David Wertime

Harvard Researchers: Yes, You Really Can Criticize the Government on China’s Social Media

Harvard is now watching Chinese social media too, alongside Hong Kong U., MIT, and Carnegie Mellon

The ivory tower has turned its attention to Chinese social media. Harvard Professor Gary King and Harvard PhD candidates Jennifer Pan and Margaret Roberts (along with many others) have just released a fascinating new study, “How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression.” A 33-page PDF of the study can be found here.

As academic papers go, this one is surprisingly readable, offering one very important insight into censorship in Chinese social media. Here’s the money line:

“Contrary to previous understandings, posts with negative, even vitriolic, criticism of the state, its leaders, and its policies are not more likely to be censored. Instead, we show that the censorship program is aimed at curtailing collective action by silencing comments that represent, reinforce, or spur social mobilization, regardless of content.”

To put their conclusion even more simply: Chinese netizens can criticize the government all they want, and they won’t be censored for that reason alone. What gets the censors’ attention is anything which looks like it may actually mobilize netizens to take action in the real world, because the government’s most important objective is to maintain social stability.

How did the authors reach this conclusion? They looked at topics which set the blogosphere ablaze, creating what they call “volume bursts” of posts. It turns out that these volume bursts, which, the authors theorize, make real-world collective action more likely, were where censorship mostly occurred. It didn’t matter if the hot topic was not overtly political; for example, the government heavily censored posts about a 2011 rumor that iodized salt could protect against Fukushima radiation wafting across the sea.

And the posts censored were equally likely to be “(1) against the state, (2) for the state, or (3) irrelevant or factual reports about the events.” The only topics regularly censored without “volume bursts” were pornography and criticism of the (apparently thin-skinned) censors.

China's government hopes to avoid scenes like this one

And what about criticisms of the powers that be? The authors write, “Negative posts do not accidentally slip through a leaky or imperfect system. The evidence indicates that the censors have no intention of stopping them. Instead, they are focused on removing posts that have collective action potential, regardless of whether or not they cast the Chinese leadership and their policies in a favorable light.” Wow.

To be sure, the Chinese Internet’s use as a “steam valve” instead of a true organizing ground is depressing to many observers. Then again, it’s a far sight better than a Chinese Internet in which all free expression is quashed–and as Tea Leaf Nation has always believed, such a blogosphere, even a censored one, provides a valuable window into what Chinese people are really thinking.

King, et al’s paper goes on to make a few other very interesting points. Although we obviously cannot vouch for the academic and statistical rigor of their conclusions, many of them square with our own experience as Chinese social media watchers:

Social media chatter is a valuable resource that stands on its own: “In the past, studies of Internet behavior were judged based on how well their measures approximated ‘real world’ behavior; subsequently, online behavior has become such a large and important part of human life that the expressions observed in social media is now important in its own right, regardless of whether it is a good measure of non-Internet freedoms and behaviors.”

Social media chatter really is a good way to learn about public opinion: “So long as collective action is prevented, social media can be an excellent way to learn the views of the citizenry about specific public policies and experiences with the government and public officials.”

Censorship is impressively efficient: Among those topics studied, “the vast majority of censorship activity occurs within 24 hours of the original posting, although a few deletions occur as long as five days later. This is a stunning organizational accomplishment, requiring large scale military-like precision.”

China’s censors often say they are censoring partly to go after “dirty” content. That’s mostly true: “Similar to American politicians who talk about pornography as undercutting the ‘moral fiber’ of the country, Chinese leaders describe it as violating public morality and damaging the health of young people, as well as promoting disorder and chaos; regardless, censorship in one form or another is often the consequence.”

Then, there are a few conclusions and speculations that don’t sound quite as convincing, but are certainly interesting and provocative:

A woman buying a massive amount of salt in March, 2011. It

Censorship hurts China’s economy: The authors speculate in their concluding remarks that “censorship may also have major long term depressive effects on the Chinese economy. That is, modern economies rely on a form of ‘generalized trust’ and social capital, where people do not have to spend large amounts of time and effort verifying the trustworthiness of others before conducting business. In economies where such trust exists, transaction costs are much lower, allowing for more economic growth.” But is “social trust” between business partners and neighbors the same as between strangers on the Internet? A more compelling argument recently discussed by James Fallows of the Atlantic and Stan Abrams of China Hearsay is whether the languorous speed of China’s Internet undercuts its growth.

China’s leaders don’t care about looking bad, as long as they keep their power: “The evidence suggests that when the leadership allowed social media to flourish in the country, they also allowed the full range of expression of negative and positive comments about the state, its policies, and its leaders. As a result, government policies sometimes look as bad and leaders can be as embarrassed as is often the case with elected politicians in democratic countries, but, as they seem to recognize, looking bad does not threaten their hold on power so long as they manage to eliminate discussions with collective action potential.” Somehow, it’s hard to believe that the absolute “full range” of comments about elected officials is allowed.

Dear readers, do any of these arguments strike you as particularly on the mark? Or particularly silly and unbelievable? Feel free to hold forth in the comments below.

[Cover image by Chensiyuan via Wikimedia commons]

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David Wertime

David is the co-founder and co-editor of Tea Leaf Nation. He first encountered China as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2001 and has lived and worked in Fuling, Chongqing, Beijing, and Hong Kong. He is a ChinaFile fellow at the Asia Society and an associate fellow at the Truman National Security Project.