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Occupy Central and China's Policy of Give and Take

BY Rebecca Chao | Tuesday, September 30 2014

The movement has inspired a variety of Internet logos (Top: Angelo Costadimas | Left: Sam Inglis | Right: Tania Willis)

Since exploding on the international stage on Friday, the ongoing pro-democracy rally in Hong Kong known as Occupy Central has galvanized up to 80,000 people by some estimates and has made enough noise to capture attention and support from those as far away as Los Angeles, London, Paris and Perth. But inside mainland China, except for a few folks who shaved their heads to show solidarity, people there have remained noticeably quiet.

The government's diligent censorship of Occupy Central coverage in China can explain part of the silence. But the majority of those on the mainland voluntarily say nothing even though they most likely do have some inkling of what is happening in Hong Kong. That's because China’s Internet is not as closed as we think. There is a moderate amount of opportunity for the Chinese to debate and discuss the events online but the government would clamp down before it could go viral or foment unrest. The government understands that whenever it takes away, it gives something back or at least ensures that there is a viable alternative so that when it pulls, there is no pushback.

First, the facts. Hong Kong wants Beijing to give the special region more autonomy by allowing it to both elect and vote freely for the chief executive of its governing body, the Legislative Council. The protestors say that Beijing is reneging on a promise it made in 2007 to give Hong Kong an election in 2017 for choosing its new leader. While Beijing will allow a vote in 2017, it will hand-pick the candidates first through the election committee, made up of 1,200 people. Currently, the chief executive, who leads the Council, is appointed by the pro-Beijing committee but in 2017 that committee would be allowed to select up to three candidates for Hong Kong residents to consider in a vote.

In its efforts to control the flow of information on the protests, China currently blocks major foreign media like The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, among others, and has
sent a directive to Chinese media not only to censor its coverage but to "delete harmful information." Still, as distorted as its own version is, the Chinese government has so far still allowed its own state-owned media like Xinhua and Global Times to talk about the protests and permitted albeit controlled and carefully watched debate in its comment section. Further, Hong Kong's China Media Project (CMP) reports that 20 Chinese newspapers have now run an official version of the protests written by state-run Xinhua. This move is fairly new.

In the Global Times coverage, for example, it offered a front page article on the protests and a photo of students with their umbrellas open, bracing against the tear gas and pepper spray being used by Hong Kong riot police to try to disperse the protests. An op-ed in Global Times even mentions the Tiananmen protests of 1989, an event that for the last 25 years the government has refused to acknowledge and few, among China’s youth, know even occurred.

Maybe this is simply damage control -- the information was bound to get out anyway so offer the Chinese a twisted state version. But this is not the first time that China has begun to release pieces of previously censored information, albeit with a state-sponsored spin. China first acknowledged the Tiananmen protests on the 25th anniversary of the incident this year. The Global Times explained:

At the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen incident in 1989, mainstream media outlets from the US and Europe have ramped up reports on China's crackdown on illegal activities in the public sphere. [...] The mendacious impression is made by anti-China forces in the West and Chinese exiles who have been marginalized there. They hope it will deal a heavy blow to the stability of Chinese society but they will end up failing.

This is just one example of Beijing's give and take strategy.

The central government's complete block of Instagram since the Hong Kong protests began is another. Western media have reported that frustration arose over this, but it has not spilled over. There are enough alternatives to take the place of the social media sites the government decides to take away -- and they are often much more popular than their western counterparts. For Facebook, there is RenRen. In place of Google there is Baidu. For Twitter, there is Weibo and WeChat. For Youtube there is Youku and for Instagram, there is Tudu and Papa, among a number of others.

While Beijing has completely censored mentions of Occupy Central on Weibo, its censorship of WeChat, a Whatsapp-like chat program, has not been very comprehensive even though WeChat has far more users: 355 million active ones with Weibo's 280.8 million, down 9 percent from last year.

While Weibo’s popularity may have taken a hit because of the central government's draconian censorship laws -- it punishes users with jail time for the posting of sensitive material that either receives 500 or more reposts or that is posted to an account with at least 5,000 followers -- WeChat limits its group chat to 40 and therefore, does not have the scale to quickly spread information.

But how long can China stymie innovation for the sake of censorship and "stability"?

According to a recent study by researchers at Harvard University and the University of San Diego, China's restrictions on online social media are not really hurting innovation. Its implementation of strict censorship laws actually fosters competition among the various social media companies to outdo each other in creating ever more sophisticated and nuanced censorship machines -- ones that can quickly censor sensitive images, for instance. Or delete only incendiary posts (CMP noted that the government had accidentally deleted posts that were anti-Occupy Central in its effort to censor online dissent).

The team of researchers, led by Harvard's Gary King, drew this conclusion after creating a fake social network so that they could take a peek at the censorship technology that Chinese companies employ.

"From inside China, we created our own social media website, purchased a URL, rented server space, contracted with one of the most popular software platforms in China used to create these sites, submitted, automatically reviewed, posted, and censored our own submissions," King wrote in the study. "We had complete access to the software, documentation, help forums, and extensive consultation with support staff; we were even able to get their recommendations on how to conduct censorship on our own site in compliance with government standards.”

King went on: "We conclude that the government is (perhaps intentionally) promoting innovation and competition in the technologies of censorship...Such decentralization of policy implementation as a technique to promote innovation is common in China."

What the researchers also discovered was how the Chinese censored: it allows all levels of dissent and criticism on the Internet but seeks to limit its effects, censoring posts that made a call to arms, for example. In fact, Beijing makes a key distinction between government criticism -- which actually enables the government to remove corrupt officials and stamp out frustration before it builds -- and protests, demonstrations, or other signs of incipient mass organization that could destabilize the country.

"The knowledge that a local leader or government bureaucrat is engendering severe criticism—perhaps because of corruption or incompetence—is valuable information," King explained. "That leader can then be replaced with someone more effective at maintaining stability, and the system can then be seen as responsive."

And this isn't the only way that Beijing manages internal dissent. Just as the central government has its state-run newspapers, it also has an...earpiece.

The central government is adept, though not always successful, at creating portals for listening to citizen complaints. In 2004, Hong Yu, a delegate for the National Party Congress in Wuhan, created the first online complaint forum to channel the people's frustrations and policy recommendations. Scholars Shaun Breslin and Shimon Shen write in their book, Online Chinese Nationalism and China's Bilateral Relations, that there is now a formal evaluation system by which populations assess the performance of their local officials. In 2009, the central government created the site 12380 in order to improve the selection process of officials. It explained in a press release, “The site aims to improve public supervision and to ensure prompt detection and correction of offences involving official selection and appointment.”

Finally, in July 2013, Beijing created an online petitioning site called State Bureau for Calls and Letters. While it is not clear how much traffic these sites receive, or whether they have led to real change, a prank earlier this month revealed just how much Chinese citizens desire to air their grievances. An acquaintance of a clothing retailer who goes by the surname of Shi decided to play a prank on him by posting his phone number online and explaining it was a direct line to the central government’s anti-corruption investigation team. Shortly after, Shi began receiving hundreds and hundreds of phone calls.

In a way, China has created a frightening authoritarian version of John Locke's social contract: some censorship in return for social stability and the ability to speak out in small numbers and to lodge complaints. In a more positive light, what this suggests is that the regime has a point of weakness: Beijing has learned over the years that it cannot accomplish as much by force but needs the cooperation of its 1.3 billion strong populace in order to maintain the stability required to grow economically. Beijing may not give into Occupy Central's demands today, but is probably trying desperately to figure out why in Hong Kong, its give and take strategy is not quite working to plan.

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