China has the dubious distinction of being one of the most controlled information environments in the world. Yet even China’s army of censors can at times have trouble staying on top of the vast sea of communication that flows through the Internet. The most recent challenge to government control is microblogging sites like Twitter, which produce a prodigious volume of output. Twitter itself is, of course, outlawed by the Chinese government, which created a number of internal Internet services, like the popular Weibo microblogging service. Ironically, that has now proven difficult to control.
China’s State Council Information Office, whose job it is to control information on the Internet, let it be known that it sees a need to weigh in on the issue of microblogs, reports chinarealtimereport, an online publication of The Wall Street Journal. The specific target in question is Weibo, which many feared would be shut down after an incident this summer when an unprecedented outpouring of public anger on Weibo overwhelmed the capacity of China’s censors. Bloggers by the millions took to their keyboards to deplore the poor government response to the crash of two high-speed trains near the city of Wenzhou, which left 40 people dead and 190 wounded.
Tighter regulation seems to be the choice the Chinese government has made. At a conference on microblogging in Beijing on Thursday, Wang Chen, the director of the State Council’s Information Office, stated that microblogging should “serve the works of the Party and the nation” and be used to “popularize sciences, advance culture and project social morality.” This would then be conducive to a “healthy” online environment—“healthy,” of course, in the eyes of the government, which stifles any political dissent.
Managing the growth of online communication is a major challenge for the Chinese Communist Party. While Beijing seeks to expand Internet access to foster economic growth in poor rural areas (two-thirds of China is still beyond Internet reach), it has far from given up on restricting freedom of expression and diversity of opinion.
In its 2011 report, released to Congress on October 10, the Congressional Executive Commission on China (CECC) says, “This past year was marked by a major crackdown on Internet and press freedom that exemplified the range of tools officials can use to restrict the free flow of information. The crackdown began in mid-February following protests in the Middle East and North Africa and the appearance of online calls for ‘Jasmine’ protests in China.”
The CECC, which focuses on human rights, freedom of expression, and labor issues, further finds that over the past year:
• Chinese officials continued to restrict free expression, including criticism of the Communist Party and peaceful dissent.
• Censors continued to block online information deemed politically sensitive, including news of the Nobel Peace Prize award to imprisoned intellectual and reform advocate Liu Xiaobo, the calls for “Jasmine” protests, and words such as “human rights” and “democracy.”
• Officials insisted that there would be “no change in the Party’s control over the media.” They continued to issue broad guidance as well as specific directives, such as how to cover the protests in the Middle East and North Africa. Harassment of foreign journalists reached a new high, including beatings and threats of expulsion.
• Officials continued to arbitrarily restrict expression by abusing vague criminal law as well as broad regulations and registration applicable to journalists, publishers, news media, and the Internet. Critics of the government were charged with “subversion.”
There is absolutely no doubt that the Internet presents a double-edged sword and a huge challenge to China’s censors, as it does to those of Iran and other closed societies. Controlling information has become that much harder in the age of the Internet. Yet, there is equally no doubt that Chinese officials will continue to do their level best to stay on top.
U.S. policymakers must take into account documentation such as the CECC’s reports when reviewing U.S. communications strategy, an issue that came before the Broadcasting Board of Governors on Thursday.
While the success of China’s microbloggers is to be congratulated, too narrow a focus on the Internet will prevent the U.S. government from getting reliable information through to the Chinese people. For optimal results, the U.S. needs all the communications tools at its disposal—including satellite television and short-wave radio as well as the Internet.