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Our Desk: Censorship 2.0

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image Vanessa Moore

Over the past week, China was gripped by the stream of Weibo updates from the trial of fallen politician Bo Xilai. With the hearing now over, Bo’s demise was anticipated to be routine. But it was anything but that. In a newfound effort at openness, party cadres took the curious step of endeavouring to portray the hearing as legitimate through a microblog feed and the releasing of transcripts. Furthermore, Bo was allowed to frame an unexpectedly vigorous defence. Like Mao’s infamous purges, these sorts of Communist show trials are by their very nature renowned for their predetermined outcomes. Looking back to last year, Bo’s trial stood in evident contrast with the foregone one-day hearing and conviction of his wife, Gu Kailai, for the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood.
As a result, this new (relative) technological and legal openness has been particularly noted by China watchers. The Weibo posts mark progress in transparency, said Yang Dali, a political scientist at the University of Chicago Center in Beijing, quoted in a Thursday AP article by Didi Tang. “It is a great move by the Jinan court. In many ways, it has lent a lot more credibility to this case,” Yang said.
Nevertheless, although significant for Chinese standards, the trial still fell far from the full package of transparency afforded by Western courtrooms. Writing for the London-based Guardian, on the first day of the hearing, Tania Branigan rather aptly described the proceedings as “openness with Chinese characteristics”. The courtroom was off limits to independent observers, and the 19 journalists present were from state media organisations. What’s more, foreign media were altogether excluded.
Rather than optimistically viewing the Weibo stream as evidence of a new shift in openness, I’m actually more pessimistic than ever. Just like the evolution of a virus, Chinese censorship has evolved by embracing social media, assimilating it, and using it as one of its own tools. While it’s true that more information circulated, it was still pre-filtered and manipulated before its release; then the way it was presented by the media was still subject to the usual propaganda channels.
Going back to Branigan’s Guardian article, “It was a powerful example of the way Chinese authorities have sought to not merely control social media – most recently reining in opinion leaders as well as targeting smaller fry – but also shape conversations”, she wrote. “It’s not even a bone they are throwing to the public in response to great interest in the case. It’s a public relations strategy,” the piece quoted David Bandurski of Hong Kong University’s China Media Project as saying.
Furthermore censorship instructions issued to the media by government authorities (ironically referred to by Chinese journalists and bloggers as “Directives from the Ministry of Truth”) leaked and distributed online by the China Digital Times go a long way to proving this point. “August 23rd: Central Propaganda Department: Regarding coverage of Bo Xilai’s hearing, headlines cannot express anything of benefit to Bo”. Similarly, on August 24th: “Regarding Bo Xilai’s court hearing today: content broadcast on the Jinan Intermediate People’s Court Weibo may be republished, but do not use this content as a news source. Media reports must use Xinhua News Agency wire copy”.
Just as the Great Firewall proved the authorities’ aptitude at maintaining their grip on power in the face of the Internet, China’s greatest skill to date has and always will be assimilation – taking a Western concept and adapting it. Just as we now have capitalism with Chinese characteristics, so too do we see the phenomenon of “openness with Chinese characteristics”. So don’t think for a moment that courtroom Weibo means significant reform on freedom of expression. That’s precisely what they what they want you to believe. This is censorship 2.0 after all.

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