China uses censorship to prevent effective public action not to suppress criticism-TiA

June 22, 2012

Harvard Report Suggests China’s Censorship Not Aimed at Suppressing Criticism of Government


Tech in Asia: June 15, 2012


If you haven’t had a chance to check out the new China censorship report from researchers at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science, I highly recommend you do so. Entitled How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression, the report suggests that many of our notions about how Chinese authorities censor the internet may not be entirely accurate.

The study outlines how Chinese censors can delete online content on a massive scale with ‘military-like precision,’ but exactly what kind of content they are censoring may come as a surprise to you. Or at least it came as a surprise to me, especially as criticisms of the state, its leaders, and policies are not more likely to be censored than other content, says the report:

[C]ontrary to much research and commentary, the purpose of the censorship program is not to suppress criticism of the state or the Party. Indeed, despite widespread censorship of social media, we find that when the Chinese people write scathing criticisms of their government and its leaders, the probability that their post will be censored does not increase. Instead, we find that the purpose of the censorship program is to reduce the probability of collective action by clipping social ties whenever any localized social movements are in evidence or expected. (bold is mine)

One example that is cited is an excerpt written by a Chinese citizen which is nothing but criticism of government, and yet it went uncensored.

This is a city government that treats life with contempt, this is government officials run amuck, a city government without justice, a city government that delights in that which is vulgar, a place where officials all have mistresses, a city government that is shameless with greed, a government that trades dignity for power, a government with- out humanity, a government that has no limits on immorality, a government that goes back on its word, a government that treats kindness with ingratitude, a government that cares nothing for posterity…

The report says that this sort of thing is not unusual, and there are thousands of such posts which the government has no intention of silencing because they are focused on messages with collective action potential.

A contrasting example that the researchers provide is the rush to buy iodized salt in Zhejiang province last year in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster. Discussion was highly censored on a local level because of the high collective action potential, despite the fact that this was not at all a political issue.

Looking bad or being criticized does not threaten Chinese authorities as long as they can clamp down on collective action events. It says that “with respect to speech, people are individually free but collectively in chains.” For the government, the status quo is the goal, above all else.

The report concludes on an interesting note, raising an intriguing question on whether suppressing collective action has hindered China’s progress:

The Chinese economy has obviously grown very fast over the past two decades. But how fast would it have grown if Chinese citizens had the opportunity to learn about each other through collective expression and action? As China’s economy modernizes, and generalized trust becomes more essential, it is reasonable to expect that the difference between what is and what could be China’s economic growth will widen much further.

If you’d like to learn more about this, I encourage you to check out the report in full. The research was conducted in the first half of 2011, looking at social media posts from 1,382 Chinese websites, with the biggest sources being (59 percent of all samples),, voc, bbs.m4, and tianya.


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