles to each other wouldn’t work very well in a really sensitive topic. I’d like to be so optimistic, and your qualifier at the end…”indefinitely” sustain their power, softens the case. No they won’t sustain it indefinitely, but they may for a very long time.

    The ISP host for my blog is in Holland, by the way, just so THAT bit of control is not available to the cadres.

  • Ted Schuerzinger

    Does anybody think the Chinese would have been able to engage in this sort of blogging if the UN had control of the internet all along?

  • Mark McGilvray

    The rise of the internet and attendant blogging in China is interesting and promising in some ways, but depressing and frightening in others. China’s best hope for modernity and personal political freedoms is the death of the old guard communists. These political fossils are the mandarins in China and hold power of life or death over their citizens. Remember the Cultural Revolution? Tienamen Square? The internet is a double edged sword: while allowing greater information and communication to flow between the ordinary (well, somewhat educated and above) citizenry, it also allows China’s communist security apparatus unparalleled opportunities to ferret out the “politically unreliable.” Another tide of official barbarism is quite likely. China still lives under Mao’s dictum, “power comes from the barrel of a gun.” Times are changing in China in many ways and for the better, but China itself will change culturally on a geological timetable comparatively.

    Mark Salzman’s Iron and Silk is an amazing glimpse into Chinese society and how it functions, communist or not.

  • Chris Harper

    Over the last few months especially I have read a number of newspaper articles and comments to the effect that China will be economically open but still a politically totalitarian country, without any description of how this impossibility can survive.

    These writers have shown no historical perspective, no knowledge of how things have evolved in the past.

    We have seen the same thing happen before, in both South Korea and Taiwan; once a certain standard of affluence and economic freedom is reached political freedom becomes inevitable, and so it will happen in China as well.

  • veryretired

    The Chinese are a wonderfully industrious people caught up in the legacy of Maoist lunacy and a historical collectivist proclivity that will retard their develpment for decades to come.

    Interesting article at the “Weekly Standard” titled “Dis-United Kingdom”.

  • Back in 1999, BB (Before Blogs) I speculated about the possibility of a Chinese dissident using a satellite phone to update a web site with info on the latest human rights violations by the Communist Government.

    I also wondered what would happen if they arrested a western businessman who was just using hos sat phone to make money.

    Chris Haper is probably right, at a certain point the Chinese people will ‘Stand Up’ , to use Mao’s phrase and demand a ‘normal’ democracy. The problem is how do we get there from here and when that moment comes how can we be sure that some guy with the keys to the nukes doesn’t say, Oh Fuck and press the proverbial button?

  • Chris Harper

    Taylor,

    “The problem is how do we get there from here and when that moment comes how can we be sure that some guy with the keys to the nukes doesn’t say, Oh Fuck and press the proverbial button?”

    No reason why we should fear that even. The fanatical idealogues have mainly been sidelined now, the place is ruled by pragmatists, and I doubt that there is any one person who holds more than half a key. When the inevitable comes I suspect we will see more of a velvet revolution than a romanian shootout.

    Regardless, it will be an internal affair and we should all just keep the f. out. The Chinese people will be more than capable of sorting themselves out.

    Question, what will the French do when their new best friends leave the world stage? Suck up to North Korea? Cuba?

  • If you follow the international scene you will note that there has been an exchange of defence ministers between America and China.

    The last time something like that happened (between the USSR and America in 1988) it was a sign the Cold War was over and the Soviets had capitulated. By ’91 it was obvious to every one.

    I’d say the Chinese have already declared defeat.

  • BTW I was working for a defence contractor in ’88 and I said to my manager that the war was over. He wasn’t so sure at the time.

  • The wonderful thing about Chinese communism is how openly cynical it’s become. You must belong to the communist party to get anywhere; and THE place to go–everyone’s headed there at a gallop–is straight toward capitalism. So you have “communist” landlords, “communist” factory owners, and on and on. Think of it–communist factory owners! What kind of dancing on pinheads must they do to resolve the dissonance? Of course, at its heart communism (like every other political movement) never was more than a tarted-up club for the elites. It’s just that now the Chinese are so blatant about it.

    As to the likelihood of capitalism and the modern world taking over China, don’t hold your breath. Only a small percentage of Chinese enjoy the country’s economic growth and development. The vast majority–that is to say, billions of Chinese–still live in the countryside in primitive conditions. They won’t stay fat, dumb, and happy about that for very long. Sound familiar?

  • Chris Harper

    Actually, I take some of that back.

    One of the issues they will have to deal with is that their biggest banks are bankrupt, with something like 50% of their outstanding loans non performing as a result of being required to lend to state sector enterprises. That is as opposed to about 0.5% in the western banking systems.

    Given the lack of state welfare the Chinese have a tendency to squirrel away as much money as they can for their old age, and given the dearth of investment opportunities over there most of this money is on deposit, in the banks, the ones which are not bankrupt only because of the political storm which would rage if anyone admitted the truth.

    That is going to be a shitstorm and a half.

    Sigh,

    Maybe China will go properly fascist after all.

  • Ni Hao Ma Chris

    I’m not sure who owns ‘the button’ in China and I’m pretty sure the CIA dosen’t either. China’s history often includes leaders who do irrational things out of pure spite, look at the way the last Manchus promoted the Boxer movement which sped up the process of both foreign penetration and internal disintegration.

    Your point about the banks is well taken, a lot of those non performing loans are to companies (work units as they used to be called) owned by the PLA. Theoretically the military was supposed to have gotten out of the business of making washing machines and overstuffed armchairs, but I here reports that they are still up to their old habits.

  • mike

    “…and the whole Chinese blogosphere (now many millions in number) may then erupt with more explicit rebellion, on a scale which again overwhelms the censors. If and when that happens, the blogs will then do something else unprecedented. They will report what is happening, to each other, and to the outside world…”

    All very well, but surely not all bloggers in China are closet democrats? The point being that should such a ‘rebellion’ among bloggers occur, the extent of their popular support may not go unchallenged.

    The emerging picture is likely even more complicated…

  • The Wobbly Guy

    I just hope that the structural reforms, which are nigh inevitable, don’t shatter the country when they occur. The coastal areas are much more affluent than the interior, while educational standards vary widely from region to region. There’s a whole lot of inequality in the system that augurs ill when the current hardliners at the top are toppled. People will start to revolt and march, and results might not be pretty, nor certain.

  • mike

    ISTM the Chinese are not unlike the French in that their political history is punctuated by violent revolution with the replacement of one set of fascists with another.

    Should there be some structural crisis in China followed by mass revolt, what makes anyone think the revolt won’t actually be directed by one big fascist ‘strong man of the people’ and his followers? And won’t these guys be using blogs too?

    I’m not so optimistic…

  • ic

    “I really do not see how the Chinese government can now expect anything better (for them)…” Ah, but they can wrest control of the internet from those subversive Americans. As soon as the internet is under the UN’s control, they can squeeze the breath out of those pesky bloggers.

  • Think of it–communist factory owners! What kind of dancing on pinheads must they do to resolve the dissonance?

    Alistair Cooke discussed their efforts a few years ago in one of his Letters from America.