What China Censors

(Photo: jonrussell)

A new paper from Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret Roberts analyzes “millions of social media posts originating from nearly 1,400 different social media services all over China before the Chinese government is able to find, evaluate, and censor (i.e., remove from the Internet) the large subset they deem objectionable.”  Here’s what they found:

Contrary to previous understandings, posts with negative, even vitriolic, criticism of the state, its leaders, and its policies are not more likely to be censored. Instead, we show that the censorship program is aimed at curtailing collective action by silencing comments that represent, reinforce, or spur social mobilization, regardless of content. Censorship is oriented toward attempting to forestall collective activities that are occurring now or may occur in the future — and, as such, seem to clearly expose government intent, such as examples we offer where sharp increases in censorship presage government action outside the Internet.

The authors also address the economic consequences of censorship:

The Chinese economy has obviously grown very fast over the past two decades. But how fast would it have grown if Chinese citizens had the opportunity to learn about each other through collective expression and action? As China’s economy modernizes, and generalized trust becomes more essential, it is reasonable to expect that the difference between what is and what could be China’s economic growth will widen much further.

(HT: FP Passport)


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  1. Dan says:

    “But how fast would it have grown if Chinese citizens had the opportunity to learn about each other through collective expression and action?”

    The Chinese example seems to suggest that law and order (together with enforcement of ownership rights) is much more important than personal freedom when it comes to economic success.

    Other recent examples:
    * South Korea’s huge growth while under military rule
    * Russia’s economic decline during the 1990s when they had more freedom but less law-and-order
    * The huge economic growth of various Middle East monarchies in the last several decades (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates including Dubai)
    * The relatively better previous economic performance of Egypt under Mubarak in relation to poor recent economic performance of Egypt since the revolution.
    * Chile’s transformation from an economic basketcase to an economic powerhouse under the dictatorship of Pinochet, who strongly suppressed dissent.
    * India’s dramatic underperformance in relation to China where India would clearly rank much higher in many measures of freedom, starting with being a democracy.

    Economic success and freedom of expression are both generally good things. As for the notion that freedom of expression leads to economic growth? I see no evidence of that. In many cases the opposite can be true if the free people lean toward socialism and taxation and away from ownership rights as in India, parts of South America and much of Europe.

    We can be deceived into thinking that freedom of expression causes economic growth because advanced nations commonly have both.

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    • Matt says:

      Author is not saying freedom of expression causes all economic growth only that their is a positive correlation between economic growth and freedom of expression. The same statement could be applied to all those situations. How much more growth could have their been if people were free to express themselves?

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    • Erik Dallas says:

      Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty
      by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson
      Their Blog: whynationsfail.com

      THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN in the New York Times writes:
      “Why Nations Fail.” The more you read it, the more you appreciate what a fool’s errand we’re on in Afghanistan and how much we need to totally revamp our whole foreign aid strategy. But most intriguing are the warning flares the authors put up about both America and China.

      Co-authored by the M.I.T. economist Daron Acemoglu and the Harvard political scientist James A. Robinson, “Why Nations Fail” argues that the key differentiator between countries is “institutions.” Nations thrive when they develop “inclusive” political and economic institutions, and they fail when those institutions become “extractive” and concentrate power and opportunity in the hands of only a few.

      “Inclusive economic institutions that enforce property rights, create a level playing field, and encourage investments in new technologies and skills are more conducive to economic growth than extractive economic institutions that are structured to extract resources from the many by the few,” they write.

      “Inclusive economic institutions, are in turn supported by, and support, inclusive political institutions,” which “distribute political power widely in a pluralistic manner and are able to achieve some amount of political centralization so as to establish law and order, the foundations of secure property rights, and an inclusive market economy.” Conversely, extractive political institutions that concentrate power in the hands of a few reinforce extractive economic institutions to hold power.

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  2. frankenduf says:

    i think that’s why they rolled out the tanks in tiananmen- freedom to assemble baby!

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  3. Yuze says:

    Wow, really insightful discovery. I believe it’s because what the government tasted in the power created in the collective action. I mean, it’s raw people power. If you can post an article in your blog which will cause very high attention by some of your friends, then thousands of more people will like to see what’s happening just because many people are watching the blog or the incident even if it’s not that really interesting. And sometimes these kind of collective action will be soured by some boring people who would like to add some personal view and new irrelevant plots into the blog and make it a whole new story on their own blog, which probably become much more destructive than the original one and, might potentionally have serious bad influence if the new story caused more attention. That’s exactly what the government does not like. And to be honest, that’s what other Chinese don’t like to see.

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  4. Josekin says:

    I think the authors ought to have talked to the censorship authorities first… I strongly suspect that they will find the methodology of censorship is that it 1. targets posts that generate a lot of comments and reporst or are trending really fast, 2. the censorship machine will scan the language and auto block, and 3. send the non-auto-blocked to officers who will run through the list one last time.

    Machine wise, this is probably the most efficient way anyway, and the authors really didn’t need a paper to prove this.

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  5. Sam Knisely says:

    I found this pretty interesting. It’s amazing to see what their government can accomplish, and it’s especially interesting to see what material they are actually censoring. I also find Matt’s question very fitting for this situation.

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