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Monday, May 07, 2018

China’s “404” Internet Management: The Crippling Practical Powerlessness of Legal Omnipotence

Since 2015, I have now spent about sixteen months living and teaching in Shanghai, and I am sometimes asked by friends in the States about whether I have personally seen evidence of the intensifying crackdown on political and cultural dissent. I always respond that I am not in a good position to collect such evidence, because I am able to talk only with Chinese citizens who speak English, and I read Chinese Weibo posts at a painstakingly slow speed. Those limitations give me a perspective too limited to be very illuminating.

Despite this disclaimer, I pick up a bit more information than one would ordinarily get when living in the States, simply because I have gotten to know personally many more English-speaking Chinese (mostly academics and governmental officials). After the jump, I will share a couple of stories that they have shared with me that suggest some of the ways in which censorship is intensifying. Both stories illustrate the self-defeating character of the Communist Party’s effort to control information: These controls allow the Party’s enemies to undermine the Party, and they spawn the very distrust that the Party wants to suppress. My bottom line (which basically tracks Carl Minzner‘s analysis in his excellent new book, End of an Era: Nothing leads to such crippling practical powerlessness in government as much as the government’s political and legal omnipotence.

1. Getting “404’ed” in the Shen Yang (沈阳) scandal

My first story concerns the censorship of an essay on internet policy and the Shen Yang (沈阳) scandal written by one of my friends, an academic at a prominent Chinese university who I will call “Professor Wang” (not his real name). Shen Yang is a literature professor, until recently a member of the faculty at Nanjing University, who has been accused by former students of sexually abusing a classmate and causing her to commit suicide when Shen was a young professor at Peking University twenty years ago. The scandal was brought to light by a social media campaign launched by one of those classmates, a campaign that also raised the larger question of the Chinese professoriate’s abuse of their power over their students. The campaign to prevent professors from abusing students, however, has predictably been the target of governmental censorship.

Professor Wang’s essay was posted when the Chinese government was still trying to remove references to Shen Yang from the internet. In the first part of his essay, Professor Wang offered some observations on the use of “404” as a tool with which manage public opinion (“当404成了处理舆情和公关的工具”). “404,” of course, refers to the error message one receives when one searches for an item that has been removed from the internet. The gist of Professor Wang’s argument was that 404 error messages, devoid of reasons or logic, were a lousy way to manage public opinion. Precisely because such censorship is unaccompanied by reasons, it can be deployed by well-connected private persons for reasons having nothing to do with protecting the reputation of either the Party or the government. For instance, “404ing” discussion of the accusations against Shen Yang benefitted only those administrators at Peking University who may have given Shen Yang a pass back in 1998. Why should the Party risk its own reputation by allowing these well-connected insiders to blot out discussion of the Shen Yang case with 404 messages? Those messages, after all, convey to the public the idea that the Party was standing behind these administrators and the accused rapist that they seemed to be protecting,

In an irony that the Chinese have gradually come to expect, Professor Wang’s essay on the problems with “404ing” online content was itself “404ed.” After being viewed about 75,000 times in a few hours, Weixin removed it with the following message: “This content cannot be viewed, because it violates the law. [We have] received complaints that this content violated ‘Interim Provisions on the Administration of the Development of Public Information Services Provided through Instant Messaging Tools.’ See details.”

So what do those “Interim Provisions” say? Issued in August of 2014, these rules had both legitimate and authoritarian purposes. On one hand, China was awash with marketing scams and fake news often spread through Sina Weibo’s micro-blogs. On the other hand, citizen-journalists were embarrassing the government with information posted on those same micro-blogsthat could be used by real journalists. The 2014 rules tried to solve both headaches simultaneously by regulating micro-blogs and other social media with the rules applicable to traditional news media. As Hu Yong, Peking University journalism professor and internet entrepreneur and prolific blogger explained, Aricle 7 of those 2014 rules requires that any individual who comments on public affairs through a Weibo micro-blog or WeChat message must obtain a license by “undergo[ing] examination and verification by the instant messaging service provider.” What constitutes covered reporting on public affairs? According to Hu Yong, pretty much everything except a picture of a latte: Pre-existing 2005 rules define “reporting on current events” to include any “reports and comments related to politics, economics, military affairs, diplomatic affairs, and so on, and reports and comments on sudden social occurrences” (emphasis added). So unless Professor Wang actually obtained a license from Weixin by “undergo[ing] examination” (whatever that might mean), he cannot legally say anything about China’s internet policy on WeChat or a Weibo micro-blog.

So the Party has tamed social media, right? Not at all: There are still millions of unlicensed journalists out there, because, with over 340 million active users, Sina Weibo cannot possibly “license by examination” everyone who expresses an opinion about current events. On top of Weibo, Tencent’s Weixin (WeChat to westerners, and the platform used by Professor Wang) provides another venue through which to circulate one’s views. All of those hundreds of millions of people will inevitably say stuff about current events, and neither Sina Weibo nor Weixin nor the government can take down every clever censor-evading meme fast enough to slow the tide. (To evade blockage of #Metoo, Chinese feminists post pictures of a bowl of rice and a bunny: Cooked rice (米) is pronounced “me,” and bunny (兔), “too”).

In particular, censorship of the Shen Yang case now seems to have been overwhelmed by sheer numbers. After the micro-blogs and WeChat accounts were flooded with thousands of angry comments about Shen Yang case, the government stopped trying to protect him. Although Shen Yang insists on his innocence, he has been fired from Nanjing, his reputation in tatters.

That might be a happy outcome in this one particular controversy. (Shen Yang’s defense that he was merely comforting a psychologically disturbed student who was the aggressor against him seems unbelievable on its face, and it seems even less credible in light of the other complaints of sexual misbehavior leveled against him by other students). But the episode illustrates what Professor Wang’s essay argued: The 404 policy is an invitation to mob rule. An information policy that relies on unreasoned “404”-type censorship invites unreasoning 404-evading comments. There is strength in numbers: Flood the internet with simple, relatively anonymous, more or less identical slogans suitably disguised rice-bunny style, and the government will surrender. Post an intelligent essay with arguments and qualifications, and, at least if it gets enough attention to irk some anonymous insider, it will be 404ed. This is Gresham’s Law for internet commentary: Unreasoned comments, with the aid of the government, drive out reasoned ones.

Professor Wang’s essay also illustrates how the Party’s suspicion of “troublemakers” can make trouble for the Party. As Professor Wang noted, censoring articles without giving reasons whenever someone complains that the writer is an unlicensed journalist invites complainants with something to hide to suppress reports of their own corruption. That may have happened with Professor Wang’s essay. Or not: Given the unreasoned quality of 404 error messages, no one can tell. But the broad power to remove virtually any comment on any current event from the internet empowers underlings relatively low in the Party hierarchy to mask their misdeeds, just so long as they have a pal in the Internet Information Office, Weibo, or Weixin who is willing to do them a favor. Of course, the Party might eventually discover these misdeeds without the help of social media — but, in the meantime, the public’s building anger at those misdeeds will taint the Party, especially since on-line efforts to expose the misdeeds are suppressed with infuriating 404 messages that bear the apparent imprimatur of the Party’s internet law.

2. A Party Member’s Anger at the RBY Day Care Scandal

One of my discussions with a member of a Party “leading group” at a Chinese university suggests the way in which the Party’s effort to maintain a tight grip on the flow of news was backfiring against the Party. That Party member — call her Ms. Liu (again, not her real name) was upset over reports that broke last November about allegations that employees at Red Yellow Blue (RYB) Care, a Beijing day care center drugged and sexually abused the children entrusted to them. Initially, the Chinese press published reports about the allegations, causing a furor among middle-class Beijing parents. Then someone issued an order to the press to stop the reports: A story that was formerly on the front page suddenly disappeared. A woman who had suggested that the military personnel were involved with the abuse was detained and charged with "using the internet to fabricate and disseminate fake news," and references to RYB were scrubbed from Weibo.

My friend wanted to know whether I could get more information about the case from the other side of the firewall: With young children of her own in day care, she was worried about how widespread the risks were. As for the motivations for suppressing the story, my friend suspected the worst: She speculated that the day care center, which happened to be near to a military base and run by the spouse of a retired military officer, had protection within the Party.

Censorship of those RYB stories, in short, did not stem the rumors but simply increased the suspicion. My friend was not a “troublemaker” or anti-Party malcontent: To the contrary, she was exactly the sort of hard-working patriotic Party stalwart that Xi Jinping needs to implement whatever policies will be part of his New Era Socialism with Chinese Characteristics. Yet the Party’s own censorship policies were stoking her suspicions. It is possible, of course, that someone ordered the suppression of the news stories to protect well-connected insiders. It is also possible that the authorities worried about netizens’ spreading false rumors that would stoke public anger against a falsely accused day care center. (As the Amiraults’ case indicates, day care center workers have been falsely accused and unjustly punished for child abuse that likely never occurred as a result of public hysteria). Judging from the government’s reaction to the notorious Hainan school child abuse case as documented in the “Hooligan Sparrow” documentary, a third possibility also seems likely: The government had no interest in protecting the perpetrators but also felt that netizens’ publicizing the scandal caused the government or Party to lose face. Regardless of the motivation, the Party’s information policy seems to stoke the very rumors that, for whatever reason, they were trying to suppress.

There is now a voluminous literature on why the Party’s leadership engages in censorship that seems ultimately to undermine the Party itself. Carl Minzner’s End of an Era provides a crisp overview of costs. Without a robust civil society and independent press or bar, the leaders of the Party must mostly rely on their bureaucratic agents to report on each other’s misdeeds. But it is basic principal-agent theory that reducing competition among agents increases the agents’ power to control information. The Party’s legal omnipotence to suppress all competing sources of information arguably has made the Party dependent on purely internal sources — and those sources have maximum power to collude against the people at the top of the Party’s pyramid.

As I noted at the beginning of this post, I lack the knowledge to assess whether this hypothesis of omnipotence that ultimately leads to powerlessness is actually supported by the facts. The data points of Professor Wang and Ms. Liu, however, suggest that, when it comes to authoritarian suppression of civil society, nothing fails like success.

Posted by Rick Hills on May 7, 2018 at 09:09 AM | Permalink

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