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Censorship, Technology, and Bo Xilai

by Jeremy So, UMN Law Student, MJLST Managing Editor

Thumbnail-Jeremy-So.jpgAs China's Communist party prepares for its once-a-decade leadership transition, the news has instead been dominated by the fall from power of Bo Xilai, the former head of the Chongching Communist Party and formerly one of the party's potential leaders. While such a fall itself is unusual, the dialogue surrounding Bo's fall is also remarkable--Chinese commentators have been able to express their views while facing only light censorship.

This freedom is remarkable because of the Chinese government's potential control over the internet, which was recently outlined by Jyh-An Lee and Ching-Yi Liu in "Forbidden City Enclosed by the Great Firewall: The Law and Power of Internet Filtering in China" recently published in the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology. Lee and Liu explain how early on in the internet's development, the Chinese government decided to limit a user's ability to access non-approved resources. By implementing a centralized architecture, the government has been able to implement strict content filtering controls. In conjunction with traditional censorship, the Chinese government has an unprecedented amount of control over what can be viewed online.

Lee and Liu argue that these technological barriers rise to the level of de facto law. Within this framework, the Chinese government's history of censorship indicates that there are rules against criticizing the party, its leaders, or its actions.

Chinese internet reactions to the Bo Xilai case are notable because thy have included criticism of all three. Posts expressing differing opinions, including those criticizing the government's reaction and those supporting the disgraced leader, have not been taken down. Such posts have remained online even while commentary on China's next leader, Xi Jinping, has been quickly taken down. Given the Chinese government's potential control and past use of those controls, the spread of such dissent must be intentional.

Whether this is part of a broader movement towards more openness, a calculated response by the party, or a failure of Chinese censorship technology remains to be seen. Regardless, the changing nature of the internet and technology will force the Chinese government to adapt.