Human Flesh Bot

12.27.14 11:45 AM ET

China’s Internet Is Freer Than You Think

China takes great pains to regulate Internet users within its border, but civil unrest remains largely uncensored—and helps the government gauge public sentiment.

HONG KONG—Last year, I met a Chinese graduate student on a tour of the northeastern United States before his first day at Harvard. At the time, news about the purge of Bo Xilai, a princeling and member of China’s Central Politburo, was still making waves in China. Over chilled beers, he shared a few observations: “Everybody is talking about Bo Xilai. Old people are talking about him as they play cards or mahjong. Families are talking about him at the dinner table. Young people are blogging about him. In the last case, that’s where the interesting things happen.”

He was referring to web censorship behind the Great Firewall. Many of his friends who were still in China had Weibo accounts, and could flick out short messages just as anyone anywhere else could tweet. One friend in particular was from Chongqing, Bo’s former stronghold and the epicenter of his political influence. That user's posts were being wiped completely from existence.

From the 50 Cent Party that stalks domestic and Western news sites to flood the comments sections with nationalistic drivel—they are allegedly paid ¥0.50 ($0.08) per post, hence their name—to porn reviewers whose sole purpose is to watch, examine, and censor pornography, the Chinese Communist Party goes to painstaking lengths to control all forms of media that are available for public consumption within the borders of China. In a country where over 600 million of its citizens are connected to the Internet, not just at home but also through the smartphones they carry with them at all times, web censorship becomes an incredibly difficult game. How effective is China’s State Internet Information Office in managing one-quarter of the world’s Internet users?

Aside from a blanket ban, social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit are nearly impossible to control. A successful trend-maker might be able to steer a conversation, but virality remains extremely difficult to predict.

On any given day, a number of protests take place in China. Last week, property owners were beaten by security guards as they confronted a real-estate developer who defrauded them. When the police showed up, it was the property owners who were arrested. On the same day, a group of teachers in Henan province gathered on the steps of the county government headquarters to protest wage reductions. The number of protests in China between 2006 and 2010 doubled to 180,000, and those are only the reported “mass incidents.” Every single one of them leaves a footprint online, however minor it may be.

Beyond the organizers and participants, police and local government officials, it’s unlikely that the greater public knows about most of these protests. Local news rarely covers them, and they’re often staged in smaller towns, beyond the radar of foreign correspondents based in major cities. But citizens document them. They capture photos that often show nonviolent protestors facing violent responses as they attempt to publicly voice their grievances. When those photos are uploaded onto Weibo, the surprise is that they’re often left alone. As long as the users’ comments are not outlandishly critical of the Chinese Communist Party, these posts remain uncensored.

The Party is an apparatus consisting of 86 million members. That’s more than the population of Germany. While not all 86 million maintain positions of governance or public service, the Party's machinery runs on watchmaker precision. For a ruling party that dedicates so many resources to monitoring its population and “maintaining social harmony,” keeping a hawk’s eye on the stochastic fluctuations of social media is an excellent way of gauging public sentiment.

Monitoring Chinese social-media platforms has paid off for the Chinese government. In March, police arrested a group of wealthy businessmen and government officials who were about to dine on illegal tiger meat. Law enforcement was able to raid the feast because one of the guests uploaded photos of the evening’s revelry, complete with a butchered jungle cat, and revealed their location.

Two years ago, a Party apparatchik surveyed the site of a fatal traffic accident… with a smile on his face. That was predictably received with disgust, and China’s “human flesh search engine”—think of it as a collection of Internet users with a common purpose—unearthed photographs of him wearing 83 different luxury watches, which should be impossible for a man with a monthly salary of about $2,000.

Last year, a government official based in Zhuhai posted a picture of 12 empty wine bottles with the caption, “We drank 12 tonight, what will we do tomorrow and the day after?” The banquet was paid for with public funds, and taxpayers were understandably upset. All of the officials who were at the banquet that night received slaps on the wrist, and one of them later appeared in a documentary released by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the CCP’s watchdog group that has been punishing and even purging corrupt public figures within the Party. Even though social media is a sword that cuts both ways, the CCP has managed to use it to great effect in President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign.

Beyond that, how will China evolve its rigid Internet policy? Lu Wei, the Chairman of China’s State Internet Information Office, attended a web conference in November and told delegates that China wants an open and democratic governance system for the Internet. But the gags are still snugly in place. Facebook and Twitter are still banned in China. Youtube, Gmail, and Dropbox can’t be used. Foreign news channels face routine blackouts paired with blocks on their websites. Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders cannot be accessed without a virtual private network. China’s cheerleaders say it’s a push to help the Chinese population adopt homegrown web services. Entrepreneurs and web startup gurus say that the politics behind the bans don’t matter, because it shoots Chinese web developers in the knees, forcing them to work around senseless obstacles in the already wild virtual frontiers.

Consider Hong Kong’s recent Umbrella Movement, and the formation of new student activist groups with ideologies that are not in line with the Party’s agenda. Organizers issued calls to action on social media. News clips, sound bites, and planning details were shared on those platforms. Memes that ridiculed political leaders and the Hong Kong Police Force shot through fiber optic cables at light speed. Reactions were instant, scalable, and rapidly viral. On Reddit, a Ukrainian protestor shared tips and observations. Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution inspired a series of lackluster pro-democracy protests in China as well, though the government was quick to round up any potential troublemakers.

The Chinese Communist Party is obsessed about control. They saw how the Arab Spring spread and toppled leaders of state. They saw how #Ferguson and #ICantBreathe lit up cyberspace. The deployment of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, of “50 Cent Party” and “Internet Water Army” web commentators is a misguided attempt to steer open dialogue that takes place on the Internet, and makes Lu Wei’s claims of democratic and transparent web governance ring hollow.

Emails that were leaked by a Chinese blogger suggest that there is no indication for a slowdown in China’s state-sponsored Internet commentary. But give the Chinese government some credit—at least their guys don’t think the Internet is a series of tubes.