Is China using censorship to sculpt national sentiment?

Is China’s foreign policy shaped by national public opinion or is the government shaping public opinion to justify its foreign policy?

An interesting new analysis by the Brookings Institute has it that the government is manipulating nationalist sentiment to justify its own foreign policy decisions.

 “On foreign policy issues, the Chinese public relies overwhelmingly on the official media for daily information, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the government plays a central role in determining what information will be available to the public. The Propaganda Department of the CCP is the political center for ideological control and news censorship. It has almost absolute authority over what the public will read and see through its control of the sources of information.”

On key foreign news stories, such as the Egyptian riots, media must use Xinhua wire reports. When the story is even more sensitive, such as disputes in the South China Sea even Xinhua is not to be trusted, it says. All media must use reports straight from the State Council itself.

The angle is carefully chosen to garner the desired response, according to the Institute.

“For example, Chinese media reports on the domestic turbulence in Libya and Syria in 2011 rarely focuses on the governments’ authoritarian records, human rights violations, or corruption. Instead, following China’s foreign policy principles, Chinese media spent most volume on the negative aspects of domestic instability and the danger of foreign intervention.”

The web, while having a little more leeway, is also heavily screened.

“Most discussion on the internet in China is carefully screened, and much of it is pre-approved, by the government―including inflammatory comments and nationalistic criticisms about foreign policy issues. If it wished to, therefore, the government could shape and influence the direction of the internet content and netizens’ discussions to tone down nationalistic sentiment. The fact that it does not in many cases raises the question not about its ability, but its intentions.”

As examples of how it has manipulated foreign news in the past, it picks out the Dalai Lama’s visit to the US in 2010 and American arms sales to Taiwan in the same year. The government knew about the visit and the sales months before, “yet when they were officially announced, Beijing responded in a ferocious manner. Harsh official statements were applauded and echoed by an even more agitated public, which in its more extreme examples called for sanctions on American companies and even a military confrontation with the United States.”

It could have handled the issues in a much more conciliatory way, it argues.

“The fact that it did not revealed several things,” it says. Firstly, it was enjoying its bigger role on the international stage due to its economic growth. And, “it saw public opinion as a useful tool to show Washington how angry the Chinese people are and how severe the consequences could be. Beijing might have a point when saying it had to answer to the public sentiment at home, but such a sentiment was at least in part its own creation to begin with. Public opinion was more instrumental than original in this case.”

The Chinese government appeals to nationalism as a way to “reaffirm its legitimacy in the eyes of the people,” given there are no free and fair elections in the country. It’s also a tool to bargain “concessions from foreign governments.”

Don’t jump too quickly to say Beijing is listening to its people, it warns. It’s much more likely that the people have been manipulated into saying what Beijing wants them to say.


China calls for crackdown on Internet rumours

After two recent incidents where a fury of online public criticism has shown the robust power of microblogging in spreading information, the Chinese government has begun laying the groundwork for tightening control of the internet.

This week, state-owned news agency Xinhua urged a crackdown on spreading rumours online using China’s massively popular social networking platforms.

“Concocting rumours is itself a social malady, and the spread of rumours across the internet presents a massive social threat,” the agency said.

To the Chinese government, “rumours” include truths which are anti-authority or anything which challenges the legitimacy of the Communist Party or threatens social stability.

Xinhua also called for “stronger internet administration” by microblogging services. In other words: more censorship.

These latest comments from Xinhua are nothing remarkable in themselves, but they are the latest in a series of ominous official warnings to microblogging services and users.

Last week, a Communist Party official visited the offices of Sina, which runs the most popular microblogging platform, Weibo, and warned that efforts must be made to block the spread of “harmful information.” Sino also suspended some accounts for spreading “rumours” last week.

In a separate development, China’s State Information Office this week closed down several thousand websites for engaging in illegal public relations deals. While eyebrows were raised at the move, state-run newspaper China Daily claimed it was part of a campaign against bad PR practices.

The Global Times, a state-owned, English-language tabloid, ran a guarded editorial two days ago, singing the praises of Weibo as a “watershed mark for China’s media’s environment” but also decried its use as a vehicle for rumour-mongering. It warned:

Weibo reflects or amplifies the weakness of the real world. A rational atmosphere of conversation is still lacking, and a set of rules, which both ensure Weibo users’ freedom of expression and arouse their sense of responsibility, has not been established.

Microblogs have played a key role in spreading information and boosting public debate in China, which is home to a sophisticated censorship apparatus. This summer platforms were flooded with comments, independent reports and photographs criticising the handling of the deadly Wenzhou train crash. They were also used to spread news of protests in the northeastern port city of Dalian calling for the relocation of a factory making toxic chemicals.

Despite efforts by censors, many of the posts remained online for hours and days before they could be removed, simply because of their huge volume and the speed of posting. In both cases, the authorities apparently responded to netizens’ demands: an inquiry was held into the train crash and the factory was closed down.

The Chinese government now faces a difficult task: with almost half a billion web users, officials cannot simply censor microblogging services. Jeremy Goldkorn, the Beijing-based founder of Danwei, a website that analyses Chinese media, told the Wall Street Journal last week that it was unlikely the platforms would be shut down, as “the political costs of taking away such a popular service” would be too great. “But they could squeeze it to the point where it becomes far less interesting,” he added.

China: Milk campaigner drops appeal plan

Zhao Lianhai, the father of one of about 300,000 children  poisoned by tainted milk in 2008, has dropped his plans to appeal according to his lawyers. Last week, he was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for organising support groups and a campaign for compensation. The lawyers claim they have been told their services are no longer required. Today, the official Xinhua News Agency reported that Lianhai may be released on medical parole, but failed to mention when this may happen.

China's propaganda machine

Two Chinese newspapers — the Chongqing Times and West China City Daily —  have been forced to make public apologies after publishing exposés on a recent Chinese Writers’ Association (CWA) meeting. The papers alleged attendees at the Seventh Congress of the CWA stayed in the presidential suites of a five star hotel, ate at lavish banquets and were “whisked away from the airport in Audis”. The CWA hit back, providing a receipt from the Sofitel hotel in an attempt to prove their expenses were moderated, although the receipt was dated 2 April, despite the fact that the event ran from 30 March – 4 April.

The reporter who wrote the original story has now been sacked, and various other staff at the Chongqing Times have also been disciplined and demoted. In a front page apology published on 11 April, the Chongqing Times extolled the virtues of the CWA, promising to “vigorously promote the great efforts of the Chinese Writers’ Association and its authors, whose excellent work reflects society, eulogises our era, [and] enriches the cultural life of the masses”. At the same time, it berated its editors for not “reporting fully on the grand spectacle of this conference, publicising its fruitful accomplishments” and having

a weak political sensitivity and lack[ing] a sense of political responsibility… causing irreparable harm to the Chinese Writers’ Association and the writers attending the conference. This lesson has been profound, and we express our deep sorrow and remorse.

Meanwhile, in order to cultivate an image of a nation of growing “openness” and “transparency”, Xinhua News Agency yesterday published an in-depth interview with the deputy chief of the government’s Internet Affairs Bureau, Liu Zhengrong. The bureau Liu manages is responsible for internet censorship and conversation centred around the development of online media and technology in China. While many aspects were positive, one in particular held a disturbingly chilling tone.

In one section entitled “There is no absolute freedom on the internet”, Liu states that every nation in the world maintains control over internet content and access; he claims that the measures taken by China are no different from those of any others. Although this is true to some extent, no other country has an institutionalised national filtering system as extensive as the Great Firewall, or imprisons the same number of bloggers and netizens.

In order to protect the welfare of the public, Liu said:

We advocate the self-regulation of corporations, and that society help in the supervision and inspection of internet content, as well as the essential technological strategies needed to prevent the circulation of harmful information online. These are the same methods shared internationally by other countries across the world.

The reference to the “self-regulation of corporations” could be seen as a warning to other companies who are considering following in Google’s footsteps and trying to take on the Chinese government. The suggestion that society help in the “inspection” appears to advocate the type of astroturfing carried out by the 50 Cent Party (Wu Mao Dang).

In an attempt to re-educate Chinese netizens, Liu advises those who believe that people “can say whatever they want” in other countries that they are misinformed, the internet is never completely uncensored.  According to Liu, the ministry visited and compared internet management methods in more than 30 countries across the world, and concluded that there was “no such thing as absolute freedom online.”

Liu emphasised that whilst the internet gave a platform for people to discuss and exchange ideas, those who decide to express themselves publicly carry the responsibility to ensure that their views “abide by the laws of the government”.

This account by an official government spokesperson is, of course, only available in the Chinese version of Xinhua.