David Wertime

Do China’s Foot Soldiers of Censorship Have a Moral Obligation to Quit?

In China, the eyes of censors are seemingly everywhere. (kinerific/Flickr)

Do censors working for Sina corporation have a moral obligation not to work there? That is the provocative question posed by @假装在纽约, a user whose handle literally means “pretending to be in New York.” On Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like platform, he recently wrote:

I don’t agree with people who defend little secretaries [slang for censors] by saying they need to earn a living. Beijing’s got so many corporations, I don’t believe that someone who leaves Sina [corp] would be unable to find work. Someone’s ultimately got to have a bit of backbone. Because of its principles, Google abandoned the huge Chinese market. You can’t even compare this to the [smaller] price a [Weibo censor] has to pay by quitting and finding a new job. If a content manager is willing to quit, I will give them 5,000 RMB every month up until the time they find a new job.

A (hated) fact of life online

Censorship is a regular fact of life on the Chinese Internet, in particular on social media, an often-raucous arena for speech and debate where posts are often “harmonized,” or deleted.

In this environment, Sina Corp, which administers one of China’s massive Weibo microblogging platforms, is caught between a rock and a hard place. As a for-profit, NASDAQ-listed private company, Sina must please its users in order to keep its now 400-million-strong Weibo user base growing, especially with a possible spin-off IPO of the platform in the works.

But Sina must also exercise censorship of its own to placate government authorities eager to keep the “sensitive” posts to a minimum. Otherwise, Sina risks the very existence of its Weibo platform, particularly after China’s government appeared to put its foot down by issuing recent “Information Protection” rules with real-name registration requirements that the blogosphere widely interpreted as tilting at online speech. Unofficial estimates hold that at least 1,000 Sina employees are engaged in the process of “content management,” which often means censorship.

Censors, it must be noted, are roundly hated on the Chinese Internet. Web users have wished death upon Fang Binxing, the father of the so-called Great Firewall of censorship, not to mention throwing eggs or shoes at him when they’ve gotten the chance. Just yesterday, the Chinese Web exploded in indignation after high-level censors exhibit an unprecedented level of interference, unilaterally altering a new year’s greeting in the liberal Southern Weekly which had originally called for constitutional reform.

Just following orders

But Chinese Web users are apparently more willing to forgive the little guy. In the few hundred comments upon “Pretending’s” bold call, most defended the censors as the proverbial little guy following orders. One wrote, “The logic has a problem; you should be comparing Sina [corporation] to Google, [not] the little workers.” Another asked, “Why should people give anything up for your beliefs? … It’s not easy to make a living; they have wives too.” After all, “The censors are just workers, what they delete and don’t delete is decided up above.”

The problem, as commenters appeared to see it, is a pernicious system, one which too easily bends others to its will. “The problem is that after years of brainwashing they don’t know what’s right and what’s wrong,” one user wrote. Another depicted low-level censors as unwitting victims: “You can’t blame them; it’s important to make a living. I think what’s more important is the [way they've been] turned into slaves, without their own standards to judge what’s right and wrong… If I’d just graduated and was lucky enough to become a censor, I’d be happily deleting posts. Now that’s not possible; I’ve been inspired by [reformist Weibo users] Yang Hengjun and Ren Zhiqiang, and am gradually developing my own concept of right and wrong.”

A number of users felt that, ethics aside, going after low-level censors would be a losing battle. They wrote that “If one censor falls, there are thousands upon thousands who will stand up,” and “China doesn’t want for people; if it’s not these censors it will be other censors.”

Given his knack for penning provocative posts, “Pretending to be in New York’s” offer was likely just a bluff, and a seemingly failed one at that. But reaction to his call does illustrate the difficulty of bringing public pressure to bear against censors. Government censors are not accountable to a democratic process. Meanwhile, corporate management and shareholders face fierce government pressure to comply with content guidelines–after a brief dalliance with offering a haven for free speech, Sina’s Weibo competitors appear to have given up the game. That leaves the lower-level functionaries at Sina and its peers, but they are perhaps the least blameworthy. Besides writing angrily, eloquently, and often, what is a beleaguered netizen to do?

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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.
  • luo

    I disagree. When I was younger I used to think China was a terrible, repressive government. But now that I’ve lived in the west for over 12 years, I see that western liberalism is a much worse disease. If censorship is what it takes to prevent those ideas from spreading in China, it’s worth it.

    • Jahar

      Yeah. Control people and take away their freedom. Force them to do things the right way. Just the way they did in the US with black people. And in other places, all through history.

      • http://www.facebook.com/metalheadpaladin Matt Cooper

        Rather ignores the fact that the loudest yelps for ‘liberty’ in the US came from the people who kept blacks in bondage in the first place.

        And it was the notably monarchical and censorious Qing Dynasty which ended slavery in China, not the democratic government of Sun Yat-sen (or any of the dictatorships which followed).

    • andao

      you gonna qualify that statement? or just rant without reason?