Gady Epstein’s recommendations

An interview with...

Gady Epstein on China and the Internet

About Gady Epstein

Gady Epstein is China correspondent for the Economist. Previously, he served as Beijing bureau chief for Forbes for four years, opening the magazine's Beijing office in 2007.

Image by Alex Maynard

How has the Chinese Communist Party managed to survive the chaos of the World Wide Web? The Economist correspondent chooses books on the world's most successful case of authoritarian control of the Internet. 

You just did a special report for the Economist on China and the Internet. Is this something you’ve been following for a long time?

The Internet has been something that’s fascinated me in China since I arrived in 2002. At that time there were fewer than 60 million people on the Internet. There was a widespread assumption that as it spread nationwide and to a much larger population, it would be much more difficult for the Communist Party to maintain power, or that it would at least undermine them. Some would argue that it has undermined them, but I think they’ve done much better than people expected.

In the 11 years between then and now, I’ve written about various forms of on-line activism, from the bulletin boards and blogs, talking with Boke – an early blogging platform - about self-censorship and the monitors they would hire. I’ve talked with journalists about blogging their reporter’s notebook: whatever didn’t get into their stories that were officially approved to be told, they would tell in their notes online. This fascinated me, that there were these outlets. Over time I’ve developed a more complex understanding of how it works, actually with the help of some of the books on this list.

Yes, what are these books about, generally?

There are three Internet-specific books on the list. Over the years, each of the authors has contributed to my understanding of how the Communist Party manages the Internet, and how effective or not it might be. In the case of Yang Guobin, while he’s clear-eyed about the Party’s abilities to manage the Internet, he still offers a somewhat hopeful interpretation of Chinese activism online. It may not be directly advancing democracy in the Western sense, but it is giving citizens online more democratic-like freedoms and giving them a space, a public forum, where they can develop some of the patterns and habits of democracy. This is something you’ll also find in Johan Lagerkvist’s After the Internet, Before Democracy. Lagerkvist also has a relatively hopeful view. The Internet may not be speeding China towards democratization in the short-term, but he believes that inevitably it will make that transformation easier. He’s extremely cognizant, though, of the technological determinism of the cyber-utopians, this idea that the Internet will just lead to democratization. He rejects that, and tries to offer a different understanding, which is quite helpful. What’s really interesting about Lagerkvist’s work is that he compiles different threads of thought about the Internet, and there are many. This list of books – even just the three that are specifically related to the Internet – are just a fraction of the amount of ink that’s been spilled over the Chinese Internet…

And ultimately it’s about whether the Internet in China will lead to democracy or whether it could be a more sinister force, leading to, say, some sort of nationalist autocracy? Is that the key question?

Yes, and it fits into the larger question of “Whither China?” and “Whither the Chinese Communist Party?” which is the big question that everybody asks themselves when they come here, especially to cover it as a story, as journalists do. That’s why I’ve got Anne-Marie Brady’s book on my list as well, Marketing Dictatorship. She focuses on the Party-state’s ability to adapt after Tiananmen in 1989, and focus its efforts in propaganda to reinforce certain concepts that it wants to spread and have be absorbed by the public. These include not only embracing the market economy, but also embracing one-party rule, the need for social stability, nationalism, and, selectively, anti-foreign sentiment.

This framework undergirds the approach to the Internet as well. It’s part of a holistic conception of how to maintain power. Some people will interpret the massive, unwieldy, effort to “control” the Internet and the similar massive, unwieldy, effort to control what people prioritize in society, as, ultimately, a losing proposition. But I think what they’ve done with the Internet shows that they can extend their ability to rule, by making authoritarianism more flexible. So that’s where I would differ with Lagerqvist. He proposes an interesting counter-factual, which is “Can you imagine what China would be like without the Internet? Where you wouldn’t be exposing corruption by lower level officials and you wouldn’t be hearing about mass protests all around the country?” He supposes that one-party rule would be more stable under those conditions. I disagree. In my view, allowing citizens to expose corrupt low-level officials or other wrongdoing that the centre maybe doesn’t even know about is in the centre’s interest. It gives people some sense of freedom and some real freedom, without necessarily challenging one-party rule.

Are you saying it would be better if there were no Internet in China?

There’s almost nobody who would say they would rather have no Internet, than the Internet they have. Dissidents and others argue that the Internet has vastly enabled them. That can be true, while it’s still true that it might be helping extend authoritarian rule. 

Let’s talk a bit more about these books individually. So Lagerqvist’s After the Internet, Before Democracy is quite a long and comprehensive book, I gather from some of the reviews.

Yes, I wouldn’t say this is the layman’s guide to the Internet. Maybe none of these books quite are. They get very deep into the ideological weeds, because that gets to the core of whether authoritarian management of the Internet can work. In After the Internet, Before Democracy, Lagerqvist tries to find a middle ground between technological determinism/cyberutopianism - this notion that the Internet will automatically bring about democracy in authoritarian states - and the much darker view that authoritarian states can control the Internet and hold onto power regardless of how citizens use the Internet. What he describes is a much more fluid, authoritarian Internet. He looks at the different interest groups in China that use the Internet. There’s the Communist Party, the Party-state, but there’s also what he describes as the subalterns: the people who sometimes have oppositional interests to the Party, who also have access to the Internet and use it. That can be middle class Chinese with urban gripes, migrant workers, activists and people with environmental concerns.

He believes we’re in a phase now where the Communist Party is effectively maintaining control and surviving the embrace of the Internet, but he sees the embrace of the Internet as inevitably aiding the transformation to democracy. That is a more hopeful view than my own report takes. But in getting there, in his argument, he provides a very helpful roadmap of the history of the Internet in China, the different conceptions of how the Internet is managed, and how people are active online, that makes for an interesting read.

In terms of numbers, more than 40% of Chinese people are online now aren’t they? Plus you mentioned in your report that China has more online shoppers than the US.

Yes, there were 564 million people online as of the end of last year [2012]. There were 200 million people shopping online, and more than that watching videos every month. There’s lots of stuff going on besides political activism. It’s an extremely vibrant community inside what I call this giant cage.

And it’s not just in rich cities like Beijing and Shanghai.

No, in fact the fastest growth right now is in the interior. Part of that is because there’s so much penetration already in cities and wealthier areas. But another part of it is that now it’s much easier to get online via mobile, so people can skip a step. Just as they skipped landlines to go mobile, they can get on the Internet very easily.

So if you went to visit, say, a peasant in Henan province, is he likely to be online?

Some are. I did a story last year about a peasant activist in Hebei who has been online five or six years now. He’s a rabble-rouser, and a very effective one. He has a Weibo [the Chinese Twitter] account, and also Weixin (WeChat in English) and has contacts with the media. When they [the local authorities] were upset with him, the thugs in his village decided to try and destroy his computer. That gives you a sense of how important it is. (They didn’t know he’d already upgraded to a laptop). There’s an increasing number of farmers online. They’re not all activists, in fact most of them are not, but they’re definitely getting online. 

Tell me more about Yang Guobin’s book, The Power of the Internet in China, about online citizen activism. What surprised me coming back to China last year is just how lively some of the talk-back in online communities can be

Yang Guobin is looking at online activism dating back to the 1990s. He writes about a number of different cases, over the years, where average citizens, because of the ability to post online, have been able to effect change. He thinks that fact, in itself, is significant and, in a sense, democratizing with a small “d.” He goes back to the case of Sun Zhigang, the migrant worker who was beaten to death [while in police custody] in Guangzhou, he talks about the slave labour and brick kilns, cases where information spreading online helped lead to action, by generating attention, and putting on public pressure. He is not a cyber-utopian, but he’s saying that this is a real effect that the Internet has had, it has empowered regular Chinese citizens. He recognizes it’s not just a rosy scenario, but he’s presenting an optimistic case for use of the Internet in China. Overall his view is quite hopeful about where it is leading.

Is he just looking at specific incidents or does he also look at broader issues?

He presents these examples within his own conceptual framework of “Where is the Chinese Internet heading?” I don’t think he offers a definitive answer. But he talks about the Internet’s ability to build communities online, its changing the behaviour of official institutions, forcing the Party to react. He talks about the Party’s efforts at control meeting resistance, and that while this doesn’t necessarily lead to democracy or democratizing the political system, it changes the terms on which society is ruled, between the rulers and the ruled.

So if I posted a question on Weibo, “Is democracy better than being ruled by the Communist Party?” would that just be removed instantly by censors? Or are these kinds of broader discussions possible online in China?

It depends on how you put it. If you hit enough keywords, you’re pretty safe to assume that your tweet will be automatically deleted. But it’s pretty smart censorship. If you’re a person with two followers who no one cares about, if automatic keyword detection hasn’t found your post, it might just kind of sit there. It’s more likely to be discovered if it develops velocity online, gets retweeted, and more people see it. They pay much more attention, as they should, from their perspective, to people who have 30 million followers than those who have two. Certain types of post will automatically get deleted, but all evidence we have indicates that there is a human element to all of this. There’s a lot of human individuals involved in reading through tweets and deciding whether something should be deleted. There’s hundreds [of employees] at any large Internet site, and probably a lot more than that at Sina and Weibo. What they’re looking out for is whether your tweet actually leads to collective action or generates some sort of more collective sentiment online. Censorship has become pretty fine-tuned, despite the fact they have to keep adding sensitive words to their list.

If I did have a large following could I say “We should have a free society!”

You can use the word “freedom,” or say “this is a free society” or “we should have a free society,” but it depends on the context. If it’s about a very sensitive issue, it might get deleted, and if it’s not, and just gets popular, people liked it, they’re probably going to let it slide. It’s a little bit too general to nail down. 

Do you want to talk about Consent of the Networked by Rebecca Mackinnon next?

Rebecca, used to be a [CNN] journalist here. Her work on the Internet in China and on Internet freedom in general has been very important in the field and a lot of people have cited her work. Her book provides a sober context for understanding how the Chinese Internet works.

Her book is not just about China though, is it?

Correct, but China is where her expertise began and she’s used that to apply her understanding globally. Also, as she puts it in her book, China is the most advanced case of authoritarian control of the Internet, and the most advanced example of the negative case for cyber-utopians. She also is no technological determinist, and I would say she is less optimistic than the other two [Lagerkvist and Yang], about where the Chinese Internet is heading, or whether the Internet is a democratizing force. She sees it more as a struggle, depending on who controls the levers of the Internet - whether it’s companies or governments. In China obviously it’s the government, but in the West it can be corporations as well. So I thought it was useful for contextualizing how to think about the Internet globally.

On the blurb for the book it says that for every case of an Arab Spring, there are more counter-examples of governments and corporations using the Internet to corrode civil liberties…

Yes, and that mindset was always helpful for me to keep in mind as I was writing about China’s approach to the Internet. We’re not necessarily comparing China to a completely free Internet globally. But it helped me conceptualize that what’s different here in China - versus infringements on freedom in the West - is that the Chinese government has worked very hard to make its Internet particularly different and distinct.

Yes, I don’t think people overseas realize just how different the Internet is here, behind the Great Firewall. People send me YouTube videos, without even knowing it doesn’t exist here. There’s no Facebook, no Twitter, and Google search is so slow you basically can’t use it. I follow Harvard professor Greg Mankiw’s economics blog – he’d probably be surprised to learn that he is blocked in China because Blogspot is. What’s amazes me is how this has led to this classic feature of East Asian industrialization, namely the creation of domestic national champions in China who provide these services instead.

It has. I think those national champions would have arisen anyway, because as Chinese companies they have some advantages over foreigners - the Chinese language advantage, the Chinese market advantage. But obviously they’re being helped tremendously by what amounts, essentially, to political protectionism. I don’t think protectionism is the goal of the Great Firewall, but it is definitely a by-product. So you have these national champions that rise up and they’re trusted by the government, and by the Party and they’re allowed to flourish, to some degree. They also have to bear the burden of monitoring and self-censorship.

Yes, as you say, employing hundreds of staff to ensure they don’t publish anything that’s a no-no, otherwise that’ll be the end of their business…

It certainly limits their revenue growth and makes their jobs much harder, but it’s a trade-off that some of these companies I’m sure are willing to make.

Here’s a question I’ve been wanting to ask ever since arriving in Beijing and discovering another by-product of censorship which is that the Internet is painfully slow, sometimes to the point of not functioning at all. If a large part of the Communist Party’s legitimacy comes from continuing to deliver economic growth – doesn’t a very slow and unwieldy Internet have economic implications?

There’s no question censorship slows the Internet in China down, though it does depend on what part of the Internet you’re using. If you’re using the Chinese Internet, and you’re not going to Western sites, it’s much faster. But if you’re going outside China to go online, it will be slower. And people who are working in information technology, say, and many other fields will often need to go outside of China. I think that does impact productivity both for foreigners and Chinese here. I also think not allowing a free-flow of ideas on the Internet impedes innovation. If you’re not allowing Facebook, and Twitter and YouTube and whatever chaos the world brings, then you have an environment that is stifling innovation.

Are people at all concerned about this or even talking about it or measuring the impact of these restrictions on the economy?

People are concerned. You will hear people speak about this publicly. Kai-Fu Lee [a Beijing based Internet entrepreneur who was head of Google China] talks about it a bit. Whether the Communist Party is concerned, I’m not so sure. They see a lot of benefits to the way they manage the Internet, and of course Chinese Internet companies benefit to a great degree, because they don’t have as much competition from foreign Internet companies. 

You’ve already mentioned Anne-Marie Brady’s book, Marketing Dictatorship. Do you want to expand on your comments a bit?

Anne Marie Brady has done a lot to advance the notion that, contrary to what some people felt in the 1990s, China’s efforts at propaganda and thought-work have actually intensified since 1989, not weakened. Some people argue that the effectiveness of China’s propaganda system has become weaker over that time - as China’s media has become more commercialized, as society has become more pluralized, including because of the Internet. But what she shows is that that has not deterred Chinese leaders from an aggressive and ongoing effort to instil a certain fundamental logic of control into the system. That logic is very much reflected in the Internet: “You can have this set of freedoms, including economic freedom, and some freedom to criticize. We maintain one-party rule. You don’t challenge that directly. You support what we do, because we’re all interested in social stability.” All of that is embedded in Chinese management of the Internet. From Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao, to now Xi Jinping, the importance of using the Internet as a tool in their propaganda strategy has become increasingly clear over time. They’ve made it explicit.

Are there any specific examples? Say the huge protests over the Diaoyu Islands outside the Japanese Embassy last year. Was that the government using the Internet to get people out on the streets?

In the case of anti-Japanese protests, it’s a little bit more complex than that. In some sense, that is allowing an existing online sentiment to express itself. Now China’s nationalist, patriotic education has helped feed into those sentiments, as has mass media: there are anti-Japan television shows and movies and even cartoons for kids. All of this feeds into anti-Japan sentiment. As far as online activism is concerned, it’s a matter of allowing it to happen or not. When it gets to a point where the Party is concerned, they’ll shut it down. This has happened again and again over the years. In fact, the earliest examples of censorship of the Internet and of exercising authoritarian control, relate to the organizing of pro-government rallies: nationalist rallies responding to some foreign event, like the anti-Chinese riots in Indonesia. They’re concerned about collective action. When it comes to nationalist activism what they’re trying to do is to allow it to some extent but shut it down if they perceive it to be a threat.

In terms of day-to-day examples they have these “50-cent Party” or leading commentators that they encourage to comment on issues either to guide the public conversation or, in some cases, to stay out of it. If there’s an incident in some locality in China where they decide to trigger this process, the local Internet publicity department will send out either texts or emails to these 50-cent Party workers or volunteers, asking them to post to microblogs, bulletin boards, what have you, to try and steer the conversation in a more acceptable direction.

What kind of thing are they going to be posting? “Actually the government handled this coal mine explosion really well”?

It can be like that. They can also try to divert attention by making some outrageous comment about something else. It might not be so overt as just being pro-government. 

Your final choice is Treason by the Book by Jonathan Spence which is about an incident in 18th century China. How does this book fit into our theme?

I suppose I’m cheating because there was no Internet in the 18th century. But it happens to be my favourite book of Jonathan Spence’s and it’s on a theme that is very relevant today, which is control of how rumours and information spread. So this is about the Yongzheng Emperor, who becomes concerned about a treasonous letter that is written somewhere in some part of China. He doesn’t know much about it, but he wants to find out who wrote it, who is responsible for circulating it and this triggers an imperial investigation. The imperial bureaucracy goes to work, and the horses are literally sent out. What’s interesting about it is the obsession with something that would seem so insignificant to most people, that it could have just been ignored. Instead, the resources of empire are marshalled to try and figure out the source of this rumour and to crush whatever sentiment is behind it. I think that is relevant today, in the age of the Internet, with all the rumours and rumour-hunters online. It is something you’ll see an obsession with from the Party as well. They want to crush rumours, they’re constantly sending out directives against spreading rumours and even arresting people for spreading rumours – as in the supposed “coup attempt” of March 2012. That authoritarian instinct to control rumours is fascinating.

They’re even worried about non-seditious rumours?

Yes, anything that might lead to instability or panic. They were concerned about the rumours about salt-buying after Fukushima happened. There were rumours that you needed to get salt and there was a rush on salt. At that time they mobilized people to counteract those rumours, saying the rumours were false. They don’t have to be seditious, they see rumours as inherently worrisome. Of course the notion of trying to chase down every rumour in the age of the Internet seems Sisyphean, but this is actually an ancient instinct of Chinese Empire…

Maybe it’s sensible though, if you’re trying to rule so many people.

Whether or not it’s sensible is an interesting question. Also 2000 years ago, another emperor’s approach was to actually collect information from rumours. He listened to them for any intimations that officials were corrupt or not doing their jobs, or to hear about sources of dissatisfaction. They actually do that today as well. Online public opinion monitoring is a key component of how China manages the Internet. They are listening on the Internet as well as trying to control it.

What’s your broader view of where China is heading politically? Even if you think the Internet has slowed things down, do you think we will end up with democracy à la Francis Fukuyama? Or do you think China has shown there can be another way of organizing a country? Because the government can be really responsive now. Say with the air pollution in Beijing. If people kicked up a huge fuss about it, the government could presumably clean it up very quickly. They’re a one party state so, unlike the US, they wouldn’t have to spend years arguing in Congress about it, they can just do it…

They can fix the very visible cracks, the ones that get the most attention and that cause the public the most concern. They can patch those up. The more fundamental problems - the deeper cracks in the foundation of the system - persist and get worse. Down the road there could be some crisis or catastrophe or economic crash, that will lead to both social unrest and political uncertainty and quite dicey times for the Communist Party. I just think the Internet is not hastening that day. It may actually be delaying that day of reckoning. There is quite a strong potential for a political transformation. How that takes place, what form it takes, really remains unclear to me. I do think a multi-party system or a system where people can vote and actually participate in choosing their leaders is inherently more stable long-term. So that would seem to suggest that eventually one party rule won’t work. But it could be decades before we come to that day of reckoning. Or it could be a shorter time.

And if there is a day of reckoning presumably at that point the Internet will be a catalyst for change.

At that point the Internet could become quite an important player in the whole thing. I talk about that in the report. From the authoritarian perspective the options will be limited. Shutting down the Internet - turning on the “kill switch” as they did in Xinjiang - doesn’t seem a really viable option and would be an admission of system failure. Whether the Internet plays a decisive role in whatever transformation is to come, I don’t know. But what some of these authors have written about, that the Internet has actually prepared Chinese citizens for political transformation, I think there is probably truth to that. 

Interview by 
Sophie Roell

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