Censoring the News Before It Happens

At The New York Review of Books, Perry Link discusses CDT’s ‘Directives from the Ministry of Truth’ series of leaked propaganda instructions:

In the end […], none of the parts of [CDT founder and editor-in-chief] Xiao Qiang’s project is as important as the whole that it seeks to reveal. In recent years China’s rulers have been building a gargantuan Internet censorship system. It is many times larger than any comparable effort, in any era. Soviet-era censorship and China’s own Mao-era approach to the press were tighter and also included elements of guiding as well as outright suppressing of information. But no system in the world has been remotely as large in the number of details it attended to or in the number of people devoted to the work. (The recently disclosed efforts of the NSA to store, in secrecy, the metadata of electronic communications of nearly all US citizens, however deplorable, are not nearly as far-reaching. And the NSA activity apparently has been limited to collecting data and occasionally to eavesdropping—not to blocking, manipulating, or manufacturing what is said.)

Most of the Chinese system remains obscure; Xiao’s 2,600 directives show only a corner of it—or, more precisely, several small corners. On June 17 and 18, Xiao attended an international “Freedom Online” conference in Tunis. One of his hosts brought him to visit the nearby Bulla Regia ruins of an ancient Roman city. They observed some walls here, some columns there, a mosaic over there—remnants that spoke of something much grander. Xiao was reminded of his research project—except that, in his case, the huge mysterious picture was slowly coming together, not deteriorating. [Source]

Link describes other parts of the mosaic, including “50 Cent Party” astroturfers—some of whom, he writes, are prisoners paid not in mao but in sentence reductions. He notes that many of the authorities’ efforts to direct online content appear focused on preventing collective action and organization, a conclusion also of recent research at Harvard into post deletion on Chinese social media.

For more on the workings of China’s Internet controls and their context, see Gady Epstein’s recent special report at The Economist, and a subsequent Five Books interview on recommended readings, via CDT.