China censors to prevent collective action, King says

June 7, 2012, 2:59 a.m.

The speech of Chinese citizens is “individually free but collectively in chains,” said Gary King, director of Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science and a professor in Harvard’s Department of Government.

King gave a presentation Wednesday afternoon in Encina Hall titled, ”How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression.”

“There are many looming challenges facing China ahead,” said Jean Oi, director of the Stanford in China program and a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute, who introduced King and his project. “One of them is how China is going to deal with the Internet and the flow of information.

“People have a lot of assumptions and speculations about censorship in China,” she added, “The question is, what do they censor and what are they trying to do?”

King’s lecture centered on disproving conventional wisdom that the goal of Chinese censorship is to stop government criticism, instead arguing through his empirical research that it is the threat or possibility of collective action that the censors target.

King said that only two topics — pornography and criticism of the censors themselves — are always blocked.

“We as observers often think that the Chinese censorship system is leaky and imperfect, but actually it is our understanding of it that is so,” he said.

Although he acknowledged that countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam also block sensitive content, King stated, “China is the largest effort to censor human expression in history.”

While exact numbers remain unclear, King said censorship in China is a “huge manual effort” involving hundreds of thousands of people. He divided the censorship into two broad categories: search filtering, which involves blocking certain terms in search engines, and content filtering, which involves removing individual posts by hand.

According to King, websites like Sina, China’s largest infotainment web portal, hire up to 1,000 people to censor content.

With the help of Harvard graduate students Jennifer Pan and Molly Roberts, King undertook a six-month project, spanning from Jan. 2011 to June 2011, to use automated content analysis software he developed and patented to download over 3 million social media posts from 1,400 Chinese social media sites.

King then divided these posts into 95 topics and, for each post, examined the content, placed it on a timeline and revisited the site to see if it was censored.

According to King, 13 percent of social media posts are censored overall, even though there are significant differences across geographic regions and topics.

Drawing from the data collected, King showed that among some of the most-censored events in the earlier half of 2011 were protests in Inner Mongolia, the arrest of dissident Ai Weiwei and the rush to buy salt following the Japanese earthquake.

King referred to the last case as an example of a topic that did not criticize or threaten the government, but was characterized by collective action and was thus heavily censored.

To provide more evidence for this theory, King showed how criticism of key government policies, including the One Child Policy and education policy, have low censorship percentages, arguing that this is due to their lack of collective action potential.

King also pointed out that in the cases of the protests in Inner Mongolia and Ai Weiwei’s arrest, posts were censored whether they supported or criticized the state.

Citing cases such as the downfall of politician Bo Xilai and a South China Sea peace agreement, King also suggested that his software and findings can predict certain events before they occur.

“With the Chinese government leaving huge footprints and exposing themselves, we can tell what they are going to do before they do it,” King said.

He also noted that Chinese censorship is not ambiguous or hidden, showing a picture of a blocked Chinese site that stated, “The page you requested is temporarily down. How about you go look at another page?”

“I am not favorably impressed, but nevertheless impressed, by the Chinese censorship system,” he said. “This may be the optimal way to have a censorship program, as the government gets to see what everyone thinks, eliminate collective action potential and can measure and deal with problems.”

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