Will China’s new national search engine, ChinaSo, fare better than “The Little Search Engine that Couldn’t”?

State search engine ChinaSo launched in March 2014 following indifferent performance from the previous state-run search engine Jike.
State search engine ChinaSo launched in March 2014 following indifferent performance from the previous state-run search engine Jike. Its long-term impact on China’s search market and users remains unclear.

When Jike, the Chinese state-run search engine, launched in 2011, its efforts received a mixed response. The Chinese government pulled out all the stops to promote it, including placing Deng Yaping, one of China’s most successful athletes at the helm. Jike strategically branded itself as friendly, high-tech, and patriotic to appeal to national pride, competition, and trust. It also signaled a serious attempt by a powerful authoritarian state to nationalize the Internet within its territory, and to extend its influence in the digital sphere. However, plagued by technological inferiority, management deficiencies, financial woes and user indifference, Jike failed in terms of user adoption, pointing to the limits of state influence in the marketplace.

Users and critics remain skeptical of state-run search engines. While some news outlets referred to Jike as “the little search engine that couldn’t,” Chinese propaganda was busy at work rebranding, recalibrating, and reimagining its efforts. The result? The search engine formally known as Jike has now morphed into a new enterprise known as “ChinaSo”. This transformation is not new — Jike originally launched in 2010 under the name Goso, rebranding itself as Jike a year later. The March 2014 unveiling of ChinaSo was the result of the merging of the two state-run search engines Jike and Panguso.

Only time will tell if this new (ad)venture will prove more fruitful. However, several things are worthy of note here. First, despite repeated trials, the Chinese state has not given up on its efforts to expand its digital toolbox and weave a ‘China Wide Web’. Rather, state media have pooled their resources to make their collective, strategic bets. The merging of Jike and Panguso into ChinaSo was backed by several state media giants, including People’s Daily, Xinhua News Agency, and China Central Television. Branded explicitly as “China Search: Authoritative National Search,” ChinaSo reinforces a sense of national identity. How does it perform? ChinaSo now ranks 225th in China and 2139th globally (Alexa.com, 8 February 2015), up from Jike’s ranking of 376th in China and 3,174th globally that we last recorded in May 2013. While ChinaSo’s rankings have increased over time, a low adoption rate continues to haunt the state search engine. Compared to China’s homegrown commercial search giant Baidu that ranks first in China and fifth globally (Alexa.com, 8 February 2015), ChinaSo has a long way to go.

Second, in terms of design, ChinaSo has adopted a mixture of general and vertical search to increase its appeal to a wide range of potential users. Its general search, similar to Google’s and Baidu’s, allows users to query through a search box to receive results in a combination of text, image and video formats based on ChinaSo’s search engine that archives, ranks, and presents information to users. In addition, ChinaSo incorporates vertical search focusing on a wide range of categories such as transportation, investment, education and technology, health, food, tourism, shopping, real estate and cars, and sports and entertainment. Interestingly, ChinaSo also guides searchers by highlighting “top search topics today” as users place their cursor in the search box. Currently, various “anti-corruption” entries appear prominently which correspond to the central government’s high-profile anti-corruption campaigns. Given the opaqueness of search engine operation, it is unclear whether the “top searches” are ChinaSo’s editorial choices or search terms based on user queries. We suspect ChinaSo strategically prioritizes this list to direct user attention.

Third, besides improved functionality that enhances ChinaSo’s priming and agenda-setting abilities, it continues to practice (as did Jike) sophisticated information filtering and presentation. For instance, a search of “New York Times” returns not a single result directing users to the paper’s website — as it is banned in China. Instead, on the first page of results, ChinaSo directs users to several Chinese online encyclopedia entries for New York Times, stock information of NYT, and sanctioned news stories relating to the NYT that have appeared in such official media outlets as People’s Net, China Daily, and Global Times. All information appears in Chinese, which has acted as a natural barrier to the average Chinese user who seeks information outside China. Although Chinese language versions of foreign new organizations such as NYT Chinese, WSJ Chinese, and BBC Chinese exist, they are invariably blocked in China.

Last, ChinaSo’s long-term impact on China’s search market and users remains unclear. While many believe ChinaSo to be a “waste of taxpayer money” due to its persistent inability to carve out its market share in competition, others are willing to give it a shot, especially with regard to queries for official policies and statements, remarking that “[there] is nothing wrong with creating a state-run search engine service” and that ChinaSo’s results are better than those of its commercial counterparts. It seems that users either do not care or remain largely unaware of the surveillance capacities of search engines. Although recent scholarship (for instance here and here) has started to probe the Chinese notion and practices of privacy in social networking sites, no research has been conducted with regard to search-related privacy concerns in the Chinese context.

The idea of a state-sponsored search engine is not new, however. As early as 2005, a few European countries proposed a Euro-centric search engine “Project Quaero” to compete against Google and Yahoo! in what was perceived to be the “threat of Anglo-Saxon cultural imperialism.” In the post-Snowden world, not only are powerful authoritarian countries—China, Russia, Iran, and Turkey—interested in building their own national search engines, democratic countries like Germany and Brazil have also condemned the U.S. government and vowed to create their own “national Internets.”

The changing international political landscape compels researchers, policy makers and the public to re-evaluate previous assumptions of internationalism and confront the reality of the role of the Internet as an extension of state power and national identity instead. In the near future, the “the return of the state”, reflected in various trends to re-nationalize communication networks, will likely go hand in hand with social, economic and cultural changes that cross national and international borders. ChinaSo is part and parcel of the “geopolitical turn” in policy and Internet studies that should command more scholarly and public attention.

Read the full article: Jiang, M. & Okamoto, K. (2014) National identity, ideological apparatus, or panopticon? A case study of the Chinese national search engine Jike. Policy and Internet 6 (1) 89-107.

Min Jiang is an Associate Professor, in the department of Communication Studies, UNC Charlotte. Kristen Okamoto is a Ph.D. Student in the school of Communication Studies, University of Ohio.

How easy is it to research the Chinese web?

Chinese Internet Cafe
Access to data from the Chinese Web, like other Web data, depends on platform policies, the level of data openness, and the availability of data intermediary and tools. Image of a Chinese Internet cafe by Hal Dick.

Ed: How easy is it to request or scrape data from the “Chinese Web”? And how much of it is under some form of government control?

Han-Teng: Access to data from the Chinese Web, like other Web data, depends on the policies of platforms, the level of data openness, and the availability of data intermediary and tools. All these factors have direct impacts on the quality and usability of data. Since there are many forms of government control and intentions, increasingly not just the websites inside mainland China under Chinese jurisdiction, but also the Chinese “soft power” institutions and individuals telling the “Chinese story” or “Chinese dream” (as opposed to “American dreams”), it requires case-by-case research to determine the extent and level of government control and interventions. Based on my own research on Chinese user-generated encyclopaedias and Chinese-language twitter and Weibo, the research expectations seem to be that control and intervention by Beijing will be most likely on political and cultural topics, not likely on economic or entertainment ones.

This observation is linked to how various forms of government control and interventions are executed, which often requires massive data and human operations to filter, categorise and produce content that are often based on keywords. It is particularly true for Chinese websites in mainland China (behind the Great Firewall, excluding Hong Kong and Macao), where private website companies execute these day-to-day operations under the directives and memos of various Chinese party and government agencies.

Of course there is some extra layer of challenges if researchers try to request content and traffic data from the major Chinese websites for research, especially regarding censorship. Nonetheless, since most Web content data is open, researchers such as Professor Fu in Hong Kong University manage to scrape data sample from Weibo, helping researchers like me to access the data more easily. These openly collected data can then be used to measure potential government control, as has been done for previous research on search engines (Jiang and Akhtar 2011; Zhu et al. 2011) and social media (Bamman et al. 2012; Fu et al. 2013; Fu and Chau 2013; King et al. 2012; Zhu et al. 2012).

It follows that the availability of data intermediary and tools will become important for both academic and corporate research. Many new “public opinion monitoring” companies compete to provide better tools and datasets as data intermediaries, including the Online Public Opinion Monitoring and Measuring Unit (人民网舆情监测室) of the People’s Net (a Party press organ) with annual revenue near 200 million RMB. Hence, in addition to the on-going considerations on big data and Web data research, we need to factor in how these private and public Web data intermediaries shape the Chinese Web data environment (Liao et al. 2013).

Given the fact that the government’s control of information on the Chinese Web involves not only the marginalization (as opposed to the traditional censorship) of “unwanted” messages and information, but also the prioritisation of propaganda or pro-government messages (including those made by paid commentators and “robots”), I would add that the new challenges for researchers include the detection of paid (and sometimes robot-generated) comments. Although these challenges are not exactly the same as data access, researchers need to consider them for data collection.

Ed: How much of the content and traffic is identifiable or geolocatable by region (eg mainland vs Hong Kong, Taiwan, abroad)?

Han-Teng: Identifying geographic information from Chinese Web data, like other Web data, can be largely done by geo-IP (a straightforward IP to geographic location mapping service), domain names (.cn for China; .hk for Hong Kong; .tw for Taiwan), and language preferences (simplified Chinese used by mainland Chinese users; traditional Chinese used by Hong Kong and Taiwan). Again, like the question of data access, the availability and quality of such geographic and linguistic information depends on the policies, openness, and the availability of data intermediary and tools.

Nonetheless, there exist research efforts on using geographic and/or linguistic information of Chinese Web data to assess the level and extent of convergence and separation of Chinese information and users around the world (Etling et al. 2009; Liao 2008; Taneja and Wu 2013). Etling and colleagues (2009) concluded their mapping of Chinese blogsphere research with the interpretation of five “attentive spaces” roughly corresponding to five clusters or zones in the network map: on one side, two clusters of “Pro-state” and “Business” bloggers, and on the other, two clusters of “Overseas” bloggers (including Hong Kong and Taiwan) and “Culture”. Situated between the three clusters of “Pro-state”, “Overseas” and “Culture” (and thus at the centre of the network map) is the remaining cluster they call the “critical discourse” cluster, which is at the intersection of the two sides (albeit more on the “blocked” side of the Great Firewall).

I myself found distinct geographic focus and linguistic preferences between the online citations in Baidu Baike and Chinese Wikipedia (Liao 2008). Other research based on a sample of traffic data shows the existence of a “Chinese” cluster as an instance of a “culturally defined market”, regardless of their geographic and linguistic differences (Taneja and Wu 2013). Although I found their argument that the Great Firewall has very limited impacts on such a single “Chinese” cluster, they demonstrate the possibility of extracting geographic and linguistic information on Chinese Web data for better understanding the dynamics of Chinese online interactions; which are by no means limited within China or behind the Great Firewall.

Ed: In terms of online monitoring of public opinion, is it possible to identify robots / “50 cent party” — that is, what proportion of the “opinion” actually has a government source?

Han-Teng: There exist research efforts in identifying robot comments by analysing the patterns and content of comments, and their profile relationship with other accounts. It is more difficult to prove the direct footprint of government sources. Nonetheless, if researchers take another approach such as narrative analysis for well-defined propaganda research (such as the pro- and anti-Falun opinions), it might be easier to categorise and visualise the dynamics and then trace back to the origins of dominant keywords and narratives to identify the sources of loud messages. I personally think such research and analytical efforts require deep knowledge on both technical and cultural-political understanding of Chinese Web data, preferably with an integrated mixed method research design that incorporates both the quantitative and qualitative methods required for the data question at hand.

Ed: In terms of censorship, ISPs operate within explicit governmental guidelines; do the public (who contribute content) also have explicit rules about what topics and content are ‘acceptable’, or do they have to work it out by seeing what gets deleted?

Han-Teng: As a general rule, online censorship works better when individual contributors are isolated. Most of the time, contributors experience technical difficulties when using Beijing’s unwanted keywords or undesired websites, triggering self-censorship behaviours to avoid such difficulties. I personally believe such tacit learning serves as the most relevant psychological and behaviour mechanism (rather than explicit rules). In a sense, the power of censorship and political discipline is the fact that the real rules of engagement are never explicit to users, thereby giving more power to technocrats to exercise power in a more arbitrary fashion. I would describe the general situation as follows. Directives are given to both ISPs and ICPs about certain “hot terms”, some dynamic and some constant. Users “learn” them through encountering various forms of “technical difficulties”. Thus, while ISPs and ICPs may not enforce the same directives in the same fashion (some overshoot while others undershoot), the general tacit knowledge about the “red line” is thus delivered.

Nevertheless, there are some efforts where users do share their experiences with one another, so that they have a social understanding of what information and which category of users is being disciplined. There are also constant efforts outside mainland China, especially institutions in Hong Kong and Berkeley to monitor what is being deleted. However, given the fact that data is abundant for Chinese users, I have become more worried about the phenomenon of “marginalization of information and/or narratives”. It should be noted that censorship or deletion is just one of the tools of propaganda technocrats and that the Chinese Communist Party has had its share of historical lessons (and also victories) against its past opponents, such as the Chinese Nationalist Party and the United States during the Chinese Civil War and the Cold War. I strongly believe that as researchers we need better concepts and tools to assess the dynamics of information marginalization and prioritisation, treating censorship and data deletion as one mechanism of information marginalization in the age of data abundance and limited attention.

Ed: Has anyone tried to produce a map of censorship: ie mapping absence of discussion? For a researcher wanting to do this, how would they get hold of the deleted content?

Han-Teng: Mapping censorship has been done through experiment (MacKinnon 2008; Zhu et al. 2011) and by contrasting datasets (Fu et al. 2013; Liao 2013; Zhu et al. 2012). Here the availability of data intermediaries such as the WeiboScope in Hong Kong University, and unblocked alternative such as Chinese Wikipedia, serve as direct and indirect points of comparison to see what is being or most likely to be deleted. As I am more interested in mapping information marginalization (as opposed to prioritisation), I would say that we need more analytical and visualisation tools to map out the different levels and extent of information censorship and marginalization. The research challenges then shift to the questions of how and why certain content has been deleted inside mainland China, and thus kept or leaked outside China. As we begin to realise that the censorship regime can still achieve its desired political effects by voicing down the undesired messages and voicing up the desired ones, researchers do not necessarily have to get hold of the deleted content from the websites inside mainland China. They can simply reuse plenty of Chinese Web data available outside the censorship and filtering regime to undertake experiments or comparative study.

Ed: What other questions are people trying to explore or answer with data from the “Chinese Web”? And what are the difficulties? For instance, are there enough tools available for academics wanting to process Chinese text?

Han-Teng: As Chinese societies (including mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and other overseas diaspora communities) go digital and networked, it’s only a matter of time before Chinese Web data becomes the equivalent of English Web data. However, there are challenges in processing Chinese language texts, although several of the major challenges become manageable as digital and network tools go multilingual. In fact, Chinese-language users and technologies have been the major goal and actors for a multi-lingual Internet (Liao 2009a,b). While there is technical progress in basic tools, we as Chinese Internet researchers still lack data and tool intermediaries that are designed to process Chinese texts smoothly. For instance, many analytical software and tools depend on or require the use of space characters as word boundaries, a condition that does not apply to Chinese texts.

In addition, since there exist some technical and interpretative challenges in analysing Chinese text datasets with mixed scripts (e.g. simplified and traditional Chinese) or with other foreign languages. Mandarin Chinese language is not the only language inside China; there are indications that the Cantonese and Shanghainese languages have a significant presence. Minority languages such as Tibetan, Mongolian, Uyghur, etc. are also still used by official Chinese websites to demonstrate the cultural inclusiveness of the Chinese authorities. Chinese official and semi-official diplomatic organs have also tried to tell “Chinese stories” in various of the world’s major languages, sometimes in direct competition with its political opponents such as Falun Gong.

These areas of the “Chinese Web” data remain unexplored territory for systematic research, which will require more tools and methods that are similar to the toolkits of multi-lingual Internet researchers. Hence I would say the basic data and tool challenges are not particular to the “Chinese Web”, but are rather a general challenge to the “Web” that is becoming increasingly multilingual by the day. We Chinese Internet researchers do need more collaboration when it comes to sharing data and tools, and I am hopeful that we will have more trustworthy and independent data intermediaries, such as Weiboscope and others, for a better future of the Chinese Web data ecology.


Bamman, D., O’Connor, B., & Smith, N. (2012). Censorship and deletion practices in Chinese social media. First Monday, 17(3-5).

Etling, B., Kelly, J., & Faris, R. (2009). Mapping Chinese Blogosphere. In 7th Annual Chinese Internet Research Conference (CIRC 2009). Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, US.

Fu, K., Chan, C., & Chau, M. (2013). Assessing Censorship on Microblogs in China: Discriminatory Keyword Analysis and Impact Evaluation of the “Real Name Registration” Policy. IEEE Internet Computing, 17(3), 42–50.

Fu, K., & Chau, M. (2013). Reality Check for the Chinese Microblog Space: a random sampling approach. PLOS ONE, 8(3), e58356.

Jiang, M., & Akhtar, A. (2011). Peer into the Black Box of Chinese Search Engines: A Comparative Study of Baidu, Google, and Goso. Presented at the The 9th Chinese Internet Research Conference (CIRC 2011), Washington, D.C.: Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. Georgetown University.

King, G., Pan, J., & Roberts, M. (2012). How censorship in China allows government criticism but silences collective expression. In APSA 2012 Annual Meeting Paper.

Liao, H.-T. (2008). A webometric comparison of Chinese Wikipedia and Baidu Baike and its implications for understanding the Chinese-speaking Internet. In 9th annual Internet Research Conference: Rethinking Community, Rethinking Place. Copenhagen.

Liao, H.-T. (2009a). Are Chinese characters not modern enough? An essay on their role online. GLIMPSE: the art + science of seeing, 2(1), 16–24.

Liao, H.-T. (2009b). Conflict and Consensus in the Chinese version of Wikipedia. IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, 28(2), 49–56. doi:10.1109/MTS.2009.932799

Liao, H.-T. (2013, August 5). How do Baidu Baike and Chinese Wikipedia filter contribution? A case study of network gatekeeping. To be presented at the Wikisym 2013: The Joint International Symposium on Open Collaboration, Hong Kong.

Liao, H.-T., Fu, K., Jiang, M., & Wang, N. (2013, June 15). Chinese Web Data: Definition, Uses, and Scholarship. (Accepted). To be presented at the 11th Annual Chinese Internet Research Conference (CIRC 2013), Oxford, UK.

MacKinnon, R. (2008). Flatter world and thicker walls? Blogs, censorship and civic discourse in China. Public Choice, 134(1), 31–46. doi:10.1007/s11127-007-9199-0

Taneja, H., & Wu, A. X. (2013). How Does the Great Firewall of China Affect Online User Behavior? Isolated “Internets” as Culturally Defined Markets on the WWW. Presented at the 11th Annual Chinese Internet Research Conference (CIRC 2013), Oxford, UK.

Zhu, T., Bronk, C., & Wallach, D. S. (2011). An Analysis of Chinese Search Engine Filtering. arXiv:1107.3794.

Zhu, T., Phipps, D., Pridgen, A., Crandall, J. R., & Wallach, D. S. (2012). Tracking and Quantifying Censorship on a Chinese Microblogging Site. arXiv:1211.6166.

Han-Teng was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

Han-Teng Liao is an OII DPhil student whose research aims to reconsider the role of keywords (as in understanding “keyword advertising” using knowledge from sociolinguistics and information science) and hyperlinks (webometrics) in shaping the sense of “fellow users” in digital networked environments. Specifically, his DPhil project is a comparative study of two major user-contributed Chinese encyclopedias, Chinese Wikipedia and Baidu Baike.

Is China shaping the Internet in Africa?

World Economic Forum
The telecommunication sector in Africa is increasingly crowded. Image of the Panel on the Future of China-Africa Relations, World Economic Forum on Africa 2011 (Cape Town) by World Economic Forum.

Ed: Concerns have been expressed (eg by Hillary Clinton and David Cameron) about the detrimental role China may play in African media sectors, by increasing authoritarianism and undermining Western efforts to promote openness and freedom of expression. Are these concerns fair?

Iginio: China’s initiatives in the communication sector abroad are burdened by the negative record of its domestic media. For the Chinese authorities this is a challenge that does not have an easy solution as they can’t really use their international broadcasters to tell a different story about Chinese media and Chinese engagement with foreign media, because they won’t be trusted. As the linguist George Lakoff has explained, if someone is told “Don’t think of an elephant!” he will likely start “summoning the bulkiness, the grayness, the trunkiness of an elephant”. That is to say, “when we negate a frame, we evoke a frame”. Saying that “Chinese interventions are not increasing authoritarianism” won’t help much. The only path China can undertake is to develop projects and use its media in ways that fall outside the realm of what is expected, creating new associations between China and the media, rather than trying to redress existing ones. In part this is already happening. For example, CCTV Africa, the new initiative of state-owned China’s Central Television (CCTV) and China’s flagship effort to win African hearts and minds, has developed a strategy aimed not at directly offering an alternative image of China, but at advancing new ways of looking at Africa, offering unprecedented resources to African journalists to report from the continent and tapping into the narrative of a “rising Africa”, as a continent of opportunities rather than of hunger, wars and underdevelopment.

Ed: Ideology has disappeared from the language of China-Africa cooperation, largely replaced by admissions of China’s interest in Africa’s resources and untapped potential. Does politics (eg China wanting to increase its international support and influence) nevertheless still inform the relationship?

China’s efforts in Africa during decolonisation were closely linked to its efforts to export and strengthen the socialist revolution on the continent. Today the language of ideology has largely disappeared from public statements, leaving less charged references to the promotion of “mutual benefit” and “sovereignty and independence” as guides of the new engagement. At the same time, this does not mean that the Chinese government has lost interest in engaging at the political/ideological level when the conditions allow. Identity of political views is not a precondition for engagement anymore but neither is it an aspiration, as China is not necessarily trying to influence local politics in ways that could promote socialism. But when there is already a resonance with the ideas embraced by its partners, Chinese authorities have not shied away from taking the engagement to a political/ideological level. This is demonstrated for example by party to party ties between the Communist Party of China (CUC) and other Socialist parties in Africa, including the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. Representative of the CUC have been invited to attend the EPRDF’s party conferences.

Ed: How much influence does China have on the domestic media / IT policies of the nations it invests in? Is it pushing the diffusion of its own strategies of media development and media control abroad? (And what are these strategies if so?)

Iginio: The Chinese government has signalled its lack of interest in exporting its own development model, and its intention to simply respond to the demands of its African partners. Ongoing research has largely confirmed that this ‘no strings attached’ approach is consistent, but this does not mean that China’s presence on the continent is neutral or has no impact on development policies and practices. China is indirectly influencing media/IT policies and practices in at least three ways.

First, while Western donors have tended to favour media projects benefiting the private sector and the civil society, often seeking to create incentives for the state to open a dialogue with other forces in society, China has exhibited a tendency to privilege government actors, thus increasing governments’ capacity vis-à-vis other critical components in the development of a media and telecommunication systems.

Second, with the launch of media projects such as CCTV Africa China has dramatically boosted its potential to shape narratives, exert soft power, and allow different voices to shape the political and development agenda. While international broadcasters such as the BBC World Service and Aljazeera have often tended to rely on civil society organisations as gatekeepers of information, CCTV has so far shown less interest in these actors, privileging the formal over the informal and also as part of its effort to provide more positive news from the continent.

Third, China’s domestic example to balance between investment in media and telecommunication and efforts to contain the risks of political instability that new technologies may bring, has the potential to act as a legitimising force for other states that share concerns of balancing both development and security, and that are actively seeking justifications for limiting voices and uses of technology that are considered potentially destabilising.

Ed: Is China developing tailored media models for abroad, or even using Africa as a “development lab”? How does China’s interest in Africa’s mediascape compare with its interest in other regions worldwide?

Iginio: There are concerns that, just as Western countries have tried to promote their models in Africa, China will try to export its own. As mentioned earlier, no studies to date have proved this to be the case. Rather, Africa indeed seems to be emerging as a “development lab”, a terrain in which to experiment and progressively find new strategies for engagement. Despite Africa’s growing importance for China as a trading and geostrategic partner, the continent is still perceived as a space where it is possible to make mistakes. In the case of the media, this is resulting in greater opportunities for journalists to experiment with new styles and enjoy freedoms that would be more difficult to obtain back in China, or even in the US, where CCTV has launched another regional initiative, CCTV America, which is more burdened, however, by the ideological confrontation between the two countries.

As part of Oxford’s Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy‘s (PCMLP’s) ongoing research on China’s role in the media and communication sector in Africa, we have proposed a framework that can encourage understanding of Chinese engagement in the African mediasphere in terms of its original contributions, and not simply as a negative of the impression left by the West. This framework breaks down China’s actions on the continent according to China’s ability to act as a partner, a prototype, and a persuader, questioning, for example, whether or not media projects sponsored by the Chinese government are facilitating the diffusion of some aspects that characterise the Chinese domestic media system, rather than assuming this will be the case.

China’s role as a partner is evident in the significant resources it provides to African countries to implement social and economic development projects, including the laying down of infrastructure to increase Internet and mobile access. China’s perception as a prototype is linked to the ability its government has shown in balancing between investment in media and ICTs and containment of the risks of political instability new technologies may bring. Finally, China’s presence in Africa can be assessed according to its modality and ability to act as a persuader, as it seeks to shape national and international narratives.

So far we have employed this framework only to look at Chinese engagement in Africa, focusing in particular on Ghana, Ethiopia and Kenya, but we believe it can be applied also in other areas where China has stepped up its involvement in the ICT sector.

Ed: Has there been any explicit conflict yet between Chinese and non-Chinese news corporations vying for influence in this space? And how crowded is that space?

Iginio: The telecommunication sector in Africa is increasingly crowded as numerous international corporations from Europe (e.g. Vodafone), India (e.g. Airtel) and indeed China (e.g. Huawei and ZTE) are competing for shares of a profitable and growing market. Until recently Chinese companies have avoided competing with one another, but things are slowly changing. In Ethiopia, for example, after an initial project funded by the Chinese government to upgrade the telecommunication infrastructure was entirely commissioned to Chinese telecom giant ZTE, which is partially owned by the state, now ZTE has entered in competition with its Chinese (and privately owned) rival, Huawei, to benefit from an extension of the earlier project. In Kenya Huawei even decided to take ZTE to court over a project its rival won to supply the Kenyan police with a communication and surveillance system. Chinese investments in the telecommunication sectors in Africa have been part of the government’s strategy of engagement in the continent, but profit seems to have become an increasingly important factor, even if this may interfere with this strategy.

Ed: How do the recipient nations regard China’s investment and influence? For example, is there any evidence that authoritarian governments are seeking to adopt aspects of China’s own system?

Iginio: China is perceived as an example mostly by those countries that are seeking to balance between investment in ICTs and containment of the risks of political instability new technologies may bring. In a Wikileaks cable reporting a meeting between Sebhat Nega, one of the Ethiopian government’s ideologues, and the then US ambassador Donald Yamamoto, for example, Sebhat was reported to have openly declared his admiration for China and stressed that Ethiopia “needs the China model to inform the Ethiopian people”.

Iginio Gagliardone is a British Academy Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, University of Oxford. His research focuses on the role of the media in political change, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the adaptation of international norms of freedom of expression in authoritarian regimes. Currently, he is exploring the role of emerging powers such as China in promoting alternative conceptions of the Internet in Africa. In particular he is analysing whether and how the ideas of state stability, development and community that characterize the Chinese model are influencing and legitimizing the development of a different conception of the information society.

Iginio Gagliardone was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

Uncovering the patterns and practice of censorship in Chinese news sites

Ed: How much work has been done on censorship of online news in China? What are the methodological challenges and important questions associated with this line of enquiry?

Sonya: Recent research is paying much attention to social media and aiming to quantify their censorial practices and to discern common patterns in them. Among these empirical studies, Bamman et al.’s (2012) work claimed to be “the first large-scale analysis of political content censorship” that investigates messages deleted from Sina Weibo, a Chinese equivalent to Twitter. On an even larger scale, King et al. (2013) collected data from nearly 1,400 Chinese social media platforms and analyzed the deleted messages. Most studies on news censorship, however, are devoted to narratives of special cases, such as the closure of Freeing Point, an outspoken news and opinion journal, and the blocking of the New York Times after it disclosed the wealth possessed by the family of Chinese former premier Wen Jiabao.

The shortage of news censorship research could be attributed to several methodological challenges. First, it is tricky to detect censorship to begin with, given the word ‘censorship’ is one of the first to be censored. Also, news websites will not simply let their readers hit a glaring “404 page not found”. Instead, they will use a “soft 404”, which returns a “success” code for a request of a deleted web page and takes readers to a (different) existing web page. While humans may be able to detect these soft 404s, it will be harder for computer programs (eg run by researchers) to do so. Moreover, because different websites employ varying soft 404 techniques, much labor is required to survey them and to incorporate the acquired knowledge into a generic monitoring tool.

Second, high computing power and bandwidth are required to handle the large amount of news publications and the slow network access to Chinese websites. For instance, NetEase alone publishes 8,000 – 10,000 news articles every day. Meanwhile, the Internet connection between the Chinese cyberspace and the outer world is fairly slow and it takes more than a second to check one link because the Great Firewall checks both incoming and outgoing Internet traffic. These two factors translate to 2-3 hours for a single program to check one day’s news publications of NetEase alone. If we fire up too many programs to accelerate the progress, the database system and/or the network connection may be challenged. In my case, even though I am using high performance computers at Michigan State University to conduct this research, they are overwhelmed every now and then.

Despite all the difficulties, I believe it is of great importance to reveal censored news stories to the public, especially to the audience inside China who do not enjoy a free flow of information. Censored news is a special type of information, as it is too inconvenient to exist in authorities’ eyes and it is deemed important to citizens’ everyday lives. For example, the outbreak of SARS had been censored from Chinese media presumably to avoid spoiling the harmonious atmosphere created for the 16th National Congress of the Communist Party. This allowed the virus to develop into a worldwide epidemic. Like SARS, a variety of censored issues are not only inconvenient but also crucial, because the authorities would not otherwise allocate substantial resources to monitor or eliminate them if they were merely trivial. Therefore, after censored news is detected, it is vital to seek effective and efficient channels to disclose it to the public so as to counterbalance potential damage that censorship may entail.

Ed: You found that party organs, ie news organizations tightly affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party, published a considerable amount of deleted news. Was this surprising?

Sonya: Yes, I was surprised when looking at the results the first time. To be exact, our finding is that commercial media experience a higher deletion rate, but party organs contribute the most deleted news by sheer volume, reflecting the fact that party organs possess more resources allocated by the central and local governments and therefore have the capacity to produce more news. Consequently, party organs have a higher chance of publishing controversial information that may be deleted in the future, especially when a news story becomes sensitive for some reason that is hard to foresee. For example, investigations of some government officials started when netizens recognized them in the news with different luxury watches and other expensive accessories. As such, even though party organs are obliged to write odes to the party, they may eventually backfire on the cadres if the beautiful words are discovered to be too far from reality.

Ed: How sensitive are citizens to the fact that some topics are actively avoided in the news media? And how easy is it for people to keep abreast of these topics (eg the “three Ts” of Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen) from other information sources?

Sonya: This question highlights the distinction between pre-censorship and post-censorship. Our study looked at post-censorship, ie information that is published but subsequently deleted. By contrast, the topics that are “actively avoided” fall under the category of pre-censorship. I am fairly convinced that the current pre- and post-censorship practice is effective in terms of keeping the public from learning inconvenient facts and from mobilizing for collective action. If certain topics are consistently wiped from the mass media, how will citizens ever get to know about them?

The Tiananmen Square protest, for instance, has never been covered by Chinese mass media, leaving an entire generation growing up since 1989 that is ignorant of this historical event. As such, if younger Chinese citizens have never heard of the Tiananmen Square protest, how could they possibly start an inquiry into this incident? Or, if they have heard of it and attempt to learn about it from the Internet, what they will soon realize is that domestic search engines, social media, and news media all fail their requests and foreign ones are blocked. Certainly, they could use circumvention tools to bypass the Great Firewall, but the sad truth is that probably under 1% of them have ever made such an effort, according to the Harvard Berkman Center’s report in 2011.

Ed: Is censorship of domestic news (such as food scares) more geared towards “avoiding panics and maintaining social order”, or just avoiding political embarrassment? For example, do you see censorship of environmental issues and (avoidable) disasters?

Sonya: The government certainly tries to avoid political embarrassment in the case of food scares by manipulating news coverage, but it is also their priority to maintain social order or so-called “social harmony”. Exactly for this reason, Zhao Lianhai, the most outspoken parent of a toxic milk powder victim was charged with “inciting social disorder” and sentenced to two and a half years in prison. Frustrated by Chinese milk powder, Chinese tourists are aggressively stocking up on milk powder from elsewhere, such as in Hong Kong and New Zealand, causing panics over milk powder shortages in those places.

After the earthquake in Sichuan, another group of grieving parents were arrested on similar charges when they questioned why their children were buried under crumbled schools whereas older buildings remained standing. The high death toll of this earthquake was among the avoidable disasters that the government attempts to mask and force the public to forget. Environmental issues, along with land acquisition, social unrest, and labor exploitation, are other frequently censored topics in the name of “stability maintenance”.

Ed: You plotted a map to show the geographic distribution of news deletion: what does the pattern show?

Sonya: We see an apparent geographic pattern in news deletion, with neighboring countries being more likely to be deleted than distant ones. Border disputes between China and its neighbors may be one cause; for example with Japan over the Diaoyu-Senkaku Islands, with the Philippines over the Huangyan Island-Scarborough Shoal, and with India over South Tibet. Another reason may be a concern over maintaining allies. Burma had the highest deletion rates among all the countries, with the deleted news mostly covering its curb on censorship. Watching this shift, China might worry that media reform in Burma could lead to copycat attempts inside China.

On the other hand, China has given Burma diplomatic cover, considering it as the “second coast” to the Indian Ocean and importing its natural resources (Howe & Knight, 2012). For these reasons, China may be compelled to censor Burma more than other countries, even though they don’t share a border. Nonetheless, although oceans apart, the US topped the list by sheer number of news deletions, reflecting the bittersweet relation between the two nations.

Ed: What do you think explains the much higher levels of censorship reported by others for social media than for news media? How does geographic distribution of deletion differ between the two?

Sonya: The deletion rates of online news are apparently far lower than those of Sina Weibo posts. The overall deletion rates on NetEase and Sina Beijing were 0.05% and 0.17%, compared to 16.25% on the social media platform (Bamman et al., 2012). Several reasons may help explain this gap. First, social media confronts enduring spam that has to be cleaned up constantly, whereas it is not a problem at all for professional news aggregators. Second, self-censorship practiced by news media plays an important role, because Chinese journalists are more obliged and prepared to self-censor sensitive information, compared to ordinary Chinese citizens. Subsequently, news media rarely mention “crown prince party” or “democracy movement”, which were among the most frequently deleted terms on Sina Weibo.

Geographically, the deletion rates across China have distinct patterns on news media and social media. Regarding Sina Weibo, deletion rates increase when the messages are published near the fringe or in the west where the economy is less developed. Regarding news websites, the deletion rates rise as they approach the center and east, where the economy is better developed. In addition, the provinces surrounding Beijing also have more news deleted, meaning that political concerns are a driving force behind content control.

Ed: Can you tell if the censorship process mostly relies on searching for sensitive keywords, or on more semantic analysis of the actual content? ie can you (or the censors..) distinguish sensitive “opinions” as well as sensitive topics?

Sonya: First, too sensitive topics will never survive pre-censorship or be published on news websites, such as the Tiananmen Square protest, although they may sneak in on social media with deliberate typos or other circumvention techniques. However, it is clear that censors use keywords to locate articles on sensitive topics. For instance, after the Fukushima earthquake in 2011, rumors spread in the Chinese Cyberspace that radiation was rising from the Japanese nuclear plant and iodine would help protect against its harmful effects; this was followed by panic-buying of iodized salt. During this period, “nuclear defense”, “iodized salt” and “radioactive iodine”–among other generally neutral terms–became politically charged overnight, and were censored in the Chinese web sphere. The taboo list of post-censorship keywords evolves continuously to handle breaking news. Beyond keywords, party organs and other online media are trying to automate sentiment analysis and discern more subtle context. People’s Daily, for instance, has been working with elite Chinese universities in this field and already developed a generic product for other institutes to monitor “public sentiment”.

Another way to sort out sensitive information is to keep an eye on most popular stories, because a popular story would represent a greater “threat” to the existing political and social order. In our study, about 47% of the deleted stories were listed as top 100 mostly read/discussed at some point. This indicates that the more readership a story gains, the more attention it draws from censors.

Although news websites self-censor (therefore experiencing under 1% post-censorship), they are also required to monitor and “clean” comments following each news article. According to my very conservative estimate–if a censor processes 100 comments per minute and works eight hours per day–reviewing comments on Sina Beijing from 11-16 September 2012, would have required 336 censors working full time. In fact, Charles Cao, CEO of Sina, mentioned to Forbes that at least 100 censors were “devoted to monitoring content 24 hours a day”. As new sensitive issues emerge and new circumvention techniques are developed continuously, it is an ongoing battle between the collective intelligence of Chinese netizens and the mechanical work conducted (and artificial intelligence implemented) by a small group of censors.

Ed: It must be a cause of considerable anxiety for journalists and editors to have their material removed. Does censorship lead to sanctions? Or is the censorship more of an annoyance that must be negotiated?

Sonya: Censorship does indeed lead to sanctions. However, I don’t think “anxiety” would be the right word to describe their feelings, because if they are really anxious they could always choose self-censorship and avoid embarrassing the authorities. Considering it is fairly easy to predict whether a news report will please or irritate officials, I believe what fulfills the whistleblowers when they disclose inconvenient facts is a strong sense of justice and tremendous audacity. Moreover, I could barely discern any “negotiation” in the process of censorship. Negotiation is at least a two-way communication, whereas censorship follows continual orders sent from the authorities to the mass media, and similarly propaganda is a one-way communication from the authorities to the masses via the media. As such, it is common to see disobedient journalists threatened or punished for “defying” censorial orders.

Southern Metropolis Daily is one of China’s most aggressive and punished newspapers. In 2003, the newspaper broke the epidemic of SARS that local officials had wished to hide from the public. Soon after this report, it covered a university graduate beaten to death in policy custody because he carried no proper residency papers. Both cases received enormous attention from Chinese authorities and the international community, seriously embarrassing local officials. It is alleged and widely believed that some local officials demanded harsh penalties for the Daily; the director and the deputy editor were sentenced to 11 and 12 years in jail for “taking briberies” and “misappropriating state-owned assets” and the chief editor was dismissed.

Not only professional journalists but also (broadly defined) citizen journalists could face similar penalties. For instance, Xu Zhiyong, a lawyer who defended journalists on trial, and Ai Weiwei, an artist who tried to investigate collapsed schools after the Sichuan earthquake, have experienced similar penalties: fines for tax evasion, physical attacks, house arrest, and secret detainment; exactly the same censorship tactics that states carried out before the advent of the Internet, as described in Ilan Peleg’s (1993) book Patterns of Censorship Around the World.

Ed: What do you think explains the lack of censorship in the overseas portal? (Could there be a certain value for the government in having some news items accessible to an external audience, but unavailable to the internal one?)

Sonya: It is more costly to control content by searching for and deleting individual news stories than simply blocking a whole website. For this reason, when a website outside the Great Firewall carries embarrassing content to the Chinese government, Chinese censors will simply block the whole website rather than request deletions. Overseas branches of Chinese media may comply but foreign media may simply drop such a deletion request.

Given online users’ behavior, it is effective and efficient to strictly control domestic content. In general, there are two types of Chinese online users, those who only visit Chinese websites operating inside China and those who also consume content from outside the country. Regarding this second type, it is really hard to prescribe what they do and don’t read, because they may be well equipped with circumvention tools and often obtain access to Chinese media published in Hong Kong and Taiwan but blocked in China. In addition, some Western media, such as the BBC, the New York Times, and Deutsche Welle, make media consumption easy for Chinese readers by publishing in Chinese. Of course, this type of Chinese user may be well educated and able to read English and other foreign languages directly. Facing these people, Chinese authorities would see their efforts in vain if they tried to censor overseas branches of Chinese media, because, outside the Great Firewall, there are too many sources for information that lie beyond the reach of Chinese censors.

Chinese authorities are in fact strategically wise in putting their efforts into controlling domestic online media, because this first type of Chinese user accounts for 99.9% of the whole online population, according to Google’s 2010 estimate. In his 2013 book Rewire, Ethan Zuckerman summarizes this phenomenon: “none of the top ten nations [in terms of online population] looks at more than 7 percent international content in its fifty most popular news sites” (p. 56). Since the majority of the Chinese populace perceives the domestic Internet as “the entire cyberspace”, manipulating the content published inside the Great Firewall means that (according to Chinese censors) many of the time bombs will have been defused.

Read the full paper: Sonya Yan Song, Fei Shen, Mike Z. Yao, Steven S. Wildman (2013) Unmasking News in Cyberspace: Examining Censorship Patterns of News Portal Sites in China. Presented at “China and the New Internet World”, International Communication Association (ICA) Preconference, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, June 2013.

Sonya Y. Song led this study as a Google Policy Fellow in 2012. Currently, she is a Knight-Mozilla OpenNews Fellow and a Ph.D. candidate in media and information studies at Michigan State University. Sonya holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree in computer science from Tsinghua University in Beijing and master of philosophy in journalism from the University of Hong Kong. She is also an avid photographer, a devotee of literature, and a film buff.

Sonya Yan Song was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

The complicated relationship between Chinese Internet users and their government

David:For our research, we surveyed postgraduate students from all over China who had come to Shanghai to study. We asked them five questions to which they provided mostly rather lengthy answers. Despite them being young university students and being very active online, their answers managed to surprise us. Notably, the young Chinese who took part in our research felt very ambiguous about the Internet and its supposed benefits for individual people in China. They appreciated the greater freedom the Internet offered when compared to offline China, but were very wary of others abusing this freedom to their detriment.

Ed: In your paper you note that the opinions of many young people closely mirrored those of the government’s statements about the Internet — in what way?

David: In 2010 the government published a White Paper on the Internet in China in which they argued that the main uses of the Internet were for obtaining information, and for communicating with others. In contrast to Euro-American discourses around the Internet as a ‘force for democracy’, the students’ answers to our questions agreed with the evaluation of the government and did not see the Internet as a place to begin organising politically. The main reason for this — in my opinion — is that young Chinese are not used to discussing ‘politics’, and are mostly focused on pursuing the ‘Chinese dream’: good job, large flat or house, nice car, suitable spouse; usually in that order.

Ed: The Chinese Internet has usually been discussed in the West as a ‘force for democracy’ — leading to the inevitable relinquishing of control by the Chinese Communist Party. Is this viewpoint hopelessly naive?

David: Not naive as such, but both deterministic and limited, as it assumes that the introduction of technology can only have one ‘built-in’ outcome, thus ignoring human agency, and as it pretends that the Chinese Communist Party does not use technology at all. Given the intense involvement of Party and government offices, as well as of individual party members and government officials with the Internet it makes little sense to talk about ‘the Party’ and ‘the Internet’ as unconnected entities. Compared to governments in Europe or America, the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese government have embraced the Internet and treated it as a real and valid communication channel between citizens and government/Party at all levels.

Ed: Chinese citizens are being encouraged by the government to engage and complain online, eg to expose inefficiency and corruption. Is the Internet just a space to blow off steam, or is it really capable of ‘changing’ Chinese society, as many have assumed?

David: This is mostly a matter of perspective and expectations. The Internet has NOT changed the system in China, nor is it likely to. In all likelihood, the Internet is bolstering the legitimacy and the control of the Chinese Communist Party over China. However, in many specific instances of citizen unhappiness and unrest, the Internet has proved a powerful channel of communication for the people to achieve their goals, as the authorities have reacted to online protests and supported the demands of citizens. This is a genuine change and empowerment of the people, though episodic and local, not global.

Ed: Why do you think your respondents were so accepting (and welcoming) of government control of the Internet in China: is this mainly due to government efforts to manage online opinion, or something else?

David: I think this is a reflex response fairly similar to what has happened elsewhere as well. If e.g. children manage to access porn sites, or an adult manages to groom several children over the Internet the mass media and the parents of the children call for ‘government’ to protect the children. This abrogation of power and shifting of responsibility to ‘the government’ by individuals — in the example by parents, in our study by young Chinese — is fairly widespread, if deplorable. Ultimately this demand for government ‘protection’ leads to what I would consider excessive government surveillance and control (and regulation) of online spaces in the name of ‘protection’ and the public’s acquiescence of the policing of cyberspace. In China, this takes the form of a widespread (resigned) acceptance of government censorship; in the UK it led to the acceptance of GCHQ’s involvement in Prism, or of the sentencing of Deyka Ayan Hassan or of Liam Stacey, which have turned the UK into the only country in the world in which people have been arrested for posting single, offensive posts on microblogs.

Ed: How does the central Government manage and control opinion online?

David: There is no unified system of government control over the Internet in China. Instead, there are many groups and institutions at all levels from central to local with overlapping areas of responsibility in China who are all exerting an influence on Chinese cyberspaces. There are direct posts by government or Party officials, posts by ‘famous’ people in support of government decisions or policies, paid, ‘hidden’ posters or even people sympathetic to the government. China’s notorious online celebrity Han Han once pointed out that the term ‘the Communist Party’ really means a population group of over 300 million people connected to someone who is an actual Party member.

In addition to pro-government postings, there are many different forms of censorship that try to prevent unacceptable posts. The exact definition of ‘unacceptable’ changes from time to time and even from location to location, though. In Beijing, around October 1, the Chinese National Day, many more websites are inaccessible than, for example in Shenzhen during April. Different government or Party groups also add different terms to the list of ‘unacceptable’ topics (or remove them), which contributes to the flexibility of the censorship system.

As a result of the often unpredictable ‘current’ limits of censorship, many Internet companies, forum and site managers, as well as individual Internet users add their own ‘self-censorship’ to the mix to ensure their own uninterrupted presence online. This ‘self-censorship’ is often stricter than existing government or Party regulations, so as not to even test the limits of the possible.

Ed: Despite the constant encouragement / admonishment of the government that citizens should report and discuss their problems online; do you think this is a clever (ie safe) thing for citizens to do? Are people pretty clever about negotiating their way online?

David: If it looks like a duck, moves like a duck, talks like a duck … is it a duck? There has been a lot of evidence over the years (and many academic articles) that demonstrate the government’s willingness to listen to criticism online without punishing the posters. People do get punished if they stray into ‘definitely illegal’ territory, e.g. promoting independence for parts of China, or questioning the right of the Communist Party to govern China, but so far people have been free to express their criticism of specific government actions online, and have received support from the authorities for their complaints.

Just to note briefly; one underlying issue here is the definition of ‘politics’ and ‘power’. Following Foucault, in Europe and America ‘everything’ is political, and ‘everything’ is a question of power. In China, there is a difference between ‘political’ issues, which are the responsibility of the Communist Party, and ‘social’ issues, which can be discussed (and complained about) by anybody. It might be worth exploring this difference of definitions without a priori acceptance of the Foucauldian position as ‘correct’.

Ed: There’s a lot of emphasis on using eg social media to expose corrupt officials and hold them to account; is there a similar emphasis on finding and rewarding ‘good’ officials? Or of officials using online public opinion to further their own reputations and careers? How cynical is the online public?

David: The online public is very cynical, and getting ever more so (which is seen as a problem by the government as well). The emphasis on ‘bad’ officials is fairly ‘normal’, though, as ‘good’ officials are not ‘newsworthy’. In the Chinese context there is the additional problem that socialist governments like to promote ‘model workers’, ‘model units’, etc. which would make the praising of individual ‘good’ officials by Internet users highly suspect. Other Internet users would simply assume the posters to be paid ‘hidden’ posters for the government or the Party.

Ed: Do you think (on balance) that the Internet has brought more benefits (and power) to the Chinese Government or new problems and worries?

David: I think the Internet has changed many things for many people worldwide. Limiting the debate on the Internet to the dichotomies of government vs Internet, empowered netizens vs disenfranchised Luddites, online power vs wasting time online, etc. is highly problematic. The open engagement with the Internet by government (and Party) authorities has been greater in China than elsewhere; in my view, the Chinese authorities have reacted much faster, and ‘better’ to the Internet than authorities elsewhere. As the so-called ‘revelations’ of the past few months have shown, governments everywhere have tried and are trying to control and use Internet technologies in pursuit of power.

Although I personally would prefer the Internet to be a ‘free’ and ‘independent’ place, I realise that this is a utopian dream given the political and economic benefits and possibilities of the Internet. Given the inevitability of government controls, though, I prefer the open control exercised by Chinese authorities to the hypocrisy of European and American governments, even if the Chinese controls (apparently) exceed those of other governments.

Dr David Herold is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, where he researches Chinese culture and contemporary PRC society, China’s relationship with other countries, and Chinese cyberspace and online society. His paper Captive Artists: Chinese University Students Talk about the Internet was presented at the presented at “China and the New Internet World”, International Communication Association (ICA) Preconference, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, June 2013.

David Herold was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

How are internal monitoring systems being used to tackle corruption in the Chinese public administration?

The Great Hall of the People
China has made concerted efforts to reduce corruption at the lowest levels of government. Image of the 18th National Congress of the CPC in the Great Hall of the People, Beijing, by: Bert van Dijk.

Ed: Investment by the Chinese government in internal monitoring systems has been substantial: what components make it up?

Jesper: Two different information systems are currently in use. Within the government there is one system directed towards administrative case-processing. In addition to this, the Communist Party has its own monitoring system, which is less sophisticated in terms of real-time surveillance, but which has a deeper structure, as it collects and cross-references personal information about party-members working in the administration. These two systems parallel the existing institutional arrangements found in the dual structure consisting of the Discipline Inspection Commissions and the Bureaus of Supervision on different levels of government. As such, the e-monitoring system has particular ‘Chinese characteristics’, reflecting the bureaucracy’s Leninist heritage where Party-affairs and government-affairs are handled separately, applying different sets of rules.

On the government’s e-monitoring platform the Bureau of Supervision (the closest we get to an Ombudsman function in the Chinese public administration) can collect data from several other data systems, such as the e-government systems of the individual bureaus involved in case processing; feeds from surveillance cameras in different government organisations; and even geographical data from satellites. The e-monitoring platform does not, however, afford scanning of information outside the government systems. For instance, social media are not part of the administration surveillance infrastructure.

Ed: How centralised is it as a system? Is local or province-level monitoring of public officials linked up to the central government?

Jesper: The architecture of the e-monitoring systems integrates the information flows to the provincial level, but not to the central level. One reason for this may be found by following the money. Funding for these systems mainly comes from local sources, and the construction was initially based on municipal-level systems supported by the provincial level. Hence, at the early stages the path towards individual local-level systems was the natural choice. A reason for why the build up was not initially envisioned to comprise the central level could be that the Chinese central government is comparatively small, and they could be worried about information overload. It could, however, also be an expression of provinces wanting to handle ‘internal affairs’ themselves rather than having central actors involved; possibly a case of provincial resistance to central monitoring.

Ed: Digital systems allow for the efficient control and recording of vast numbers of transactions (e.g. by timestamping, alerting, etc.). But all systems are subvertible: is there any evidence that this is happening?

Jesper: There are certainly attempts to shirk work or continue corrupt activities despite the monitoring system. For instance, some urban managers who work in the streets (which are hard to monitor by video surveillance) have used fake photos to ‘prove’ that a particular maintenance task had been completed, thereby saving themselves the time and energy of verifying that the problem had in fact been solved. They could do this because the system did not stamp the photo with geographical information data, and hence they could claim that a photo was taken at any location.

However, administrative processes that take place in an office rather than ‘in the wild’ are easier to monitor. Administrative approval processes that relate to, e.g., tax and business licensing, which the government handles in one-stop-shopping service centres, tend to be less corrupt after the introduction of the e-monitoring system. To be sure, this does not mean that the administration is clean now; instead the corruption moves to other places, such as applications for business licenses for larger companies, which is only partly covered by e-monitoring.

Ed: We are used to a degree of audit and oversight of our working behaviour and performance in the West; does this personal monitoring go beyond what might be considered normal (or just) to us?

Jesper: The notion of being video surveilled during office work would probably be met with resistance by employees in Western government agencies. This is, however, a widespread practice in call centres in the West, so in this sense it is not entirely unknown in work settings. Additionally, government one-stop shops in the West are often equipped with closed-circuit television, but this is mostly — as I understand — used to document client violations of the public employees rather than the other way round. Another aspect that sets apart the Chinese administration is that the options for recourse (e.g. for a wrongfully accused public employee) only include the authorities already dealing with the case.

Ed: Could these systems also be used to monitor the behaviour of citizens?

Jesper: Indeed, the monitoring system enables access to information from a number of different sources, such as registers of tax payment, social welfare benefits and real-estate holdings, and to some extent it is already used in relation to citizens. For instance the tax register and the real-estate register are cross-referenced. If a real-estate owner has a tax debt then documentation for the real estate cannot be printed until the debt is paid. We must expect further development of these kinds of functions. This e-monitoring ‘architecture of control’ can thus be activated both towards the administration itself as well as outward towards citizens.

Ed: There is oversight of the actions of government officials by the Bureau of Supervision; but is there any public oversight of, e.g., the government’s decision-making process, particularly of potentially embarrassing decisions? Who watches the watchers?

Jesper: Currently in China there are two digitally mediated mechanisms working simultaneously to reduce corruption. The first is the e-monitoring system described here, which mainly addresses administrative corruption. The second is what we might call a ‘fire alarm’ mechanism whereby citizens point public attention to corruption scandals or local government failures — often through the use of microblogs. E-monitoring addresses corruption in the work process but does not include government decision-making. The ‘fire alarm’ in part addresses the latter concern as citizens can vent their frustrations online. However, even though microblogging has empowered citizens to speak out against corruption and counter-productive policies, this does not reflect institutionalised control but happens on an ad hoc basis. If the Bureau of Supervision and the Disciplinary Inspection Commission do not wish to act, there is no further backstop. The Internet-based e-monitoring systems, hence, do not alter the institutional setup of the system and there is no-one to ‘watch the watchers’ except for in the occasional cases where the fire alarm mechanism works.

Ed: Is there a danger that public disclosure of power abuses might generate dissatisfaction and mistrust in government, without necessarily solving the issue of corruption itself?

Jesper: Over the last few years a number of corruption scandals have been brought to public attention through microblogs. Civil servants have been punished, and obviously these incidents have not improved public satisfaction with the particular local governments involved. Apart from the negative consequences of public mistrust, one could speculate that the microblogging ‘fire alarm’ only works when it is allowed to do so by the government. Technically speaking it is relatively simple for the sophisticated Chinese censoring apparatus to stop debates that touch upon issues that are too sensitive for the Party. So, it would be naive to believe that this mechanism is revealing more than the tip of the iceberg in terms of corruption.

Ed: Both Russia and India have big problems with corruption: do you know if there are similar electronic oversight systems embedded in their public administrations? What makes China different if not?

Jesper: In this area, China has made concerted efforts to reduce corruption at the lowest levels of government, as a result of dissatisfaction from both the business communities and the general public. Similarly, in Russia and India (and a number of Asian states) many functions such as taxation, business licensing, etc., have been incorporated in e-government systems and through this process been made more transparent and easy to track than previous processes. However, to my knowledge, the Chinese system is at the forefront when it comes to integrating these different platforms into a larger monitoring system ecology.

Jesper Schlæger is an Associate Professor at Sichuan University, School of Public Administration. His current research topics include comparative public administration, e-government, electronic monitoring, public values, and urban management in a comparative perspective. His latest book is E-Government in China: Technology, Power and Local Government Reform (Routledge, 2013).

Jesper Schlæger was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

Chinese Internet users share the same values concerning free speech, privacy, and control as their Western counterparts

Free Internet in Shanghai airport
There are now over half a billion Internet users in China, part of a shift in the centre of gravity of Internet use away from the US and Europe. Image of Pudong International Airport, Shanghai, by ToGa Wanderings.

Ed: You recently presented your results at the OII’s China and the New Internet World ICA preconference. What were people most interested in?

Gillian: A lot of people were interested in our finding that China was such a big online shopping market compared to other countries, with 60% of our survey respondents reporting that they make an online purchase at least weekly. That’s twice the world’s average. A lot of people who study the Chinese Internet talk about governance issues rather than commerce, but the fact that there is this massive investment in ecommerce in China and a rapid transition to a middle class lifestyle for such a large number of Chinese means that Chinese consumer behaviours will have a significant impact on global issues such as resource scarcity, global warming, and the global economy.

Others were interested in our findings concerning Internet use in ’emerging’ Internet countries like China. The Internet’s development in Western Europe and the US was driven by people who saw the technology as a platform for freedom of expression and peer-to-peer applications. In China, you see this optimism but you also see that a lot of people coming online move straight to smart phones and other locked-down technologies like the iPad, which you can only interact with in a certain way. Eighty-six percent of our Chinese respondents reported that they owned a smart phone, which was the highest percentage of all of the 24 countries we examined individually. A lot of these people are using those devices to play games and watch movies, which is a very different initial exposure to the Internet than we saw in early adopting Western countries.

Ed: So, a lot of significant differences between usages in emerging versus established Internet nations. Any similarities?

Gillian: In general, we find that uses are different but values are similar. People in emerging nations share the same values concerning free speech, privacy, and control as their Western counterparts. These are values that were embedded in the Internet’s creation and that have spread with it to other countries, regardless of national policy rhetorics. Many people – even in China – see the Internet as a tool for free speech and as a place where you can expect a certain degree of privacy and anonymity.

Ed: But isn’t there a disconnect between the fact that people are using more closed technologies as they are coming online and yet are sharing the same values of freedom associated with the Internet?

Gillian: There’s a difference between uses and values. People in emerging countries produce more content, they’re more sociable online, they listen to more music. But the way that people express their values doesn’t always match what they actually do. There is no correlation between whether someone approves of government censorship and their concern of being personally censored. There’s also no correlation in China between the frequency with which people post political opinions online and a worry that their online comments will be censored.

Ed: It seems that there are a few really interesting results in your study that run counter to accepted wisdom about the Internet. Were you surprised by any of the results?

Gillian: I was, particularly, surprised by the high levels of political commentary in emerging nations. We know that levels of online political expression in the West are very low (around 15%). But 40% of respondents in the emerging nations we surveyed reported posting a political opinion online at least weekly. That’s a huge difference. Even China, which we expected to have lower levels of political expression than the general average, followed a similar pattern. We didn’t see any chilling effect – i.e. any reduction of the frequency of posting of political opinions among Chinese users.

This matches other studies of the Chinese Internet that have concluded that there is very little censorship of people expressing themselves online – that censorship only really happens when people start to organise others. However, I was surprised by the extent of the difference: 18% of users in the US and UK reported posting a political opinion online at least weekly, 13 percent in France, and 3 percent in Japan; but 32% of Chinese, 51% of Brazilians, 50% of Indians, and 64% of Egyptians reported posting online at least weekly. This shows that these conclusions we have drawn about low levels of online political participation based on studies of Western Internet users are likely not applicable to users in other countries.

Of course, we have to remember that this is an online survey and so our results only reflect what Internet users report their activities and attitudes to be. However, the incentive to over-report activities is probably about the same for the US and for China. The thing that may be different in different countries is what people interpret as a political comment. Many more types of comments in China might be seen as political since the government controls so much more. A comment about the price of food might be seen as political speech in China, for example, since the government controls food prices, whereas a similar comment may not be seen as political by US respondents.

Ed: This research is interesting because it calls into question some fundamental assumptions about the Internet. What did you take away from the project?

Gillian: A lot of scholarship on the Internet is presented as applicable to the whole world, but isn’t actually applicable everywhere. The best example here is the very low percentage of people participating in the political process in the West, which needs to be re-evaluated with these findings. It shows that we need to be much more specific in Internet research about the unit of analysis, and what it applies to. However, we also found that Internet values are similar across the world. I think this shows that discourses about the Internet as a place for free expression and privacy are distributed hand-in-hand with the technology. Although Western users are declining as an overall percentage of the world’s Internet population, these founding rhetorics remain powerfully associated with the technology.

Read the full paper: Bolsover, G., Dutton, W.H., Law, G. and Dutta, S. (2013) Social Foundations of the Internet in China and the New Internet World: A Cross-National Comparative Perspective. Presented at “China and the New Internet World”, International Communication Association (ICA) Preconference, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, June 2013.

Gillian was talking to blog editor Heather Ford.

Is China changing the Internet, or is the Internet changing China?

The rising prominence of China is one of the most important developments shaping the Internet. Once typified primarily by Internet users in the US, there are now more Internet users in China than there are Americans on the planet. By 2015, the proportion of Chinese language Internet users is expected to exceed the proportion of English language users. These are just two aspects of a larger shift in the centre of gravity of Internet use, in which the major growth is increasingly taking place in Asia and the rapidly developing economies of the Global South, and the BRIC nations of Brazil, Russia, India — and China.

The 2013 ICA Preconference “China and the New Internet World” (14 July 2013), organised by the OII in collaboration with many partners at collaborating universities, explored the issues raised by these developments, focusing on two main interrelated questions: how is the rise of China reshaping the global use and societal implications of the Internet? And in turn, how is China itself being reshaped by these regional and global developments?

As China has become more powerful, much attention has been focused on the number of Internet users: China now represents the largest group of Internet users in the world, with over half a billion people online. But how the Internet is used is also important; this group doesn’t just include passive ‘users’, it also includes authors, bloggers, designers and architects — that is, people who shape and design values into the Internet. This input will undoubtedly affect the Internet going forward, as Chinese institutions take on a greater role in shaping the Internet, in terms of policy, such as around freedom of expression and privacy, and practice, such as social and commercial uses, like shopping online.

Most discussion of the Internet tends to emphasise technological change and ignore many aspects of the social changes that accompany the Internet’s evolution, such as this dramatic global shift in the concentration of Internet users. The Internet is not just a technological artefact. In 1988, Deng Xiaoping declared that “science and technology are primary productive forces” that would be active and decisive factors in the new Chinese society. At the time China naturally paid a great deal of attention to technology as a means to lift its people out of poverty, but it may not have occurred to Deng that the Internet would not just impact the national economy, but that it would come to affect a person’s entire life — and society more generally — as well. In China today, users are more apt to shop online, but also to discuss political issues online than most of the other 65 nations across the world surveyed in a recent report [1].

The transformative potential of the Internet has challenged top-down communication patterns in China, by supporting multi-level and multi-directional flows of communication. Of course, communications systems reflect economic and political power to a large extent: the Internet is not a new or separate world, and its rules reflect offline rules and structures. In terms of the large ‘digital divide’ that exists in China (whose Internet penetration currently stands at a bit over 40%, meaning that 700 million people are still not online), we have to remember that this digital divide is likely to reflect other real economic and political divides, such as lack of access to other basic resources.

While there is much discussion about how the Internet is affecting China’s domestic policy (in terms of public administration, ensuring reliable systems of supply and control, the urban-rural divide and migration, and policy on things like anonymity and free speech), less time is spent discussing the geopolitics of the Internet. China certainly has the potential for great influence beyond its own borders, for example affecting communication flows worldwide and the global division of power. For such reasons, it is valuable to move beyond ‘single country studies’ to consider global shifts in attitudes and values shaping the Internet across the world. As a contested and contestable space, the political role of the Internet is likely to be a focal point for traditional discussions of key values, such as freedom of expression and assembly; remember Hilary Clinton’s 2010 ‘Internet freedom’ speech, delivered at Washington’s Newseum Institute. Contemporary debates over privacy and freedom of expression are indeed increasingly focused on Internet policy and practice.

Now is not the first time in the histories of the US and China that their respective foreign policies have been of great interest and importance to the other. However this might also be a period of anxiety-driven (rather than rational) policy making, particularly if increased exposure and access to information around the world leads to efforts to create Berlin walls of the digital age. In this period of national anxieties on the part of governments and citizens — who may feel that “something must be done” — there will inevitably be competition between the US, China, and the EU to drive national Internet policies that assert local control and jurisdiction. Ownership and control of the Internet by countries and companies is certainly becoming an increasingly politicized issue. Instead of supporting technical innovation and the diffusion of the Internet, nations are increasingly focused on controlling the flow of online content and exploiting the Internet as a means for gauging public sentiment and opinion, rather than as a channel to help shape public policy and social accountability.

For researchers, it is time to question a myopic focus on national units of analysis when studying the Internet, since many activities of critical importance take place in smaller regions, such as Silicon Valley, larger regions, such as the global South, and in virtual spaces that are truly global. We tend to think of single places: “the Internet” / “the world” / “China”: but as a number of conference speakers emphasized, there is more than one China, if we consider for example Taiwan, Hong Kong, rural China, and the factory zones — each with their different cultural, legal and economic dynamics. Similarly, there are a multitude of actors, for example corporations, which are shaping the Chinese Internet as surely as Beijing is. As Jack Qui, one of the opening panelists, observed: “There are many Internets, and many worlds.” There are also multiple histories of the Internet in China, and as yet no standard narrative.

The conference certainly made clear that we are learning a lot about China, as a rapidly growing number of Chinese scholars increasingly research and publish on the subject. The vitality of the Chinese Journal of Communication is one sign of this energy, but Internet research is expanding globally as well. Some of the panel topics will be familiar to anyone following the news, even if there is still not much published in the academic literature: smart censorship, trust in online information, human flesh search, political scandal, democratisation. But there were also interesting discussions from new perspectives, or perspectives that are already very familiar in a Western context: social networking, job markets, public administration, and e-commerce.

However, while international conferences and dedicated panels are making these cross-cultural (and cross-topic) discussions and conversations easier, we still lack enough published content about China and the Internet, and it can be difficult to find material, due to its recent diffusion, and major barriers such as language. This is an important point, given how easy it is to oversimplify another culture. A proper comparative analysis is hard and often frustrating to carry out, but important, if we are to see our own frameworks and settings in a different way.

One of the opening panelists remarked that two great transformations had occurred during his academic life: the emergence of the Internet, and the rise of China. The intersection of the two is providing fertile ground for research, and the potential for a whole new, rich research agenda. Of course the challenge for academics is not simply to find new, interesting and important things to say about a subject, but to draw enduring theoretical perspectives that can be applied to other nations and over time.

In returning to the framing question: “is China changing the Internet, or is the Internet changing China?” obviously the answer to both is “yes”, but as the Dean of USC Annenberg School, Ernest Wilson put it, we need to be asking “how?” and “to what degree?” I hope this preconference encouraged more scholars to pursue these questions.


[1] Bolsover, G., Dutton, W.H., Law, G. and Dutta, S. (2013) Social Foundations of the Internet in China and the New Internet World: A Cross-National Comparative Perspective. Presented at “China and the New Internet World”, International Communication Association (ICA) Preconference, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, June 2013.

The OII’s Founding Director (2002-2011), Professor William H. Dutton is Professor of Internet Studies, University of Oxford, and Fellow of Balliol College. Before coming to Oxford in 2002, he was a Professor in the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, where he is now an Emeritus Professor. His most recent books include World Wide Research: Reshaping the Sciences and Humanities, co-edited with P. Jeffreys (MIT Press, 2011) and the Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies (Oxford University Press, 2013). Read Bill’s blog.