CENSORSHIP AND information control come in many flavors and methods, not always in the caricature of a stern apparatchik wielding a red pencil. In the information age, China has become world champion at using tools to influence what its 1.3 billion people can see and read. The ruling Communist Party rejects the norms of openness, democracy and accountability promoted by the West. Authoritarian and illiberal, China’s leaders want to stay that way, and are waging a fierce campaign to do so.
Recently, a group of social science and communications professors in the United States offered a startling glimpse of how it works. Gary King, Jennifer Pan and Margaret E. Roberts estimated that the Chinese government fabricates and posts 448 million social media messages a year, and that it employs a vast and secretive army, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, to carry this out. They report that many are government employees, working in their off hours, and paid the equivalent of pennies for each posting. The messages, they found, do not directly confront or argue with skeptics of the Chinese party-state, but rather attempt to distract the population from thoughts of protest, from their grievances with the government and from overall dissatisfaction.
China’s ambitious Great Firewall, which blocks overseas social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, is well-known, but other methods of control are less so. The regime has been tightening enforcement of rules on foreign companies that provide online content inside China, prohibiting them from offering streaming services under their own brands or without a Chinese partner. The latest casualty appears to be Apple, which has been more successful than most in China but was forced in April to close its iBooks Store and iTunes Movies streaming services at the request of the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television. There wasn’t a specific reason given in public — Apple had earlier received approval — but the shutdown may have signaled another step in China’s determination to push back against Western culture, brands and content. Separately, in recent weeks, according to Bloomberg, the authorities have been talking with Chinese Internet portals, mobile apps and online video companies about a scheme in which the state would take shares of their businesses and a board seat to make sure they do not get out of line.
China’s ascension to the World Trade Organization was to be an opening to the world. The WTO agreement was negotiated before the existence of today’s mammoth e-commerce sector, but attempts to dictate contents of the Internet and choose winners and losers online, accelerated by President Xi Jinping, run against the spirit of the WTO agreement.
China’s rulers cannot stand the idea that people should be allowed to read and think what they like. All the fortresses they have constructed — the Great Firewall and the secret army of information soldiers — seem impregnable now. But over time they can be penetrated, and the West ought to be doing more to ensure that information runs free, everywhere, including China.