The dawn of the Internet age was thought to make the continuation of hard dictatorship in China impossible. People would get access to new sources of information, and they would have new ways of communicating, staying in touch with each other, forming networks and the like.
But it has not worked out like that. Chinese people do have access to the internet and to social media, and are avid users, but the Internet has NOT become a force of political opening up. Rather, it has been turned into a new instrument of political control.
One elementary explanation is that the Chinese Internet is available but not good. It is for the most part excruciatingly slow and it is hard going to use it. It is probably kept slow deliberately.
But more basically, the explanation is that the Chinese experience has demonstrated something entirely unexpected: it IS possible to put the Internet under political control from above. It is NOT an uncontrollable instrument.
This is done in China in three ways:
- The Great Firewall is designed to deny access to the Internet to certain forms of information. This is done by keywords that either shut out messages with certain words or alert guardians to such messages so that they can delete them.
- The state has an army of at least 2 million “Internet opinion analysts” who keep track of the information that is posted on the Internet and whose job it is to delete unwanted postings. The number of 2 million is obviously an estimate, but is for example more than the number of soldiers in the People’s Liberation Army. This works remarkably well. The Chinese Internet is by and large free from unwanted information, and what does slip through the net is by and large prevented from spreading broadly.
- The state also has an army of freelancers, perhaps overlapping with the army of “analysts”, whose job it is to put postings on the Internet and social media under the guise of being private citizens. These freelancers are paid by the piece of posting, generally about 50 cents a go. It has been estimated that about 500 million posts a year are of this kind. These posts do not necessarily praise the leaders and the state, the operation is not that primitive, but have the purpose of diverting attention from “bad” to “good” news. Much of what looks like exchange between citizens is in fact dialogue orchestrated from above.
The Chinese state is confounding expectations. It was thought that the new middle class would demand freedom, but has instead been turned into a pillar of support for the state. It was thought that the Internet would become a source of power from below, but it has instead been turned into a new instrument of control from above. There has never been a more effective and adaptive dictatorship than the Chinese one.
The denial of free and open Internet exchange in China is costly. Is for example shuts Chinese scientists and entrepreneurs off from the international market of information. This is one reason the Chinese economy is lagging in innovation. But that does not matter: the state’s priority is control at whatever price is necessary.