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'High Tech, Low Life' in Context

Chinese Censorship as a Tool for Political Control

Article 35 of China’s constitution promises the rights to freedom of speech, press, assembly and demonstration. However, the rights in the constitution are not enforced unless a supplementary law is passed to do so, and there are laws in existence that undermine social media and press that may issue calls for collective action. The American Political Science Review reported in May 2013 that criticism of China’s government is actually not the target of the country’s censorship program. Rather, the target is collective expression (regardless of the content) that might lead to public gatherings or demonstration.

Some Internet freedom scholars and activists, such as Harvard researcher Gary King and Chinese journalist Michael Anti, believe that social media is actually a convenient tool for the Chinese government to use to censor content selectively and shape public discussion. For example, when a high speed train crash occurred in Wenzhou in July 2011, the subsequent outpouring of protest on social media was not blocked, as many of the protests were aimed at local government corruption. Instead, the central government, which had long been seeking to disband the country’s railway network and reconfigure it so that it would be more in line with other parts of China’s state-run economy, allowed five days of critical free speech about the case. Pressure to remove Liu Zhijun from his position as railway minister came to a head. Once Liu had been removed from office, the railway system was disbanded and restructured.

The Chinese government is not quick to answer questions about its censorship policy, though it did issue its first Internet security white paper on the Internet in May 2010. An excerpt from the paper reads, "The Chinese government attaches great importance to protecting the safe flow of Internet information, actively guides people to manage websites in accordance with the law and use the Internet in a wholesome and correct way."

The paper goes on to stipulate that no individual or organization may disseminate information that endangers state security, subverts state power or damages state honor.

There are issues of Internet censorship and restriction around the world. Governments shut down websites, subpoena journalists’ phone records and filter Internet content. The Committee to Project Journalists reports that the African country Eritrea is the world’s most censored, followed by North Korea, Syria and Iran. The full list can be found here: Such censorship policies are often implemented in response to political unrest and/or under authoritarian rule.

In May 2013, the United States Justice Department came under fire after reports that government officials secretly had been seizing phone records of editors and reporters at the Associated Press. While the government has not disclosed an official reason for the seizure of those records, it is widely presumed to be linked to an investigation into a 2012 press leak about a C.I.A. operation in Yemen.

» Chen, Shirong. "China Rural-Urban Wage Gap Widens." BBC, January 16, 2009.
» Committee to Protect Journalists. “10 Most Censored Countries.”
» Council on Foreign Relations. "Media Censorship in China."
» Flock, Elizabeth. "What Internet Censorship Looks Like Around the World." The Washington Post, January 18, 2012.
» King, Gary, Jennifer Pan and Margaret Roberts. "How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism But Silences Creative Expression." American Political Science Review, May 2013.
» Moore, Malcolm. "China Abolishes Powerful Railway Ministry in Battle Against Corruption." The Telegraph, March 10, 2013.
» Savage, Charlie and Leslie Kaufman. "Phone Records of Journalists Seized by U.S." The New York Times, May 13, 2013.
» Simonite, Tom. "Social Media Censorship Offers Clues to China’s Plans." MIT Technology Review, April 29, 2013.
» TED. "Michael Anti: Behind the Great Firewall of China."
» Wang, Jasmine. "China Unveils Rail Ministry Breakup to Curb Corruption." Bloomberg, March 11, 2013.

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