“I’m gradually beginning to feel that we Chinese need to be controlled.” – Jackie Chan
The Great Firewall is probably the best-known feature of the complex censorship system in China. It’s how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) censors what anyone in China can see on the internet. Everything from popular western websites like Wikipedia and YouTube, information about the Tiananmen Square Incident and the Dalai Lama, and most foreign films are subject to prohibition in China.
How the Chinese government chooses what to ban is murky and opaque, and in a free society like America, we are quick to condemn this kind of authoritarianism. Presumably, this regime of censorship filters unsavory and divisive content (like political humor) that the government finds threatening—which makes it all the more objectionable. And faced with the rising global influence of the Chinese government and its authoritarian temperament, our instinct may be to replicate the tried and tested Cold-War strategy, insisting that democracy and freedom can neutralize the threat.
Unfortunately, to do so would be to fundamentally misunderstand the relationship between the CCP and the people they govern. Chinese bans and censorship are designed to protect the Chinese from threats to the stability and wealth that hundreds of millions of Chinese now enjoy. Mechanisms like the Great Firewall allow the Communist Party to pacify the volatile rage of Chinese nationalists, who are quick to protest and resort to violent civil disturbance at the first sign of agitation.
Arguably Chinese censorship and social control—not democratic sentimentality—that have prevented the nationalist, often anti-foreign and xenophobic demonstrations from unduly influencing the country’s foreign and domestic affairs.
CHINA AGAINST THE WORLD
Chinese state spokespersons are constantly having to explain to the West how the feelings of Chinese citizens are hurt by American comedians, corporations, politicians, and sports personalities. Calling for freedom in Hong Kong, disputing Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea, or referring to Taiwan by name is insults their national pride.
What [the Chinese] find on these banned websites doesn’t make them yearn for freedom or democracy—it cements the worldview that the rest of the planet is extremely biased against them.
Protestations like these are often met with derision, dismissed as the manufactured outrage of a totalitarian state. And when the US Congress passes virtue-signaling legislation like the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, the indignant Chinese responses on the streets and online is interpreted by the West as state-directed propaganda.
This reaction is not entirely unreasonable. The Chinese government is known to employ an online brigade of zealous commentators and China-defenders (the wumao dang or 50 cent army) that swarm comment sections and forums to challenge and redirect criticism and protect the CCP’s reputation. It is difficult to measure the difference between earnest critique and CCP diktat in China.
But the Chinese are well-aware that they live in a censored society. As a highly Internet-connected society, they frequently use VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) to skirt censors. While technically illegal, VPNs allow everyone to access YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Google, and all the other banned websites. And what they find on these banned websites doesn’t make them yearn for freedom or democracy—it cements the worldview that the rest of the planet is extremely biased against them.
The China state media shows images of Hong Kong protesters attacking police officers and government offices, while CNN shows images of Hong Kong police beating up protesters. State media shows new bridges and roads built in poor rural provinces, Der Spiegel shows concentration camps in Xinjiang. The Chinese media presents a constant narrative of China rising to world prominence, while foreign media hounds readers with images, video, and narratives of China brutalizing, manipulating, or coming apart at the seams.
Who the Chinese choose to put their faith in has very little to do with coercion or state violence. True, China executes more people than any other country on Earth. But China has also lifted hundreds of millions of people out of abject poverty and into the middle class. The Chinese have much to be grateful for—and the CCP is who they thank.
China is expanding their political and economic influence with astronomical speed. Globally, Chinese companies are also now market leaders in several industries. Over thirty countries use their version of GPS and over half a billion non-Chinese use their mobile apps like WeChat. They’re spending billions on infrastructure in Africa and Central Asia, and is able to use the size of her market to intimidate foreign companies into accepting bad deals. The CCP has a lot to answer for, but plenty to be proud of.
The poor treatment of China in foreign and “banned” media isn’t having the effect that most of us hope it will. Instead of shaking the false consciousness of a nation suffocated by authoritarian rule, these representations feed a keystone narrative of Chinese national identity: that the rest of the world is out to get them.
The “Century of Humiliation” is a permanent fixture of the PRC’s collective memory, as is the belief that modern China rose to prominence in defiance of repeated colonizations and foreign exploitation.
As such, the contemporary Chinese national narrative is exceedingly anti-foreign. According to this narrative, foreigners destroyed China during the Opium Wars, allowed the horror of the Nanjing Massacre, egged on Taiwanese separatists, and now are actively supporting rioters in Hong Kong. Similarly, this narrative views foreign media as never having anything nice to say about China. The foreign NBA has more fans in China than there are actual people in the USA—and now their executives don’t even have the common courtesy to not insult their largest fan base? In the minds of the Chinese, this treatment at the hands of foreigners is both outrageous and par for the course.
The CCP bans the most trivial content for seemingly ridiculous reasons, but China has been manufacturing what the rest of the world has been wearing, driving, and playing with for nearly two generations. And its this steady growth and success—despite the world’s alleged Sinophobia—that fuels Chinse nationalism: a nationalism that’s only increasing in intensity.
CENSORING ON BEHALF OF NATIONALISTS
The political history of China may not resemble that of western democracies, but Chinese rulers have embraced ‘bread and circuses’ governance for centuries: they have always listened to their subjects. Leaders who lose the Mandate of Heaven, and who allow prosperity and peace for the common citizens to ebb or cause the nation to lose face and prestige, are removed—usually with violence.
They ban South Park and Winnie the Pooh and the NBA not just because they are overly sensitive, but because a growing, vociferous chorus on Chinese social media are demanding it.
President Xi Jinping and the ruling CCP are just as concerned with losing the Mandate of Heaven as any previous regime or dynastic emperor; keeping the people happy is one of their top priorities. And while Beijing does not operate with the explicit consent and participation of the people, it does legislate and move according to their desires and demands. Since the time of the much-ballyhooed 5 Year Plans, the government of China has routinely conducts nationwide surveys on what their people want.
This is how the CCP knows that their people are much more concerned with economic growth than freedom of speech. And why they are confident that the average Chinese is not only happy with their government, they’re proud of it. The grandchildren of the founders of modern China live in unprecedented abundance and opportunity—China has never been this powerful or prosperous, and its leadership has never been more respected.
But nationalism is an ancient and, at times, destructive force in politics. Leaders who don’t treat national sentiment with caution and delicacy risk watching a society cannibalize itself.
Dissatisfaction is not well-hidden in China. There are regular protests, demonstrations, blockades, and riots throughout the country, about everything from corrupt government officials, anti-Japanese or anti-Muslim sentiment, corporate irresponsibility, even property rights. Reliable data is scarce, but data from 2010 suggests that civil disturbances that year numbered around 180,000; an average of 500 per day, in events sometimes involving hundreds of thousands of people.
These incidents have only been growing in frequency—in large part exacerbated by internet connectivity. Just like in the West, Chinese social media (like the massively popular WeChat) help disgruntled Chinese share their complaints and organize protest events. Nationalists and aggrieved patriots disseminate memes and pictures of Hong Kong protesters attacking police and mock the authorities for not forcing peace onto the city or for allowing Filipino or Vietnamese disrespect of Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea.
New technology has also made it much easier for the government to monitor and manage what and how Chinese citizens express themselves (though citizens are always inventing new ways to combat this censorship and express themselves anyway).
Jessica Chen Weiss, author of the book Powerful Patriots, suggests that it was only through—perhaps heavy-handed—speech and assembly restrictions that China was able to manage national outrage in 2001 when an American spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter plane, killing the Chinese pilot. She argues that China’s strictness similarly prevented an international incident from getting worse in 2010, when the Japanese coast guard detained the captain vessel of a Chinese trawler after it collided with Japanese patrol boats.
The Chinese Communist Party spends 20% more on domestic security than on national defense. They know how precarious their position is. They’ve learned from their history, most recently during the Cultural Revolution, how easy it is to lose control over the people. It is in their direct interest to manage the passions of the nationalists. And it is only by wielding its elaborate censorship regime, the CCP is able to temper the fervor of nationalist sentiment that’s continually triggered by Western cultural exports.
This is why a single, swiftly deleted, tweet in support of the ongoing Hong Kong protests by the general manager of the Houston Rockets ignited an absurd overreaction on the part of the Chinese government. Rockets gear has disappeared from Chinese websites, their games have been dropped from Chinese TV and streaming platforms, and fans holding signs supporting Hong Kong have been ejected from NBA games in the US. These measures were directed at the mercurial temperament of Chinese nationalists, to pacify their wounded pride.
It is vital the government keep incendiary images from further aggravating a population prone to outrage. They ban South Park and Winnie the Pooh and the NBA not just because they are overly sensitive, but because a growing, vociferous chorus of citizens on Chinese social media are demanding it. Offending the pride and honor of China and her leaders cannot be tolerated. Those who do are weak—and weak leaders can’t be counted on to stand up for China.
AS AMERICAN AS APPLE PIE
It’s easy to criticize the censorious reflexes of the Chinese government; they appear so thin-skinned. Their answer to a meme comparing President Xi Jinping to Winnie the Pooh was to scrub references to the cartoon bear from the Chinese Internet.
As lovers of freedom and democracy, this tight grip over speech is infuriating.
But while Americans should never compromise their own rights and culture of freedom, it’s absolutely critical we realize that Western values are often very different from Eastern ones. We have a responsibility to be aware of how the people in those other countries value freedom of speech, and what role speech does—or does not—play in the peace and stability of another nation.
We forget sometimes that not everyone thinks like us.