How effective is media censorship in China?

by on October 28, 2017 at 3:36 pm in Data Source, Law, Uncategorized, Web/Tech | Permalink

Here is a new and very important paper by Yuyu Chen and David Y. Yang (and note how they named the link):

Media censorship is a hallmark of authoritarian regimes. We conduct a field experiment in China to examine whether providing access to an uncensored Internet leads citizens to acquire politically sensitive information, and whether they are affected by the information. We track subjects’ media consumption, beliefs regarding the media, economic beliefs, political attitudes, and behaviors over 18 months. We find 4 main results: (i) free access alone does not induce subjects to acquire politically sensitive information; (ii) temporary encouragement leads to a persistent increase in acquisition, indicating that demand is not permanently low; (iii) acquisition brings broad, substantial, and persistent changes to knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, and intended behaviors; and (iv) social transmission of information is statistically significant but small in magnitude. We calibrate a simple model to show that, due to the low demand for, and moderate social transmission of, uncensored information, China’s censorship apparatus may remain robust for a large number of citizens receiving unencouraged access to an uncensored Internet.

Those results are fully consistent with my own anecdotal observations.

1 Ryan W October 28, 2017 at 3:54 pm

That’s consistent with my own observations as well.
I taught for two years at a university in Beijing, including an English course for students in a dual-degree program headed for Canada. One student in the class told me that she knew of only one other student who used a VPN to get uncensored information (out of 30 in the class). Because each university class has people trying to join the Party who are required to take notes on anything unusual/suspicious that they hear, the best-educated young people in China are afraid to broach the subject of uncensored information even with some of their closest friends.
There were also a few times when Chinese acquaintances expressed surprise that Chinese websites are accessible outside of China. The working assumption among those who don’t travel internationally seems to be that each country has it’s own Web.

2 Ray Lopez October 28, 2017 at 7:27 pm

Seems like this is a “Say’s Law” problem. Does low demand for VPN mean low interest or something respectable students don’t want to get caught up in? Does supply create its own demand?

And if your students are ‘self-reporting’ and getting caught using VPN means you’re kicked out of the Communist Party, why would anybody admit to using VPN?

3 Harun October 28, 2017 at 9:37 pm

VPN are also used for prawn so….

4 rayward October 28, 2017 at 4:00 pm

What would be far more helpful is an analysis of government media censorship and information and whether it promotes division or unity among China’s population. Looking back to the 1930s Germany, government censorship and information promoted unity (the fatherland) while simultaneously promoting division (against, among other, Jews) as not everyone was considered of the fatherland. My understanding is that China promotes a unified Han China in a big break from Maoism. In the competition between today’s China and today’s America, which is more likely to prevail: a unified China or a divided America?

5 Anon7 October 28, 2017 at 4:24 pm

The divisions between the patricians and plebians was a source of strength for Rome. The issue is not division per se but rather whether it is well-managed like economic competition. Mao’s attempt to impose unity via the Cultural Revolution was a disaster. Whether Xi Jinping will do better is an open question.

6 Anonymous October 28, 2017 at 5:02 pm

“In the competition between today’s China and today’s America, which is more likely to prevail: a unified China or a divided America?”

Two different paths. The architects of the Great Firewall are old school. They are designing a preferred truth. America verges on a post-truth disintegration, where “they are all liars, fake news” applies to harassed women and the FBI alike. It applies to anyone with a coherent, but undesirable, narrative.

We never did get the hang of Inconvenient Truths, unless by hang we mean this. Declare anything inconvenient to be fake.

We could win by returning to a fact based reality, but you know.


7 Moo cow October 28, 2017 at 11:59 pm

Seems like the wealthier we get the more people want to play around with this.

TIL that the survivors of the Vegas terror attack are being stalked and harassed by people who think the whole thing was fake news. Sad.

8 Anonymous October 29, 2017 at 10:04 am

The perfect example of playing this hard, everything dangerous is fake:

This is the make or break, it becomes the American system, or not.

9 TMC October 29, 2017 at 2:10 pm

Pretty bad example as no one believes the dossier is true anymore. Even the NYT is in an uproar that they were deceived by Clinton’s claims about it.

What other breaking news do you have? The moon landing was real?

10 Anonymous October 29, 2017 at 4:49 pm

I am going to be very patient with you guys, because a fraction of you are just under-informed. I will try to have the composure of a young David Carradine, without the kung-fu.

And I will offer The Guardian as an independent source, not Republican or Democrat, not even American.

11 JWatts October 30, 2017 at 3:56 pm

“And I will offer The Guardian as an independent source, …”

Was that humor intentional ?

12 A Truth Seeker October 28, 2017 at 5:15 pm

The American regime is in the throes of self-annihilation. The Red bandits’ regime, on the other hand, is making use of Washington’s complacency, but make no mistake: the reactionaries are paper tigers. In appearance, the reactionaries are terrifying, but in reality they are not so powerful.

13 ChrisA October 29, 2017 at 3:04 am

I find it unlikely that the Chinese will actually prove a strategic rival to the US for several reasons, first they are not actually promoting any particular ideology, to call the Chinese communist is just a historical oddity, their economy is pretty much capitalist with some state ownership – very similar most of the west. Second the Chinese have plenty of business relationships with the US which they will not want to damage. Thirdly their armed forces are decades behind the US in terms of technologies, the literally don’t even have a proper aircraft carriers or modern jet planes. Finally China is about to become an ageing country, peak workforce has already occurred and demographic decline is now built in. Countries with lots of pensioners don’t tend to want to become military adventurers.

Contra the pessimistic bias of a lot of people, I think the the US hegemony is just starting. It is like Rome in the first century AD, perhaps with Trump as Nero. Certainly lots of crisis to come, but the arrival of the Visigoths is nowhere in sight.

14 msgkings October 29, 2017 at 3:44 am

“their economy is pretty much capitalist with some state ownership – very similar most of the west.”

No, it is definitely not very similar in most of the West to a Chinese-style command economy

It is capitalism, but state run.

15 ChrisA October 29, 2017 at 12:45 pm

Eh? There are tons of private companies in China, and many many entrepreneurs. There are plenty of state owned companies, but then so are there in France. The “party” in China is like the Society of St. Tammany in the early 20C in New York, almost no-one believes in that crap, but if you want to be in a political career, better join up.

Quoting from first website googled;

Just a few decades ago China’s private sector was almost non-existent. How important is it today?

1. In 2014 China economy specialist Nicholas Lardy concluded that the private sector now produces at least two-thirds of China’s GDP.[1]

2. Competitive conditions prevail in some industry sectors where state-owned enterprises (SOEs) remain prominent such as steel and coal production. State monopolies only survive in a few sectors such as oil and utilities. Here regulated prices mean that profit margins can be thin.[2]

3. In 2015 there were 54.08 million self-employed businesses in China, a 44 percent increase from 2011. Over the same period the number of privately-owned firms nearly doubled to reach 19.08 million.[3],[4]

16 msgkings October 30, 2017 at 12:17 pm

No doubt no one believes in Communist dogma, but the state definitely runs the private sector through ownership and fiat. When the Chinese leadership wants banks to lend, they order them to do so. When they want them to stop, they order that too. Multiply that times most industries in China. All of those privately run businesses are ultimately completely under the control of the state. Nothing like the West. It is evolving of course (slowly) and will probably get more ‘Western’ but it’s naïve to consider the Chinese economy “pretty much capitalist…very similar to most of the west” today

17 JWatts October 30, 2017 at 4:07 pm

I think msgkings is correct here. But I don’t know. So, I’d very much like to hear from someone with real world knowledge.

Here is what I believe the situation to be, but it’s really just conjecture more than knowledge:

The Chinese Communist government still runs the country. No business can exist in a hostile relationship with the state and those with congenial relationships with the state are going to have a leg up. It’s very much crony capitalism.

18 Anonymous October 29, 2017 at 9:04 am
19 RafaelR October 29, 2017 at 7:28 pm

Americans live in their own bubbles. China already is right now the world’s largest economy, trading power, industrial power, consumer of natural resources and energy and the biggest polluter. The US is already less internationally influential than China in all these dimensions. The US is not a rival for China in the same way Japan is not a rival for the US: it is a smaller country. And no, the US is not Rome, which was a state that unified the known world. The US is another UK, an hegemonic power that keeps the international system stable. It’s role as a military hegemon is good for China since they save their own money on military spending. And yes if China wished they could have a military much stronger than the US, since the poor Soviet Union was roughly equal to the US militarily and the ratio China/US is much bigger than the ratio USSR/US in demographic and economic terms.

The question is for how long will the US be able to be the world’s police while it’s share of global GDP will be continuously decreasing. Today the US is about 15% of the world’s GDP, it was 20% in 2000. The UK’s share of world industrial production in 1913 was 14%, down from about 30% in 1875. The US’s relative decline from 1950 to 2016, from 43% of the world’s industrial output to 16%, is similar to the UKs relative decline from 1875 to 1913.

20 JWatts October 30, 2017 at 4:11 pm

“Americans live in their own bubbles”

I think most American’s are aware that China is very much a rising power and the closest to America in influence.

21 Bill October 28, 2017 at 5:06 pm

Don’t tell Donald about the effectiveness of the Chinese censorship.

He might get ideas.

Like yanking FCC broadcast licenses.

22 TMC October 29, 2017 at 2:16 pm

Or letting the FCC regulate the internet. No. At least he wouldn’t be that dumb.

23 JWatts October 30, 2017 at 4:16 pm

To be fair, both those ideas are authoritarian ideas. I disagree with both Obama and Trump on their ideas of expanding the scope of the FCC.

24 A Truth Seeker October 28, 2017 at 5:08 pm

The awful Red bandits know that their totalitarian regime would crumble like a house of cards if the Chinese toiling masses coukd have ready access to information pertaining the outer world.

25 Paul October 28, 2017 at 9:01 pm

VPN used to be common among students but they used it to watch American TV. Like Two Broke Girls, The Big Bang Theory (at times when it wasn’t allowed internally),South Korean serials,…

Over 100 million Chinese tour outside the country every year. Over half a million Chinese are students abroad. Access to an uncensored internet is not going to make much difference to anyone’s politics. It’s a big irritation to researchers trying to keep up with the literature, that’s all.

26 Harun October 28, 2017 at 9:38 pm

It also annoys foreign visitors who suddenly can’t use their gmail.

27 mkt42 October 28, 2017 at 10:13 pm

“Access to an uncensored internet is not going to make much difference to anyone’s politics”

That’s true in the short run, but one of the main implications of the article is that it might not be true in the long run. The article says that acquisition of (not just access to) uncensored information “brings broad, substantial, and persistent changes to knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, and intended behaviors”.

That catch is that few people choose to go out and acquire that information.

So does that mean few ideas will have an effect on China? In the short run yes, but in the long run though few ideas may make it past the censorship they can be large in impact even if small in number. Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come, in the words of Victor Hugo (although it turns out that he didn’t write those words, Gustave Aimard came closer to doing so).

28 ths October 28, 2017 at 10:17 pm

So media censorship isn’t a big deal because no one in China wants access to censored information anyway? But what Chinese journalist is going to produce an investigative report (or other dissent) if there is no audience that can read it. With no supply of information, it’s no wonder people aren’t that interested in what little is available (unless they’re given “temporary encouragement”). Of course, the long-run effect of a nation with unfettered access to the media is likely quite different.

29 Adam Minter October 28, 2017 at 10:37 pm

An interesting paper, but I think it would benefit from noting that much of what’s censored is foreign language content (the NYT’s Chinese site is included in the study). True, many if not most of the students surveyed in this paper are able to read foreign languages – but given the choice, doing so still requires a degree of mental effort that most of us aren’t willing to take unless we absolutely believe we need access to that information. At the same time, I don’t think one can underestimate the desire of readers in China – or elsewhere – to read locally-generated content. So there’s likely a bias there, too. Of course, Chinese-language and generated content is also censored, but the mere existence of Chinese online censorship depresses its production – and thereby depresses demand.

An interesting paper so far as it goes. But this is such a complicated phenomenon, and I don’t think it’s sufficient to say that folks are uninterested in censored material. There are many additional factors at play.

30 Attila Smith October 29, 2017 at 3:06 am

“…and note how they named the link”: What link?

31 Kevin P October 29, 2017 at 4:36 am

The paper’s filename is 1984bravenewworld_draft.pdf

32 Nigel October 31, 2017 at 10:29 am

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