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Censorship Remains Viable in China-- But For How Long?

by Greg Singer, UMN Law Student, MJLST Managing Editor

Thumbnail-Greg-Singer.jpgIn the west, perhaps no right is held in higher regard than the freedom of speech. It is almost universally agreed that a person has the inherent right to speak their mind as he or she pleases, without fear of censorship or reprisal by the state. Yet for the more than 1.3 billion currently residing in what is one of the oldest civilizations on the planet, such a concept is either unknown or wholly unreflective of the reality they live in.

Despite the exploding amount of internet users in China (from 200 million users in 2007 to over 530 million by the end of the first half of 2012, more than the entire population of North America), the Chinese Government has remained implausibly effective at banishing almost all traces of dissenting thought from the wires. A recent New York Times article detailing the fabulous wealth of the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and his family members (at least $2.7 billion) resulted in the almost immediate censorship of the newspaper's English and Chinese web presence in China. Not stopping there, the censorship apparatus went on to scrub almost all links, reproductions, or blog posts based on the article, leaving little trace of its existence to the average Chinese citizen. Earlier this year, the Bloomberg News suffered a similar fate, as it too published an unacceptable report regarding the unusual wealth of Xi Jinping, the Chinese Vice President and expected successor of current President, Hu Jintao.

In "Forbidden City Enclosed by the Great Firewall: The Law and Power of Internet Filtering in China," published in the Winter 2012 version of the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, Jyh-An Lee and Ching-Yi Liu explain that it is not mere tenacity that permits such effective censorship--the structure of the Chinese internet itself has been designed to allow the centralized authority to control and filter the flow of all communications over the network. Even despite the decentralizing face of content creation on the web, it appears as though censorship will remain technically possible in China for the foreseeable future.

Yet still, technical capability is not synonymous with political permissibility. A powerful middle class is emerging in the country, with particular strength in the large urban areas, where ideas and sentiments are prone to spread quickly, even in the face of government censorship. At the same time, GDP growth is steadily declining from its tremendous peak in the mid-2000s. These two factors may combine to produce a population that has the time, education, and wherewithal to challenge a status quo that will perhaps look somewhat less like marvelous prosperity in the coming years. If China wishes to enter the developed world as a peer to the west (with an economy based on skilled and educated individuals, rather than mass labor), addressing its ongoing civil rights issues seems like an almost unavoidable prerequisite.