Blurred Lines, Drawn Swords: Internet Control Under Xi

Discussing new restrictions on Chinese instant messaging services such as WeChat, Jason Q. Ng notes at China Real Time that the public accounts affected were already being censored behind a “cloak of ambiguity”:

The one obvious indicator of censorship on WeChat is an error message — “This content has been reported by multiple people, and the related content is unable to be shown” – that users occasionally see when browsing public posts. While the message makes clear that WeChat has removed a post, the source of the deletion is attributed to a WeChat users’ peers. If one takes the message at face value, WeChat is playing the role of an impartial moderator, letting users decide whether a piece of content is appropriate.

However, a preliminary analysis of the deleted posts indicates that WeChat is likely taking a more interventionist role than the error message suggests. The content in the deleted posts is similar to the sensitive content that routinely gets scrubbed from Weibo and other platforms: rumors of Communist Party nepotism, snide political jokes and other forms of satire, images of scantily-clad (if clad at all) women and so on. While one might expect an average WeChat user to object to pictures of naked women, it’s hard to explain why such a user would go out of his or her way to report, for example, a series of photos skewering the antipathy among Chinese officials toward carrying their own umbrellas. [Source]

The murkiness of the service’s censorship policies, he writes, “fits well with the increasingly sophisticated measures being taken on the Chinese Internet to obscure the filtering that is taking place.” But while the parameters of censorship may increasingly be hidden, the fact of its existence is not. State media has stoutly defended the need for restrictions, while at Bloomberg, Lulu Yilun Chen and Ting Shi survey the “unapologetic” tightening of Internet controls under Xi Jinping:

“The past 12 months has certainly been the toughest period” for the country’s Internet, said [CDT founder] Xiao Qiang, a professor who focuses on state censorship at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Information. “The past 12 months are only the beginning. We should see much harsher measures in the coming months and even years.”

[…] “What characterizes Xi’s Internet-censorship style is an unapologetic ‘showing of the sword,’” said Chang Ping, a former editor for the Guangzhou-based Southern Weekly newspaper who moved to Germany after his writings were banned. “He neither pays any attention to international condemnation on curtailing the free flow of information, nor does he care that his Internet policy might be at odds with the constitution, which theoretically enshrines the freedom of speech.” [Source]

Read more about China’s Internet controls, including a recent interview with Ng about “hairy bacon and digital censorship,” via CDT.