A recent New York Review of Books post by Perry Link is worth reading to learn the lengths and depths to which the Chinese government will go to control content and opinion on the Internet in that country. China has learned to embrace the Internet in some ways, recognizing that the government in some sense can’t live without it and can’t deprive the people of it. But the central authorities view the Internet in much the same way that the Nazis and Soviets viewed the emerging art and technology of the movies in the 1930s: as a powerful tool to augment propaganda, which is, in the mordant definition of Hitler message man Joseph Goebbels, “a means to state control”.
Link is drawing attention to the work of his colleague Xiao Qing at the University of California, who has received, archived and catalogued thousands of “directives” from China’s propaganda officials to central and regional news and Internet officials to play up, play down, censor, muzzle, close comment, applaud or condemn various bits of information that are vacuumed up in the social space of the Chinese Intranet. It is impossible to read these directives and not think of Winston Smith, alone at his cubicle next to the memory hole, carrying out similar directives in the Ministry of Truth. Indeed, Xiao calls his unofficial repository the Ministry of Truth. He provides an extraordinary glimpse inside perhaps the largest and most sophisticated propaganda machinery in the world.
Link, an academic and translator of Charter 08 into English, provides some additional insights based on a conference that Xiao hosted last month in Berkeley that included several additional scholars who helped analyze his archives. The insights they brought are additionally worth reading, if for no other reason than it is an additional reminder that we do not bring every perspective required to this material. Perhaps the most important insight rendered is this:
“One of the principal aims of the government directives is to prevent unapproved groups from organizing through the Internet (noted as “incitement,” “gatherings,” etc.); some of the scholars argued that this goal is even more fundamental than prevention of negative comment about the Party.”
That is, among the government’s top priorities in Internet control is not censorship for its own sake but to break up any nascent attempts at independent organization, which is the true and ultimate threat to the government’s control. Information, opinion and communication do not undermine the government on their own, but by how they help individuals understand, come together, and take collective action. No wonder, as Link notes, the government has lumped “political speech” in the same web category as pornography as “unhealthful to society”.
Another chilling observation in the age of the NSA revelations relates to the activity of Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency. In a country where all media is state-controlled, Xinhua is effectively an open-source intelligence agency. The Internet has changed that, Link notes. Ten years ago, Xinhua’s mission, in part, was to report to China’s leadership on its own population. In the Internet era, it no longer needs to do that – the people are in effect reporting on themselves through social media, chat rooms, comment boxes and microblogs. The government only needs to read them to understand their subjects.
That’s a Thought Police even Orwell didn’t imagine.