In an article for Foreign Policy, Global Voices co-founder, former bureau chief of CNN Beijing, and digital free speech advocate Rebecca MacKinnon explores the paradoxes of China’s domestic censorship regime in the age of the Internet. MacKinnon describes flaws in the “Great Firewall,” and explains that while social media is indeed leading to more government accountability by allowing greater citizen input, techno-utopian ideas of the democratic power of the Internet may be far-fetched:
[…]Clearly, China is no longer a classic Cold War-style authoritarian state. I call its new style of information-oriented governance “networked authoritarianism.” Thanks to the Internet in general and social media in particular, the Chinese people now have a mechanism to hold authorities accountable for wrongdoing — at least sometimes — without any actual political or legal reforms having taken place. Major political power struggles and scandals are no longer kept within elite circles. In the case of the Bo-Gu-Heywood scandal, social media “is forcing a level of transparency in how the government handles this case that never used to exist,” explains media entrepreneur and blogger Jeremy Goldkorn, who has been living in China since the 1990s. China’s political system may not have changed, yet the public has become both a constituency and a pawn in the nation’s political battles.
If anything, weibo may even help the Communist Party re-centralize its political power at the expense of local officials and regional governments, which over the past three decades of economic reform have gained greater autonomy from Beijing. The weibo companies are all headquartered in the capital and required to take orders from the central government. (“For a local government to have content blocked or deleted requires getting on a plane to Beijing,” [Chinese blogger Michael] Anti explains.) The advent of weibo has created a cycle in which the public is increasingly emboldened to use social media to report on localized abuses by individual officials, with some reason to hope that once the central government is alerted to the problem justice will prevail.
At the same time, the consequences of any efforts to organize protests, meetings, or movements focused on criticizing or changing the central government remain the same as they been for more than two decades, since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. Liu Xiaobo, who circulated the “Charter 08” treatise calling for multi-party democracy and who won a Nobel Peace Price in 2010, is serving a 10-year jail sentence. Many signatories of his charter received visits from the police. In early 2011, dozens of people who re-tweeted calls for “jasmine protests” inspired by Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution” were questioned or arrested. Weibo postings by intellectuals calling for political reform are quickly removed, and have not been allowed to go viral as the Bo Xilai rumor postings managed to do. Chinese journalists are being muzzled more tightly than ever to prevent them from conducting investigative reporting that might damage the central government’s power.[…]