China’s Real Secret Weapon

A few weeks ago, a link went around to a Washington Post story with this alarming headline: “China’s Scary Lesson to the World: Censoring the Internet Works.” When I saw it I worried that someone had beaten me to the punch. I had been thinking of writing something along those lines. But then I read the story and was relieved knowing the Western media had gotten it wrong once again.

It’s a long piece – over 2,000 words – by Simon Denyers, WP’s China bureau chief. It covers a lot of ground – starting at the Berlin Wall and ending at “the post-Cold War consensus”. Along the way it brings in a lot of experts. If you haven’t read it, the crux can be found in this sentence which comes a third of the way through:

“[The Great Firewall] is an attempt to bridge one of the country’s most fundamental contradictions — to have an economy intricately connected to the outside world but a political culture closed off from such ‘Western values’ as free speech and democracy.”

The first problem is defining the Great Firewall. What is it? A basic definition comes from Jon Penney, an Assistant Professor of Law at Dalhousie University who specializes in digital privacy and censorship – The Great Firewall is a sophisticated, multilayered system for monitoring and controlling inbound internet traffic predicated on the 8 ISPs through which all internet traffic comes into China. The WP article is not so precise, mixing up The Great Firewall with Project Golden Shield which is the China’s larger strategy of controlling what is accessible on the domestic internet no matter where the information originates.

That’s a common mistake, but it has three important implications here:

  1. “Western values such as free speech and democracy” only exist outside of China and the Great Firewall is responsible for keeping these ideas out.
  2. Connection with the outside world and, hence, access to “Western values such as free speech and democracy” are pre-requisites for economic success.
  3. If the Firewall were to come down, this would represent a grave threat to China’s government.

Let’s address them one at a time.

First – Is the Great Firewall really responsible for keeping out ideas of “Western values such as free speech and democracy”?

Well let’s see. Breitbart.com is accessible in China without a VPN. So is The Guardian. So is the Washington Post. So is Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now for that matter. Clearly they are not interested in blocking any particular political point of view or even actual information about “Western values such as free speech and democracy”. So what is blocked? That falls into three distinct categories.

First there’s stuff like the China Digital Times and Epoch Times – basically Chinese-language sources which are devoted to criticising China.

The second category is more nuanced – Google, Facebook, Twitter and Youtube – giants of Silicon Valley. The article implies these are blocked for political reasons – “YouTube was blocked after unrest in Tibet in 2008, and Facebook and Twitter followed after riots in Xinjiang in 2009,” while Google is blocked because it returns Tiananman Tank Man photos. In their absence, though, China has managed to grow its own hugely influential content distribution platforms – Wechat and Baidu. They’re infinitely easier for the government to control, but have also created significant domestic industries around them. We all know blocking Silicon Valley is as much economics as politics.

The third kind? Pornography. No Western values indeed.

There’s nothing subtle about the second point – how could any country possibly succeed economically without being subscribing to Western values?

That’s the 19th century talking. That’s imperialist hangover. At one point the article even expresses surprise that, despite the Firewall, “the Internet is nonetheless thriving in China”. Notice that the article says “the Internet” is thriving, not “the Internet economy”. Not only do those Chinese have the audacity to make good business without “Western values such as free speech and democracy”, they dare even to express themselves! What could they possibly have to say if they are not allowed to criticize the government and rally for political action? Check your Moments. Lots it turns out.

Then the last one – the Firewall, by keeping average Chinese people away from information “inimical to the Communist Party’s narrative and control”, is holding back a tide that would topple the government.

If the Firewall were to come down tomorrow, would it facilitate the fall of the Chinese government? Doubtful. Even if the two were correlated, it would not be because China’s laobaixing suddenly got wise to “Western values such as free speech and democracy” and then revolted. A more likely scenario would be this: the Chinese government, divided internally by a period of economic stagnation and spiralling pollution, makes deals with Silicon Valley allowing Google and Facebook and Twitter into the market. These channels are then flooded by the same rumor-mongering echo-chamber fake news clickbait conspiracy theory bot-powered screeds that are currently poisoning the net in the West. And then, as hope drained away and as social turmoil overwhelmed China, yes, the government might indeed fall. In essence, the Opium War all over again.

And this leads me to my real point – what Project Golden Shield keeps out is not the odd Tank Man photo, but the negativity that operates at the very heart of mainstream Western media.

I don’t mean to suggest that in China there is the absence of negative news – there is plenty of that here. What I mean is inward-directed negativity, the particular kind of negativity of faction versus faction, group vs group, left vs right, blue vs red, us vs ourselves. That’s anything from endless political bickering to constant worrying over climate change to the unceasing drumbeat over the horrors of immigration.

A landmark Pew study of news consumption in 2007 showed that polarizing social issues consistently engender the highest levels of attention. It’s part of the formula of how Western media is produced today. Here are a few of its elemental characteristics:

  • Low-paid, inexperienced staff
  • Multiple publishing platforms
  • Loss of control of distribution channels
  • Falling advertising revenues
  • Simplistic narrative devices (such as conflict)

And on the consumer end there exists a habit of consumption:

  • Information overload
  • Lack of time
  • Decrease in critical thinking skills
  • Lack of understanding how news is produced
  • Expectation of free

Both sides are connected. They can’t be separated. They enable each other. Together they form the strange attractor of what we call “media” today. It’s navel-gazing on a grand scale but without compassion only disgust.

The situation in China today is different. The net is kept largely free from self-directed negativity. The mainstream media continue to publish stories about the great job the leadership is doing and the chaos frothing outside its borders. True or not, it resonates with the way people here see and experience the world.

Your average Chinese person is way less in the dark about what is going on in the world than you might suppose. They travel. They know other countries have different political systems where people participate in elections. They think northern Europe is awesome. They think America is strong. They think Japan can’t be trusted. They think Europe as a whole is chaotic. But they aren’t clamouring for democracy. They don’t want “free” media. For that matter I have never once heard a Chinese person complain about lack of access to pornography.

Chinese people aren’t angry about not having Facebook. They are pissed about air pollution. They aren’t throwing fits because they can’t access Google. They are worried about their kids.

It’s worthwhile to delve more deeply into media consumption in China, but I’ll save that for another post. The point is that the set up here works. And that’s something that the Western media just can’t wrap its head around. In fact, I suspect there is emerging belief that not only does it work for China, but it’s something that could be beneficial for West as well. What if all that negative news disappeared tomorrow? At the very least there is growing consensus that the “fake news” problem needs to be addressed with concrete measures. The only way to do that is through some form of systematic censorship.

And that terrifies the mainstream media. It compromises whatever business model they have left. It would complete their descent into the MySpace of media history. The title of the article should have been, “China’s Scary Lesson to Mainstream Western Media: Censoring the Internet Works”. It’s not “scary” to anyone else.

It’s not all roses of course. An anodyne media environment may make for a docile society, but it doesn’t exactly set the stage for great works or culture or art. There are also tragedies of dissent that go unreported. And if the environmental or economic scene in China deteriorates, a continued lack of critical news would almost certainly work against the authorities. But that’s not today. That’s not now.

Today, Chinese people, buoyed by economic growth and largely free from media-amplified negativity, have hope. Quite simply they believe that tomorrow will be better than today. They may be the last group of people on earth to do so. That is China’s real secret weapon. And it has absolutely nothing to do with “Western values” or Silicon Valley.

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