China’s lack of transparency has long posed a daunting challenge to outside observers trying to understand what the government’s interests, goals, and intentions are. Gary King, a Professor in Government at Harvard University, has provided telling new insights into these questions with his research on the government’s censorship of social media websites.
Using unique software developed for the project, King and his colleagues were able to capture posts on social media sites in China before censors removed them, and then analyze what kinds of subject matters and posts the censors were targeting.
After the team captured over 11 million posts over a 6-month period from popular social media sites in China like Weibo and Baidu, King and two of his colleagues at Harvard, Jennifer Pan and Margaret Roberts, published their findings in a recent article in the American Political Science Review.
The major conclusion from the study was that Chinese authorities do not often use censorship to prevent citizens from criticizing the government, its officials, or its policies. Instead, the results strongly suggest that censors are primarily interested in targeting posts with the potential to prompt “collective action,” such as organized protests and gatherings.
Indeed, according to the research, the actual substance of the post is of limited importance. As King explained in an interview with The Diplomat:
“Our data show that the Chinese censorship program allows for a wide variety of criticisms of the Chinese government, its ofﬁcials, and its policies. As it turns out, censorship is primarily aimed at restricting the spread of information that may lead to collective action, regardless of whether or not the expression is in direct opposition to the state and whether or not it is related to government policies.”
In fact, even some posts in support of CCP policies were targeted for censorship if they were likely to prompt collective action. Moreover, not all of the censored subject matters were even political in nature. Pornography, for instance, is one area of interest for censors.
Interestingly, the information gathered from the software allowed the team at Harvard to clearly identify when major decisions had been made by the Chinese government, which was often days before a public announcement was made. In the interim period, the government would begin ramping up censorship of the topic or event in anticipation of announcing the decision. For example, by monitoring social media censorship, King was able to anticipate how the government was going to handle the Bo Xilai scandal before any media source simply by noting the increase in censorship of Bo’s name and related topics.
As King explained to MIT Technology Review, “We have examples where it’s perfectly clear what the Chinese government is about to do. It conveys way more about the Chinese government’s intents and actions than anything before.”
The researchers note that the sheer efficiency of the censorship operation was astonishing. Much of the censored material, for instance, was removed within 24 hours of being posted online. As King and his co-authors point out, the level of coordination that needs to happen among so many different government actors in such a short span of time is remarkable. In the journal article they explain,
“Given the normal human difﬁculties of coming to agreement with many others, and the usual difﬁculty of achieving high levels of intercoder reliability on interpreting text… the effort the government puts into its censorship program is large, and highly professional.”
This strategy of censorship has other implications as well. As many scholars have argued, the Chinese national government has often been able to harness local protests to improve the Party’s legitimacy, by identifying what the citizenry’s largest grievances are, and then trying to address them before the protesters turn their criticisms to the central government. The same appears to be true with social media websites; by meticulously monitoring social media websites, the government can gauge what the strongest grievances are among Chinese netizens. In this way, monitoring social media sites may actually improve the government’s responsiveness to ordinary people’s concerns.
Still, without the ability to freely gather and associate, China’s civil society has a long way to go before it can flourish. As the authors write in the APSR article, “With respect to this type of speech, the Chinese people are individually free but collectively in chains.”
Elleka Watts is an editorial assistant at The Diplomat.