The Progression of Repression: When does online censorship move toward real world repression?

Authored by: Blake Miller and Mary Gallagher

Abstract: This paper’s main question is to understand when delegated, sometimes automated, censorship of online content shifts back to the state and moves toward physical repression. The Chinese government delegates online censorship to private internet content producers (ICPs), large companies like Sina and Tencent, that are compelled to satisfy the government’s demand for information control. ICPs also selectively report certain content and users back to the government. Our question here is to understand and theorize about the logic of this move back to government handling. We analyze leaked documents from Sina censorship logs in order to understand when commercial censors move from digital repression to real-world repression by government authorities. We argue that the state seems to have two goals in mind: to remain responsive to citizen grievances and to repress relentlessly when social forces (a “Big V user,” an organized group, a viral story) challenge the Party-State’s hegemonic position. Our argument lends credence to theories of Chinese governance that emphasize these two, sometimes contradictory, goals of Chinese governance. Early work on “ideology and organization” by Schurmann (1966) emphasizes the importance that the CCP places on constructing organizations that embed the Party in all social structures and limit the ability of non-Party individuals, networks or groups to survive independently. This entails restrictions on online speech that seeks to mobilize and incite (King, Pan, & Roberts, 2014), but it also extends to the suppression of discourse that challenges the hegemonic position of the CCP (Lei & Zhou, 2015). We also observe how the government uses online discussion to monitor and evaluate local governments, especially focused on social reporting of local agents’ malfeasance and corruption. This accords with arguments made by P. Lorentzen (2014) and Dimitrov (2017) on the state’s strategic use of censorship/information as a mechanism to monitor local level agents.

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