Not all censorship is created equal

I’m a fairly staunch critic of censorship in all its forms, however one thing that bothers me is when people fail to distinguish between very different kinds of censorship, and ignore certain double-standards.

The most recent culprit was this article in the Atlantic Wire by Adam Martin, which was spread across Yahoo News. The article refers to the recent sackings of Baidu employees, who were fired for accepting bribes to delete unfavorable comments on companies.

The writer says “The story is interesting because… censorship is already such a common practice in China, and Baidu is such an active part of it. But the company and the government don’t like employees to act as censors on their own.”

I’d argue that there are two entirely different things going on here. One is an issue which is particularly pertinent to China, the other is common everywhere, and the Baidu issue isn’t at all about what the government “likes.” The government didn’t care about what Baidu did on that issue at all. They probably had no idea, rather, the story is linking it to the government to make the story grab attention.

Essentially, there is political censorship (which we’ve all heard about) then there’s profit-driven censorship. Sometimes they’re similar, but in this case, they’re quite distinct.

First things first. Baidu is a foreign owned company, and the government doesn’t actually have much love for Baidu. It’s tolerated because A) it is already successful and B) it abides by the government’s draconian restrictions and C) the government doesn’t have much choice at present, though there have been quite savage attempts to hobble Baidu in the past. I’ve written before about how CCTV launched a series of scathing reports into Baidu’s advertising practices, around the same time a government-owned search engine, Jike, was launched. 

So Baidu does not = Chinese government. They do what they must to turn a buck, not unlike the Western companies operating in China.

So, back to Martin’s piece:

“Clearly, Baidu is no stranger to meddling with content. It just doesn’t want its employees doing it without the company’s oversight — and neither does the Chinese government. Three of the four fired employees were fired for removing posts people had paid to have scrubbed. A fourth was fired but spared from arrest because she hadn’t yet done anything illegal.”

“And neither does the Chinese government?” Where does this assertion come from?

“The Chinese government,” which I’m assuming refers to the Central government rather than local governments, does indeed censor, but that tends to be for political reasons.

If you want to see what the blunter forms of this look like, the China Digital Times does a great job of cataloging directives from the Ministry of Truth. The more subtle method is to simply pick senior editors who know what Beijing wants and will adhere to that. This is what’s been happening at the formerly great newspaper, the South China Morning Post.

They’d hardly get involved in a dispute this small, though (entirely hypothetically speaking) I could perhaps see a situation where local government officials with business interests tried to get things censored.

But that’s not what Martin seems to be saying, his implication is essentially that Baidu doesn’t like this bribe-induced censorship, so the government doesn’t like this censorship.

The Baidu incident was something that could just as easily happen overseas. A search engine finds out that employees were taking cash to remove certain comments. Issues relating to commercially-driven censorship happen all the time in Western countries too, drawing this to the Chinese government is a pretty long bow. Sure, Baidu censors when asked, that’s how they’ve become successful. In this case though, it’s a different issue and they’ve done the right thing by firing these employees.

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Back after a four month hiatus

Hello all. The last five months or so I wasn’t working in Chinese media so the posts tapered off. Now that I’m back, I imagine I’ll be keeping up to date and the posts will resume.

A lot has happened while I’ve been away, but first I thought I’d mention a few identical emails that have hit the Chinarealpolitik email address over the past few weeks. Could be spam, could be something more. Notably, my email didn’t say that it might be state-sponsored hackers, which lends more credence to the spam theory. Interestingly, I have several gmail accounts but this is the only one that’s received these kinds of emails.

—————

Dear ####

Someone recently tried to use an application to sign in to your Google Account, ##########. We prevented the sign-in attempt in case this was a hijacker trying to access your account. Please review the details of the sign-in attempt:

Tuesday, July 10, 2012 4:05:51 AM GMT
IP Address: ##########
Location: Unknown Location

If you do not recognize this sign-in attempt, someone else might be trying to access your account. You should sign in to your account and reset your password immediately. Find out how at http://support.google.com/accounts?p=reset_pw

If this was you, and you want to give this application access to your account, complete the troubleshooting steps listed athttp://support.google.com/mail?p=client_login

Sincerely,
The Google Accounts Team

UPDATE: While in my gmail account, a red banner appeared at the top of the account stating:

Warning: We prevented a recent suspicious login attempt from: China (175.25.240.1). Show details and preferences | Ignore

I should feel proud I guess?

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And the news is already out.

Xinhua’s announcement regarding Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai:

http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2012-04/10/c_131518309.htm

According to reinvestigation results, the existing evidence indicated that Heywood died of homicide, of which Bogu Kailai and Zhang Xiaojun, an orderly at Bo’s home, are highly suspected.

Bogu Kailai and Zhang Xiaojun have been transferred to judicial authorities on suspected crime of intentional homicide.

According to senior officials from related authorities, China is a socialist country ruled by law, and the sanctity and authority of law shall not be tramped. Whoever has broken the law will be handled in accordance with law and will not be tolerated, no matter who is involved.

And Bo Xilai’s been expelled from the politburo, though the formal announcement hasn’t been made yet:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/11/world/asia/detained-party-official-facing-ouster-from-politburo.html?_r=2&ref=asia#

BEIJING — Moving hastily to curb possible political fallout from a scandal involving Bo Xilai, a major Communist Party figure, China’s top leaders have decided to expel him from the Politburo, the 25-member body that runs China, according to two sources with knowledge of the case.

An eventful evening indeed.

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Announcement to come regarding Bo Xilai’s fate

Traffic was blocked from entering Tiananmen square tonight while subway cars beneath the area were being delayed. Word from reliable sources is that CCTV’s about to be doing a story regarding Bo Xilai. Smart money’s on an investigation into Bo Xilai and probably his wife as well. Undoubtedly there will be further inquiries into both the Wang Lijun and Neil Heywood incidents.

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A Devil’s Advocate’s Summary of Bo Xilai’s Fall from Grace

It doesn’t take an old China hand to know that there are rarely clear-cut answers when it comes to Chinese politics. Anybody who tells you that the recent sacking of Bo Xilai was obviously ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for the future of Chinese politics, hasn’t considered all of the ramifications.

Basing our assumptions on the premise that increased transparency and more freedom (both social and economic) are desired outcomes for the future of China, and we consider what Bo Xilai represented, then we are faced with a conundrum.

ARGUMENT 1: “Bo Xilai’s sacking bodes well for the future. He wanted to resurrect Maoism and he ran roughshod over the rule of law. He was an enemy of liberalism”.

Bo Xilai hails from China’s leftist faction – though when you hear that term ‘leftist’ you best make sure you’re aware of what ‘leftist’ means in Chinese.  (To brutally summarize, it means an emphasis on economic equality, but it’s tied in with Maoism and has little respect for free expression and individual rights. Rightists are essentially the opposite).

He was a fair representation of ‘guojin mintui’: a chestnut often dragged out in these debates, which essentially means that as the state takes control, the private sector retreats.  This issue become particularly pointed when it enters the realm of media and propaganda. Perhaps the most damning indictment of Bo Xilai’s ‘nationalize first, ask questions later’ approach was his seizing of Chongqing Satellite TV as part of his red-culture campaign (which also involved singing, dancing and even text messages). But don’t take my word for it, it’s probably better to read the views of the journalists at Chongqing Satellite TV who witnessed it all. With advertising revenue gone and wall to wall propaganda, it’s unsurprising that revenues plummeted.

Despite this, the ‘red culture’ campaign stands as one of Bo’s success stories. That and his campaign against organized crime.

Of course, in the course of this campaign against organized crime, he wasn’t particularly focused on the niggling requirements of legal procedure. I’ve written before about Bo’s past and how he was likely to make enemies but it’s unlikely that the depth of misconduct that existed within this anti-corruption operation will ever be revealed. It was a massive operation – to put it in perspective, the New York Times stated: “The spectacle involves more than 9,000 suspects, 50 public officials, a petulant billionaire and criminal organizations that dabbled in drug trafficking, illegal mining, and random acts of savagery, most notably the killing of a man for his unbearably loud karaoke voice.”

A trial of that scale is bound to have some discrepancies. The real question is, on what scale? The fact that Li Zhuang, who was a lawyer representing one of those implicated in the Chongqing gang trials, was himself put on trial, raised a number of concerns. First and foremost, those who testified against him weren’t even required to appear in court. Judges were chosen on the basis of their ‘political quality’ and it’s pretty clear that the priority of the case was to gain convictions – not follow any kind of process.

The way in which he fell from grace also raises a number of frightening questions. What was his relationship with Neil Heywood? Why did his relationship with Wang Lijun, previously respected as one of China’s top anti-corruption police officers, turn so sour?

COUNTERARGUMENT: “Bo Xilai’s authoritarianism was overstated. He fought corruption and was one of the few Chinese politicians who engaged with the public and sought public approval. He could have been a harbinger of a more participatory form of politics.”

Whilst it’s true that Bo Xilai nationalized Chongqing Satellite TV and made it broadcast nationalist rhetoric, one should bear in mind that it was one channel of many. Plenty of private (well, as private as they get in China) networks beamed in all manner of TV shows with all manner of advertising. Is it so strange that a public network is restricted from showing advertising material? A number of Western countries have state-owned broadcasters which are prohibited from broadcasting commercial content. Sure, it had a Chinese nationalistic flavour, but it was hardly as if the local people had no other choices.

Consider Bo Xilai’s fight against organized crime. It’s true that he didn’t show a great deal of regard for the rights of those he was pursuing. But isn’t that the responsibility of the legal system? Essentially, Bo Xilai used the system that is in place all over China. Bo was hardly the first powerful person to overlook the letter of the law.

He pursued the corrupt more aggressively, but how is that a bad thing? You can blame the system, but hardly get angry when someone uses that system to deal with rampant corruption. Remember that China is a country where there have been recent attempts to legalize enforced disappearances, and where petitioners have been accused of being mentally ill and detained. Is Bo Xilai really the epitome of disregard for the rule of law?

We can wring our hands at Bo Xilai’s seemingly authoritarian approach, but consider the fact that he’s one of the few Chinese politicians to express alarm at the rapidly widening gini coefficient. He was also one of the few Chinese politicians who perhaps, had the will to do something about it.

Perhaps the most important thing to consider is the fact that Bo Xilai was open about his ambitions. He communicated with the public. He held regular press conferences. He eschewed the system of back-door deals in favour of engaging with the public. Isn’t this precisely the kind of thing that would lead Chinese politics towards more transparency? In witnessing his downfall, isn’t the cause of participatory politics being significantly set back?

So there you have the two sides of the debate. Which side do you fall on?

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Province-level action on the Wukan riots

It would appear that higher levels of government are finally taking action in regards to the Wukan rebellion.

This link contains a screenshot of the local government’s website and highlights key points from a meeting that was held at the provincial level on Tuesday (20th) morning  – what’s interesting here is that the conditions appear to be from Zhu MingGuo (朱明国)who is actually a state government official, not a local government one. He also holds anti-corruption posts.

From what I can tell it seems legitimate and the names referenced in the conditions correlate with media reports.

It outlines a number of conditions:

The first point says that the main demands of the protesters are reasonable and that some of the officials appear to be guilty of some kind of wrongdoing.

It says that the province-level working group needs to investigate the people’s demands, and respond and resolve the demands seriously. It also says that any illegal actions by local officials will need to be properly punished. It says there needs to be real initiatives to restore Wukan, restore its industries and restore the ‘social order.’

The second says most of the ‘overreactions’ by locals are understandable and forgivable and that the party and the government won’t investigate them. Any rioters or vandals that demonstrate their contrition won’t be punished.

The third says that provided you are sincere in your willingness to work with the government, the government is open to all discussions and guarantee the safety of ‘reasonable’ representatives.

The fourth condition says that as long as the villagers don’t break any more laws and don’t protest further against the government, and they are not used by the ‘foreign enemies’ within China, then the government won’t go into the village to seize people.

Number five is directed specifically at organizers ‘Lin Zu Lian (林祖恋)’ and ‘Yang Se Mao (杨色茂)’ along with other ringleaders, saying that they have two months to work towards solving the problem, but they must cease mobilizing people against official government business and the government’s regular duties. In this time, they will be permitted to work towards solving any ‘reasonable 合理’ requests the people have. If they do so, the government will consider leniency.

Number six says that the pair must know that the government has been working towards a reasonable solution, and that if they are stubborn in fomenting unrest while working for foreign enemies, then they will face a severe investigation.

Meanwhile, the propaganda efforts are being cranked up:

Here is a TV report, one of the very few that have screened on the topic, which attempts to calm things down by publicizing a finding by a coroner that Xue Jinbo (the village representative who died or was killed in custody, sparking accusations that he was beaten to death) died of heart problems. The coroner, from the prestigious Zhongshan University in Guangdong, says that although there were some injuries on the deceased, they were only minor and not the cause of death.

This is going to be an incredibly hard sell. Even fairly parochial villagers are aware that people are sometimes beaten to death in police custody.

It would appear that the government is sticking with their ‘iron fist’ and ‘velvet glove’ approach. Media reports have indicated that a number of villagers have already been persuaded to side with the government, in an attempt to divide and conquer.

The government’s strategy is starting to take shape.

UPDATE

Zhu Mingguo along with another senior minister are going to meet with the villagers. More in the New York Times here.

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The pot is boiling over in Wukan and it won’t look good for Wang Yang

The Daily Telegraph’s Malcolm Moore has reported on a Southern Coastal town which is now in open revolt. However, those who think that this event represents the beginning of some kind of profound shift, ought to pause for a moment.

Thus far, local governments across China have succeeded in raking in extremely high revenues from land sales and property development. The problem is, that the land is often seized from villagers, who are given inadequate compensation.

This practice has stoked far more unrest than other issues – after all, it hits right at the heart of people’s livelihood and exemplifies injustice. To an extent, the central government can wash their hands of it and claim it is the work of local governments, but at the end of the day it is the central government who have set up a system which encourages local governments to get into the real estate market, then turns a blind eye to their questionable methods.

The riots in Wukan however, are sure to provoke some kind of response. The real question is what the central government can do.

Typically, the government likes to use a combination of the velvet glove and the iron fist. Previously, Wukan was the site of the ‘velvet glove’ approach. Although the real causes of the rebellion in Wukan are related to the corrupt local government, there is a chance that this will reflect badly on the Guangdong Party Boss – Wang Yang.

Wang Yang is locked in a contest with Chongqing’s Bo Xilai for positions on the next standing committee. Wang Yang, along with Wen Jiabao represents the liberal face of Chinese politics for the time being.

The Wukan rebellion is likely to be quite the embarrassment for Wang Yang, and something of a vindication for those who advocate heavy-handed control. Bo Xilai may not be at all displeased.

Posted in Bo Xilai, CCP, stability, Wang Yang | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment