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Censorship in China Allows Govt Criticism but Silences Collective Expression [pdf] (dash.harvard.edu)
73 points by gitrog 59 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 54 comments

This is why the first amendment of the US constitution had the notion freedom of assembly. Collective or mutual knowledge is important for a social body to protect itself from tyranny. Stephen Pinker [1] gave a talk and related this to the story of the emperors new cloths. The gist is that independently, everyone knew that the emperor was naked, but it wasn’t until it was publicly exclaimed by a child that the independent knowledge became mutual, thus making it socially OK for the population at large to say what they already knew.

Dictatorships and authoritarian regimes understand this and remove the ability to congregate openly on how the system works. They disappear dissidents and control the media. They essentially gaslight the citizenry in the hopes that independent suffering stays independent and never is discussed openly where it could incite rebellion.

[1] https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=3-son3EJTrU

Exactly same thing can be said about US [1]. It really fascinates me how much focus there is on China when exact same things like suppression of political opinion and mass surveilance are happening in the West. I think it would be far more productive to focus on fixing shit here than to obsess about China as if everything was fine in the West. Meanwhile the West is still fueling the genocide in Yemen by the Saudis making it clear that all the outrage about human rights is just cynical posturing.

[1] https://scholar.princeton.edu/sites/default/files/mgilens/fi...

For the record, I posted this specifically because I feel that it provides a clearer picture of what censorship in China really is like, as opposed to the cartoonishly evil portrayal that most of Western media paints it in.

Although I don't condone censorship overall, I do find it interesting and identify that governments will always find it necessary to impose some form of societal control.

From this study, it seems to me that the Chinese government chooses to prevent events that may cause conflict and violence. That is almost noble, were it not for the fact that it also helps the government maintain a firm grip of control in all situations. I think there is also something to be said for the Great Firewall and how it manages to keep gigantic companies like Facebook and Google from interfering with foreign countries and how it spurs local companies to come up with similar solutions. The drawbacks are all obvious and I don't think it's necessary to repeat those here.

The way that political dissent is managed in the West is so much more chaotic, and generally more violent. The public is split in two (usually) and played against eachother which often results in violence on the streets. Although being able to protest is at least symbolically a good thing, I often wonder if it isn't mostly just another tool used to create the illusion of freedom. If the public is constantly bombarded with misinformation and fear-mongering tactics it's highly unlikely that any sort of unified protest could convert to real, regime threatening change.

So I agree with you that we should be critical of the West, and honestly this post wasn't a jab at Chinese politics in favour of the West, it was more of a learning experience for myself.

>it seems to me that the Chinese government chooses to prevent events that may cause conflict and violence. That is almost noble, were it not for the fact that it also helps the government maintain a firm grip of control in all situations.

Every single state acts this way. Every single effective state system at least. It's called "Monopoly on Violence." It is one of the defining characteristics of "modern" state organizations.

Unsanctioned use of violence directly threats the state's power and will quickly call into question the state's legitimacy if the state can't control coordinated or wanton violence.

See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monopoly_on_violence

That may be the official policy, but I think you only have to glance at the US to see that it doesn't always act on this. Of course, at some scale, government would be forced to act, but there is a lot of space in between where allowing violence to play out could even be beneficial to a ruling party.

>but there is a lot of space in between where allowing violence to play out could even be beneficial to a ruling party.

That's why I used the word "sanctioned", publicly or privately.

A valid source doesn’t mean you automatically have a valid argument.


I pretty much agree with everything you're saying here.

Censorship and avoidance of discussion of serious topics certainly is a thing in the american media, however it operates mostly on the basis of backscratching, co-opting and voluntary pushing of viewpoints by private media establishments.

Its not difficult to find dissenting voices on pretty much any topics you care to name, and calls for collective action too, and nobody does much (or in reality, can do much) to stop them, the real trick of American censorship and propaganda is these views are never seen in the major media sources the vast majority consume.

This is a vastly different model than how censorship in China operates, with different consequences, and different ways to oppose it.

Of course, the style of control is different, but the effect is the same. In the West we have an illusion of freedom and choice. We get to say whatever we like, we get to go an vote for any approved candidate, but at the end of the day the only thing that matters is what the oligarchy wants.

The biggest issue is that the media is owned by the oligarchy, and so as you note any opinions that fall outside the accepted norm are ignored. This completely perverts democracy as unbiased media is crucial to having informed public that can vote meaningfully. It's simply not realistic to expect individuals to do their own research and become experts on many different subjects in order to vote because any individual subject can take years of study to grasp properly. The job of the journalists is to do this research for the benefit of the public and then present it in a way that's meaningful to the layman. When the media stops doing its job democracy dies.

The effect is most certainly not the same, the fact that we are able to carry on this conversation on an American news site is evidence of that.

If the only thing that mattered was what the oligarchy wanted, Trump would have never been elected, because from all accounts he was widely loathed by those in power, even within his own party, not that it makes him a good president, but its compelling evidence that they have less power than you are assuming.

> The effect is most certainly not the same, the fact that we are able to carry on this conversation on an American news site is evidence of that.

I believe this study is stating exactly that we could carry on this conversation, up to the point where we all agree on something in enough numbers and possibly decide to take action about it.

How many people never see the small news website telling the unabated truth but are only getting 65 patreons every month and a few tens of thousands of hits, if that?

Now compare that to the viewership of USA's political propaganda network, Fox, MSNBC, WaPo, NYT, CNN, etc. The things mass media says will make it to the general public, true or not, the small dissenting voice will reach a select amount of nobodies.

The suppression of political opinion is very different in the US, I would even go as far as to say that a lot of the issues in the US are because of the robust political dissent (which is a good thing, most of the large social problems have been solved by large scale dissent movements). I honestly don't know why the US government isn't more concerned about the Saudis but a large amount of people in the US are and tried to get the government to have a more hard line with them and stop arms sales but it was vetoed by Trump.

I think the US is just a doormat right now on a international level and unwilling to come out on a decisive side (unless he somehow thinks it will help to get a trade deal).

Of course, even with a well articulated source you're downvoted on HN. You think that having a primarily U.S. based audience hackers would be inclined to poke holes in the perception of their own government versus practical reality.

So curious, so inquisitive, so academic.

You can tell truths up an down, have all kinds of sources that provide evidence to your claims, and HN will downvote you if it is self-criticism of US government or capitalistic practices that lead to censorship in similar ways as China. It can't possibly be nearly the same here, said the HN downvoter.

Nope, just pointing out that it's more productive to focus on fixing your own country instead of worrying about China. If you have exact same problems, but you ignore them and obsess about China instead then you're not helping anybody including yourself. Worrying about China is akin to worrying about the weather on Mars, there's nothing you can do about it and it doesn't affect you. Meanwhile, what your own government is doing both affects you and something you can have an impact on.

So really talking about China is the real whataboutism here.

Claiming constant "whataboutism" is a new way for the internet to stifle conversation. Please stop.

Sorry, but the US is a constitutional democratic republic with generally functioning rule of law, while the other is an a mercantilist-authoritarian-dictatorship with absolutely ZERO legal accountability to its citizens.

By conflating patterns of US government’s very real human rights abuses (domestic and abroad) with with the CCP’s abuses, you demonstrate a fundamental lack of understanding of how each political system works and its relationship with its citizens.

Also you’re using a red herring logical fallacy when you say “let’s focus on fixing shit here”. How about trying to do dispute the original premise instead of distracting?

>How about trying to do dispute the original premise instead of distracting?

Why must we take a contrary position to what was stated? You do understand that it's a perfectly valid and normal thing to agree with what was stated but pivot the conversation towards something that is more relevant and actionable?

The supplementary appendix about predicting important events by observing changes in censorship rate before the event happens is very interesting.

Living in Australia, I've been exposed to both Hong Kong and mainlander Chinese people and I've developed an opinion. Australia really needs to start working harder to understand them than they do to understand us. In light of the recent disturbances in HK I read things like this paper with renewed interest.

The views of the mainlanders on HK are fascinating in how alien they are in contrast to how the Australian press sees the situation. I don't think the media is demonstrating an understanding of the relationship the Chinese middle class have with their government.

I had a fascinating conversation with a Korean friend. It is second hand, but some of his friends and colleagues live in HK. According to my friend, HKers in our generation (late 30s, early 40s) have a notion that the resistance is led by young people that have no Chinese identity. And this is offensive to many of them because they lived under British rule. Our generation had a culturally Chinese identity that and welcomed reunification, or at least had high hopes therein.

It's tempting to frame the current situation as a generational thing, but -- I'm of the same generation, and I'm certainly on the side of the "resistance" so to speak. Most of my friends and colleagues, of all ages, are on the same side.

Would you be able to elaborate more on your 2nd paragraph?

The one that stands out to me is a girl I know from Shenzhen. Very intelligent, very articulate and someone I've pigeonholed as rising-star-in-leadership-somewhere material.

She's basically maintaining what seems to me to be a fairly passionate cross between an attack on the protestors and a defense of Chinese national pride. The two main prongs are that the protestors are disruptive/the protests cause injury (citing some facts I don't consider controversial) and the risk of interference by Westerners in Chinese affairs.

What is noticeably missing, that I'd expect of someone of similar character but with an Australian upbringing, is any acknowledgement that individual liberty could possibly be important to anyone, in Hong Kong or otherwise. At the stereotypical level nothing there surprises me. At the emotional level it is jarring. I'm going to be unpacking what is just my general support for Hong Kong vs. my status as not a Chinese citizen vs. genuine cultural differences.

China is huge and has become powerful again. I'd like to be more informed about the lens they use to see this sort of situation. There are clearly substantially different opinions about what is happening. Even if it is simply getting an English translation of the CCP propaganda that would be helpful, because at the moment I just don't know what specifically to expect if I ask a mainlander what they think about the topic. Given how tied Australia and China are, that isn't ideal.

> Even if it is simply getting an English translation of the CCP propaganda that would be helpful

Try http://www.globaltimes.cn/ http://en.people.cn/ or http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/ for CCP propaganda in English.

You will find any number of American or other Western patriots who love their country but are suspicious of their governments. The Chinese, at least to the extent they are willing to openly express where it might be reported back, don’t differentiate.

My guess is the history that mainlanders went through, conjured a very different opinion on what things in life are most important. I don't think reading propaganda will help you understand better because you haven't gone through that history.

I think the answer is hidden in plain sight in the paper:

> "Xinhua news agency issued an opinion that western-style parliamentary democracy would lead to a repetition of the turbulent factionalism of China’s Cultural Revolution (http://j.mp/McRDXk)."

> [The CCP] said that “On the basis of China’s condi- tions. . . we’ll not employ a system of multiple parties holding office in rotation” in order to avoid “an abyss of internal disorder” (http://j.mp/Ldhp25)."

To us in the west, this reads as standard authoritarian propaganda excuses. But maybe they aren't total excuses after all? The Cultural Revolution was a traumatic period and people still remember it. A TLDR based on my understanding:

- Mao, despite being known as a murderer in the west, is regarded (for a part at least) as a hero in China because he did a lot of good in the beginning: getting rid of Japanese invaders, giving everyone an education, building a functioning country.

- After WW2 things went downhill. Mao didn't get along with other CCP members. In order to stay in power he declared a new revolution. Lots of people followed him and idolized him. But the revolution resulted in chaos, anarchy and mob rule. And Mao turned out to be an incompetent post-war policy maker so his policies resulted in famine etc (this is what the west refers to when they say Mao massacred people).

After the Cultural Revolution, I guess the CCP learned that the masses can be easily influenced for the worse, and want to avoid another Mao-like fiasco. And lots of civilians are tired of 150 years of wars, revolution, poverty and disunity, and so they see the CCP as a necessary evil.

This is combined with 100 years of colonialism that came prior to that, which instilled a sense of inferiority (compared to the west) that still still exists today.

So I guess there is a sense that unity and economic prosperity are the most important, everything else is secondary. So when they see various democratic systems, they see various parties bickering with each other at the expense of speed of progress and harmony.

I believe all of this is nearly unimaginable to many westerners because the west has been prosperous for so long. WW2 was disastrous, but in a very different way.

Chinese history is very different from the history that the west went through, so it does not surprise me that the conclusions drawn about what values are important, are different too.

Seems incredible to me that people keep thinking that intelligent people have to share the western liberal view of the world that we all have been indoctrinated under.

I think people are downvoting this over the word "indoctrinated" but I think it's a pretty accurate take. The whole democracy/freedom of speech/criticism of the government thing is an explicitly western position (though by now adopted at least in name by large parts of the world).

People in the west like to think that our cultural ideas are objectively superior and that anyone intelligent/reasonable/well-read enough would support them, and that's why you often see people act surprised when intellectuals in countries like China hold mainstream Chinese views.

In reality the main reason why we have the cultural ideas that we do is historical, and we all have them because we've been raised to believe these things since childhood. I think that's what the parent meant to say by "indoctrinated".

Interesting observation. Here is another one that I haven't seen yet....

Forcing criticism of the state to stay at the individual level drastically reduces the potential for foreign-funded fake grassroots movements to change the trajectory of domestic policy.

This stops a very common social attack vector that governments in the west readily employ around the world.

Anyone on the receiving end of American foreign policy hostility can understand this protectionist position.

I live and work in Shenzhen and am doing an MBA in Hong Kong. As one mainlander told me, Hong Kong can protest for democracy as much as they want, but independence from the mainland isn't ok, that's the line that can't be crossed. Of course, the government's long-term stance on democracy in Hong Kong is more complicated and he didn't speak to me on behalf of the government.

Hong Kong is an extremely touchy subject for mainlanders. As told to me by one of my professors, the taking of Hong Kong by the British Empire was taught in mainland Chinese schools as one of the most shameful aspects of Chinese history. Hence, especially now that China has Hong Kong back from the UK, whenever there is any kind of statement that Hong Kong should go back to the UK, or that Trump needs to come help Hong Kong, or that Hong Kong should be independent, it's met with a visceral reaction from mainlanders. That was apparently a time in history when foreigners would have shops or restaurants in Hong Kong and the mainland and have signs that said "No dogs or Chinese." It's extremely easy for mainland people to get extremely emotional about this topic. The fact is that despite Mao's shortfalls, he was the first one in a hundred years to set up a government that didn't get bullied by foreign powers. That period is literally called the hundred years of humiliation in Chinese history. Due to this historical context, now that Hong Kong is part of China again, ANY foreign influence or interference is strictly viewed as unacceptable by mainlanders.

So there's a bit of a powderkeg of non-overlapping priorities between the mainland and Hong Kong lower and middle classes that make for difficult conflict resolution.

I mention specifically lower and middle classes because it does seem to be mostly the lower and middle classes that are unhappy. I guess when you're a billionaire, you can do whatever you want and don't really care what kind of system you live in. But there is very good evidence that Hong Kong's economy and people have been left behind, just as America's "Trump base states" have been left behind. Through many decades, Hong Kong industries have never really evolved. For these last few decades have been centred around real estate and finance, and that's with not much land on which to construct new residences. So prices go up while there are no jobs to pay rent. There are some crazy photo essays on the Internet of Hong Kong people who live in what look smaller than jail cells because rent is so expensive. Meanwhile, Shenzhen totally caught onto the high-tech craze, jobs are everywhere, and everyone's making money. So there's a lot of mainlander consensus that Hong Kong dropped the ball and now Hong Kong is angry without taking responsibility. But there's no Trump to vote for because the mainland government reserves the right to restrict electoral candidates, so now they're protesting instead. And mainlanders look at them and say that no democracy can solve their structural problems, or else it would have been done already. Read an article shared by a Chinese friend that talks about how the Hong Kong government set aside a ton of funding to revitalize Hong Kong with new digital industries, and instead Hong Kong's super rich people funneled that money into their personal real estate projects. They'd say any democratic solution in Hong Kong won't have real teeth because look what happened before.

There are so many complicated factors involved that the two sides aren't really listening to each other. It reminds me of Colin Kaepernick. He's protesting about police brutality against black people, but people are angry at him because they say he's disrespecting the American flag and military. When two sides are not even on the same page, difficult for them to have a conversation.

Unfortunately for Hong Kong lower and middle class people, due to their economic weakness, they don't actually have a lot of leverage in these issues. 2014 Umbrella Movement showed as much. That's why the protestors are more violent than 2014, and that is slowly making them lose the moral high ground. The biggest point in a lot of mainlander eyes was when they beat up a mainland reporter at the Hong Kong airport, thinking him to be a mainland undercover cop. Mainland social media exploded that night, a lot of mainlanders got really mad and the next day was filled with the "What a shame for Hong Kong" meme. It's a bit like Ireland in that the IRA found it really difficult to give up their guns because their guns were their only big leverage in the negotiation with the government. Similarly, Hong Kong doesn't have much else to bargain with right now, so here we are.

Anyone who thinks this issue is black and white has no chance of offering a solution that will actually work. Scared of what could end up happening.

The tragic thing is what the protesters seem to want to return to is the by-gone era of the British rule. But that was very much the thing that turned Hong Kong into a place ruled by real estate moguls. The mainland Chinese vision of opening up and fully integrate the area of Hong Kong, Macau and Shenzhen/Canton is something that actually can break the rot and get Hong Kong in on the growth and prosperity that is there right next door.

Ya, all excellent points. Thanks for being analytical when so much discussion is a direct jump into dogma these days.

It’s pretty much exactly what this HK lady says as well https://youtu.be/WgplCDxvXN4 (sorry, it’s in canto). The reference to Lee Kuan Yew was particularly interesting.

Could you explain what you see the media getting incorrect or missing?

Does this mean, two people can tell each other the government is shit, but 10 people can't get together and tell their collective opinion even if it was the opposite?

More or less that.

My Chinese friends discuss the politics openly, sometimes even on WeChat. As long as you don't do it over group chats or in public no one would bother you.

There was just this funny thing that the famous llama pic was automatically filtered even in 1-1 chats.

this is exactly what an oppressive government wants.

as long as people are able to discuss politics with their friends, they have a outlet to vent without being able to actually form political resistance.

It's an interpretation, but not the most charitable one.

Our idea of an oppressive autocratic government is more similar to that exemplified in Orwell's 1984- a government that prevents and punishes expression of dissenting ideas at any level, even the private one (you never know if the friend or person you're talking to could be a police informer).

Another interpretation could be that China cares about, or simply consideres legitimate, the expression of dissent, but is terrified by the consequences of mass protest movements such as that of Tiananmen Square, preferring to maintain a rigid control on the direction and pace of change.

> as long as people are able to discuss politics with their friends, they have a outlet to vent without being able to actually form political resistance.

> Another interpretation could be that China cares about, or simply consideres legitimate, the expression of dissent, but is terrified by the consequences of mass protest movements such as that of Tiananmen Square, preferring to maintain a rigid control on the direction and pace of change.

These statements are practically identical the only thing that changes is how charitably you're framing the suppression of political dissent and if you're viewing things from the POV of the political class or the regular people.

These sound like the same thing.

Why people keep using the system that censors stuff? Why not just completely switch to something else? Or it will become impossible to analyze then cos they won't look "Chinese" then, so maybe they actually in fact do it, just keep posting on WeChat something meaningless to please the Party?

Except they can't, things like Instagram and WhatsApp are blocked and taken down from the AppStore. If there's new they would also be taken down.

Any forums or messing app alike must do ISP registration from the government, the cloud provider has to make sure they can take down any website or web service on demand.

Those websites without ISP registration has quite a change being blocked, and cannot use a lot of 3rd party integration like WeChat pay, etc.

But i mean, do anyone seriously try to use non-VPNned Internet in China? Without obfuscation? Of course only way to meaningfully use anything would be through an obfuscator. I asked people there (Europeans though, not Chinese) and they all say ToR with obfs4 works just fine.

Anything else that gets too popular will be aggressively blocked unless they comply with the censorship/give out logs.

Their families usually use WeChat because it's the only messenger that works inside China.

This is from before Xi.

This is more accurate about the current state, people can talk about politic in person in normal volume in public like metro or mall, or just through Wechat as long as you don't affect collective.

A lot of People in person say bad words all the time. Everyone has their own point of view, far from brain-washed from some media.

There are also politic classes from middle school to college, and requires a high score for Master degree. Everyone hates it, no one really cares about what Marxism is, they just recite everything and play the game, and forget it immediately after the exam - just like how SF engineers play the brain teaser games.

Some media renders China like 1984 where everyone is intensively controlled is far from reality and oversimplify things. It's much easier to judge if it's like 1984.

That's correct. It is often misunderstood by Western public.

To complement, for example in WeChat if a lot of criticism or even much worse than criticism can exist in "Moment". But it can make a WeChat Group be banned. Another thing is there's no danger for any individual who express anti government opinion only. Too many people do it all the time. The only chance to cause trouble is when the individual is trying (or perceived by government is trying) to instigate some public demonstration. Otherwise is pretty safe.

I wonder what you think of this idea.

US, group protests allowed, gov't actively works for the benefit of industries to the detriment of the workers.

China, individual protests allowed, gov't actively and overtly works for the benefit of the workers through centralized labor union to the detriment of business.

In this framing, US population would need more rights to protest due to the odds being heavily stacked against them.

Hey people, it is from 2012. It's a totally different era.

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