John Keane | The China Labyrinth
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The China Labyrinth

  |   Articles & Essays JK, Articles in the Press, China, Democracy in the 21st Century, Media, Media and Democracy   |   No comment
chinaVoting in Wukan by Jordan Pouille

James Madison famously remarked that a popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy. The present government of the People’s Republic of China has set out to disprove this rule.

Rejecting talk of farce and tragedy, its rulers claim their authority is rooted within a new and higher form of popular government, a “post-democratic” way of handling power which delivers goods and services, promotes social harmony and roots out “harmful behavior” using state-of-the-art information-control methods more complex and much craftier than Madison could ever have imagined.

Information flows in China are not simply blocked, firewalled or censored. The authorities instead treat unfettered online citizen communication as an early warning device, even as a virtual steam valve for venting grievances in their favor.

This cooptation requires a vast labyrinth of surveillance that depends on a well-organized, 40,000-strong Internet police force. Skilled at snooping on Wi-Fi users in cyber cafés and hotels, it uses sophisticated data-mining software that tracks down keywords on search engines such as Baidu, along the way issuing warnings to Web hosts to amend or delete content considered unproductive of “harmony.”

Government officials working in “situation centers” meanwhile watch for signs of brewing unrest or angry public reactions. Reports are passed to local propaganda departments, where action is taken. So-called “rumor refutation” departments, staffed by censors, pitch in. They scan posts for forbidden topics and issue knockdown rebuttals.

A pivotal role is played by licensed Internet companies. Bound by constant reminders that safety valves can turn into explosive devices, they use filtering techniques to delete or amend “sensitive” content.

Within the China labyrinth, much cleverer tactics are in use, including efforts by the authorities to draw citizens into a cat’s cradle of suspicion, praise, denunciation and control.

Citizens are encouraged to report anti-government conversations, or recruited as hirelings known as “50-cent bloggers.” Netizens are routinely urged to become “Internet debaters.” There are experiments (as in Guangdong Province) with virtual petition offices, online Webcast forums where citizens can raise complaints and watch and hear officials handle them. Organized “chats” between the authorities and citizens are flourishing.

All these methods — “authoritarian deliberation” is the phrase used by some scholars — come packaged in official assurances about the need to encourage “transparency” and to “balance” online opinions for the sake of harmoniously “guiding public opinion” (yulung daoxiang).

What are we to make of this repressive tolerance? Looking from the top down, likening the Chinese authorities to skilled doctors of the body politic, some wax eloquent about the new surveillance tactics of “continuous tuning” (tiao). The simile understates the ways in which the labyrinthine system of coordinated do’s and don’ts is backed by predigital methods: fear served with cups of tea in the company of censors; sackings and sideways promotions; early-morning swoops by plainclothes police known as “interceptors”; illegal detentions; violent beatings by unidentified thugs.

Proponents of the Communist Party’s Web-monitoring tactics are silent about such violence. They also overstate the efficiency, effectiveness and legitimacy of the China labyrinth. They ignore the popular resentments sparked by a regulatory system that treats more than a few subjects as ticklish, or taboo.

The party authorities are dead opposed to monitory democracy (jiandushi minzhu), in the richest sense of free and fair general elections combined with ongoing public monitoring of its power by independent watchdogs. Public criticism of the leading role of the party and its leading figures is not permitted. So also is fair-minded analysis of “sensitive” regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang, or “sensitive” topics, such as religion and the crimes committed by the party.

Such restrictions breed public resentment and resistance. In the past, Chinese people were often compared (unflatteringly) to a “dish of sand.” Yet with the overall size of Internet traffic doubling every 5.32 years, digital media usage now routinely nurtures the spirit of monitory democracy.

The range and depth of resistance to unaccountable power are often astonishing. Helped by sophisticated proxies and other methods of avoiding censorship, salacious tales of official malfeasance circulate fast, and in huge numbers, fueled by online jokes, songs, satire, mockery and code words.

Digital media users commonly re-tweet their posts (a practice known as “knitting,” the word for which sounds like “weibo”). Messages easily morph into conversations, illustrated with pictures. Instantly forwarded posts tend to keep ahead of the censors, whose efforts at removing online material are countered by retweeted screenshots.

The aggregate effect is that conversations readily go viral, as happened when a citizen nicknamed “Brother Banner,” a software engineer in Wuxi, was catapulted into online celebrity overnight after holding a banner that read “Not Serving the People” outside the gate of a local labor relations office to protest its failure to intervene in his pay dispute with his former employer. The banner challenged the party’s slogan, “Serving the People.” Officials were deeply embarrassed by a one-person protest that won national prominence through the Internet and, eventually, coverage in official media.

The great significance of citizens’ initiatives of this kind is the way they put their finger on hypocrisy. They call on the authorities to listen, to live up to their promises of providing “harmony” and material well-being.

The upshot is that the authorities now find themselves trapped in a constant tug-of-war between their will to control, negotiated change, public resistance and unresolved confusion. They may pride themselves on building a regime which seems calculating, flexible and dynamic, willing to change its ways in order to remain the dominant guiding power. Yet they also know well the new Chinese proverb: Ruling used to be like hammering a nail into wood, now it is much more like balancing on a slippery egg.

Whether the authorities can sustain their present balancing act, so proving Madison wrong, seems doubtful. Within the China labyrinth the spirit of monitory democracy is alive and well. Whether and how it will prevail against the crafty forces of surveillance is among the global political questions of our time.


-> Originally published in The New York Times , February 14, 2012

-> A revise and expanded version of this essay appeared in the WZB Mitteilungen, No. 136, June 2012. Read full text in PDF format

-> The piece is a reply to “China’s Parallel Universe”, a short essay published last week by George Yeo (former foreign minister of Singapore) and Eric X. Li (a Shanghai-based investor). See the piece here

-> The NYT piece has been re-published by the following news media:

-> New Perspectives Quarterly, Volume 29, Issue 2, pp. 10 – 12

-> The Christian Science Monitor

-> Korean Herald

->International Herald Tribune

-> South China Morning Post

-> For a German summary, Click here