China boasts a Web-censorship system that would be the envy of any autocrat. The state blocks Facebook, Twitter and a growing list of foreign news sites. It polices blogs and pulls political content. After riots hit the restive far-western region of Xinjiang in 2009, Beijing managed to shut down the Internet there for months.
All this, it seems, is not enough. The ruling Chinese Communist Party on Friday released more details from last week’s meeting of top leaders in Beijing. Organized around the theme of “comprehensively deepening reform,” the 20,000-odd-character communiqué outlines what could be a major economic overhaul, as well as some positive, if limited, promises on rights and rule of law. But on matters of free expression, China’s top leaders doubled down, harping on the need to maintain social stability and control.
Judging by the statement, Beijing is pretty worried its censors can’t keep up. “As the qualities of Internet media grow stronger, online media management and industry management cannot keep up with development and change,” it reads, according to a China Media Project translation. Of particular worry are real-time communication tools like Twitter and WeChat, which have “scale and social mobilization capacity.” The answer, leaders reckon, is a strengthening of “public-opinion channeling” in the name of “online information order” and “national security.”
Some of this is old news. The rise of social media has long been a sore point for China’s risk-averse rulers. The strategy thus far has been to allow a certain amount of digital freedom while actively purging content they deem subversive or destabilizing. The handling of last month’s attack in Tiananmen Square showed the speed with which they work. Within hours of the wreck, eyewitness accounts started disappearing from the Web. Soon after, the state issued concrete censorship guidelines: Downplay the story, don’t put it on the homepage and monitor those microblogs, please.
But the fact is, when something interesting happens, not even an army of censors can stop the information advance. My colleague was on a flight to China’s northwest at the time of the Tiananmen incident. When she landed, hours later, locals were well aware of what was going on. Good or bad, news travels fast — especially when it’s not supposed to. And China’s netizens are adept at bypassing or outsmarting censorship software, whether through virtual private networks, also known as VPN, or the clever use of coded language.
China’s leaders know this and they don’t like it, which may be why tighter controls are on the way. Indeed, in terms of censorship, what’s most interesting about the document is the way it links social media to national security — and, we can only assume, the newly created National Security Commission. “I suspect that enhanced media controls, and particularly Internet controls, will play a central role in this unfolding project of national security,” said China Media Project’s David Bandurski, in an e-mail. “The language in the decision makes it clear that press control, or public-opinion guidance, remains a key priority for the leadership.” Reform may be the new buzzword in Beijing, but the Great Firewall is looking pretty solid.