China research: Internet censorship

In his 2012 TED talk, Michael Anti discusses how China has made great strides in online social networks even though the government censors the internet. Unlike the United States where citizens enjoy complete freedom of speech, Chinese internet users are restricted from many foreign sites and are forbidden to talk about certain issues online. Although many foreigners may think that this censorship denies Chinese citizens of an inalienable right, Chinese citizens still receive a fair amount of freedom through its own social networks such as Weibo. The Chinese internet firewall acts similarly to the Great Wall in that it prevents foreigners from getting in while also preventing Chinese citizens from seeing certain things from the outside world.

China boasts the largest population of internet users in the world with a staggering 500 million netizens, yet it is one of only four countries in the world to block Facebook. Although most countries’ citizens would be outraged by the censorship of these major websites, China has been very smart in its censorship. It employed a “block and clone” strategy and replaced major sites such as Google, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube with their own versions: Baidu, Weibo, Renren, and Youku. The country realized the two-hand rule with social networks: the government must allow for social networking, but keep the server within the country. Using this rule, China can satisfy its netizen’s desire for social networks, but can also maintain control over the server.

First national public sphere

Although these social networks may be censored, it provides Chinese citizens with their first national public sphere of communication. Before these social networks, it was very difficult for Chinese citizens to voice their political opinions. In addition, local governments lacked the power to do anything about any of their citizens’ complaints, so many petitioners and peasants would travel to Beijing to settle their problems with the central government. The government feared that eventually too many petitioners would come to Beijing, starting a revolution, so they sent them off.

Weibo and other social networks revolutionized the lives of Chinese citizens as members could voice their opinions online without having to go to Beijing. For example, in 2011, two trains crashed in China and local government officials tried to cover it up by burying the train. Thanks to Weibo, 10 million citizens posted about the crash in outrage and the Chinese government sentenced the rail minister to 10 years in jail. Social networking serves as a locus of activism and complaint, something Chinese citizens have never had.

Abuse of power

Despite this revolutionary addition to the lives of Chinese netizens, the government still abuses censorship as a political tool. It supports companies if they agree to abide by its censorship policies and remove anything that goes against the Chinese regime. For example, Weibo agreed to analyze every political post and restrict users from posting anything about Hu Jingtao or the city of Chonqing. As a result, Weibo rose to popularity extraordinarily quick and replaced Twitter within a month of its official blocking. In addition, the government can choose not to censor certain political posts that reflect their own views while eliminating the posts that do not.

In conclusion, Michael Anti states that although Chinese internet still has a ways to go, the Chinese blogosphere allows citizens to voice their opinions on a national stage. This is slowly shifting the balance of power away from the government and to the people.