1984 with Chinese Characteristics: How China Rewrites History

Posted on Wednesday, July 19, 2017 by Project2049Institute



(Source: Indian Express)

Watch video of conference here
By: Emily David

General Secretary Xi Jinping’s ‘China Dream’ is rooted in principles of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” with the goal of building a culturally strong and prosperous China (People’s Republic of China or PRC) under the guidance of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). To achieve the ‘China Dream’ it is essential for the Party to be a critical part of both China’s past and present to successfully usher China into the future. As such, the CCP has actively dominated the narrative of China’s modern history, politicizing the very nature of the PRC’s struggles and successes. In April 2013, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party issued the “Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere,” also known as ‘Document No.9,’ which identified seven existential and political threats to the Party including constitutionalism, civil society, historical nihilism, universal values, and the Western view of media. The document rejected any attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the Party through the questioning of its historical narrative, and demanded strict adherence to the Party line. Yet, China’s effort to control and politicize history is hardly new; rather, it has been a consistent thread throughout the life of the Chinese Communist Party. As the PRC’s military and economic prowess continues to grow, concern mounts over how the CCP’s ideology may influence the current international rules-based, liberal, world order. Understanding and assessing the CCP’s manipulation of China’s political history is critical in understanding the role China’s leaders intend to play in shaping norms and in creating an internal and international environment conducive to protecting their core interests.

Expert Conference on How the CCP Rewrites History

On February 23rd, 2017, the Project 2049 Institute hosted a conference titled “1984 with Chinese Characteristics: How China Rewrites History.” The conference brought together expert panels to address the costs and implications of the CCP’s deliberate distortion of key moments in China's past. The conference hosted two sessions. The first focused on “Problems on the Periphery” and the impact of the CCP’s involvement in Tibet, Southeast Asia, and Korea. The second discussed China’s domestic historical revisionism, emphasizing how the modern reform era beginning in the 1980’s has resulted in a stronger and more defiant CCP today.






(Left to Right: Miles M. Yu, Amy Chang, Li Jianglin, and Kelley Currie; Source: The Project 2049 Institute)

The Rewriting of History and Implications for Chinese Foreign Policy

For the authorities in Beijing, a central tactic for maintaining legitimacy is the shaping of historical narratives to serve political objectives. This has been the case since the founding of the Party, but has intensified considerably under the leadership of General Secretary Xi Jinping. Xi, himself, is very troubled by historical nihilism, which he defines as an argument made against China’s―and the Party’s―official record. Both Imperial China and the PRC have maintained an official record depicting China as a victim of Western imperialism. One component of this narrative includes an expansionist rewriting of history, in which all the largest conquests of previous dynasties (Han and non-Han) are considered fundamental elements of the Chinese race and identity. These interpretations of history, then, become part and parcel of a discourse of territorial expansionism. While all countries rewrite history, China’s revision of history is uniquely Party-driven. This has critical implications for modern Chinese foreign policy; with Xi at the helm, the CCP propagates its artificial historical accounts to dominate the region in its aims to restore its prior global preeminence, and to legitimize a return to Imperial China’s illustrious past. The Party’s desire to present China’s history as a glorious era compliments Beijing’s strategy to demonstrate its ‘win-win’ policies, and magnanimous and beneficent nature. By this logic, Beijing refutes any opposition to Chinese hegemony as ‘anti-China’ and serving an imperial (or Western) interest that seeks to contain China. Such opposition poses an existential threat to the legitimacy of the Party’s leadership, which creates the potential for dangerous future consequences.

Problems on the Periphery: Korea, Southeast Asia, and Tibet

The Korean War with Chinese Characteristics

The PRC’s involvement in the Korean War left a lasting impact on the way in which the people of China view the United States’ involvement in Korean issues today. China draws from its interpretation of the Korean War as part of an ongoing narrative of American aggression. The CCP interprets the United States’ involvement in the Korean War as continuous acts aimed to subvert the Chinese communist system. The Chinese narrative asserts that the United States is the most dangerous threat to the Party’s ideological system. Since China views the Korean War as a failed attempt by the U.S. to undermine the CCP, China exploits this narrative to argue that the United States continues to be an enduring and persistent threat. Given that China believes the collapse of the North Korean regime would be the most advantageous way for the United States to penetrate China’s borders and undermine the CPP, this encourages China to bolster support for maintaining the status quo on the Korean Peninsula.

CCP History of Modern Tibet

China has constructed a campaign to paint the CCP occupation of Tibet as a period of liberation and reform, whereby the CCP freed Tibetans struggling under Buddhist feudal “slavery” or serfdom. The CCP’s rewriting of history in Tibet is comprised of three major periods. The first (1950-1951) is known as the “Peaceful Liberation of Tibet,” which was actually quite brutal. In a settlement, signed under duress, known as the ‘17 Point Agreement,’ Beijing claims to have driven away imperial forces, returning Tibet to the 'great motherland.' The second period (1951-1959) was “Implementing the 17 Point Agreement,” described as the cultivation of a “United Front of Patriots,” whereby the CCP established Party affiliated groups in Tibet. This “United Front,” however, was actually used to monitor the territory and people in an attempt to bring the Tibetans under CCP control through forced allegiance to the Party. The third period (1959-1962) is known as the “Democratic Reform” era. The CCP claims this was a process of Tibetan democratic and socialist revolutions, yet this actually was a time of severe suppression of Tibetan uprisings against the CCP, and widespread famine due to CCP collectivization policies. Through the overarching narrative of ‘Tibetan liberation,’ the CCP has attempted to propagate the perception that the CCP’s “benevolent acts” have actually rescued Tibetans from a dismal alternative to CCP rule. The Party has further exploited this distorted historical narrative to justify China’s territorial claims. Yet, despite Tibet’s “Special Autonomous Region” status, legitimate historical analysis reveals that the CCP has continuously persecuted Tibetans in their efforts to subsume Tibetan society.

China’s Support for Communist Insurgencies in Southeast Asia

Another prominent element often found in PRC narratives is the insistence that China has never invaded nor interfered in the internal affairs of other states. Yet, this ignores the fact that since the Mao era, the CCP has made an effort to promote communist insurgencies throughout Southeast Asia.[i] As the representative to Stalin’s communist front in Asia, Mao Zedong and the CCP sought and created opportunities to support work with indigenous communist movements abroad. For Mao, supporting revisionist and anti-colonial movements in Asia was both ideologically necessary and essential to China’s security interests. To understand China’s involvement in Southeast Asia today, it is useful to assess China’s actions in Burma. Despite the CCP’s avowals of support for the current Burmese government, China’s furtive encouragement of communist insurgency in Burma has had a long-term, negative impact on the politics and development of Burma as a country; on the whole, China’s involvement has engendered ongoing turmoil and political conflict. Currently, groups whose roots derive from the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), which was created by China’s revolutionary export program, continue to ferment instability and serve as a major source of illicit narcotics and trade. These groups, and China’s engagement with them, are a source of great consternation to the first democratically elected government in Burma, which has been trying to establish a nationwide peace process. Even in the face of their official “no conflict, no confrontation” rhetoric, China continues to harness these groups to extract resources and exploit Burma as a strategic lever in the region.

(Left to Right: Randy Schriver, Robert Suettinger, Louisa Greve, Cao Yaxu; Source: The Project 2049 Institute)

Domestic Historical Revisionism: China’s Modern Reform Era
                                 
Deng Xiaoping and the “1981 Resolution”

The Chinese Communist Party’s main strategic goal is Party preservation. Domestically, this has led to a major effort by the CCP to redefine its history, especially since the time of China’s modern reform era. During that period, Deng Xiaoping used the “1981 Resolution” to continue pursuing the Party’s aim of revolutionizing the greater evolution of the Chinese state. Deng also utilized this document to cement his preeminence over other political rivals following Mao’s death in 1976. Regardless of some severe consequences from Mao’s policies, and in spite of the mounting opposition to Mao Zedong Thought and the ousting of the ‘Gang of Four’, Deng employed the “1981 Resolution” to consolidate Mao Zedong Thought as China’s guiding principle in an effort to stymie debate and solidify his place at the top. Since China’s modern reform era, the CCP’s approach has been based upon personal power in leadership. To maintain the Party’s control on power, a central leader must guide the way. Mao was a core figure; Deng was a core figure, and today Xi Jinping asserts himself in the same manner. Thus, the CCP has chosen to rewrite the Party’s history because China’s political system has operated on personal power processes and mechanisms that include the manipulation of history for individual gain and the preservation of the Party state.

40 Years of Personal Repression

The Chinese Communist Party has erected a narrative that the U.S. government is collaborating with groups in China to instigate a ‘color revolution.’ These groups, called the “New Five Black Types,” include human rights groups, dissidents, Internet opinion leaders, religious believers, and disadvantaged groups. As such, the CCP feels justified in the practice of rewriting history to discredit these five groups in order to delegitimize the United States’ alleged efforts to subjugate China. Personal stories of people affected by China’s revision of history throughout the past 40 years detail patterns that elucidate the calculations behind the Chinese government’s acts of repression. Just four of countless examples include: 1) the purge of a journalist reporting on social injustices; 2) the persecution of pastors attempting to create an open church; 3) the closure of an NGO that worked to aid disadvantaged women; and 4) the oppression of a grassroots-level people’s representative. The CCP’s distortion of facts suggests that the desire to ‘save face’ ultimately motivates the Party’s harsh policies. By shifting the focus of the narrative off of the Party’s oppressive acts, China successfully hides its own transgressions behind a larger enemy— the United States.

Conclusion

The CCP’s rewriting of history offers important insights into the CCP’s interests and the potential consequences of China’s constructed historical narratives. Randy Schriver, the President and CEO of the Project 2049 Institute, notes the significance of understanding why Beijing conducts assaults on historical truths as it allows us to decipher the CCP’s true domestic and global intentions. Overall, the cases examined demonstrate China’s desire to be portrayed as a powerful, yet benevolent, global leader led by the Chinese Communist Party. However, when analyzed closely, the CCP’s detachment from reality, and stringent strategy of historical reconstruction, indicates a fearful state that is grasping for control to conceal the truth whenever reality does not align with its interests. The result is the CCP’s forceful effort to maintain dominance and strengthen Party rule within China, and its greater willingness to counter perceived threats and assert Chinese power beyond its borders.


This conference was held by The Project 2049 Institute as part of a program to study the history of the Chinese Communist Party (#CCPhistory). In support of this program, the Project 2049 Institute has commissioned four research papers that analyze crucial elements of the CCP's history including, “The Logic of Historical Nihilism: Analyzing the PRC Orthodoxy on the Origins of the Korean War,” “Dangerous Truths: The Panchen Lama's 1962 Report and China's Broken Promise of Tibetan Autonomy,” “The People's Republic of China and Burma: Not Only Pauk-Phaw,” and “Negotiating History: The Chinese Communist Party’s 1981.”

Emily David is a Fellow at the Project 2049 Institute where her research focuses on the Chinese Communist Party, cross-Strait relations, and U.S.-Taiwan relations. She recently completed her Master’s degree in Chinese Politics, Foreign Policy, and International Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China.



[i] The Ashgate Research Companion to Chinese Foreign Policy, (Surray, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2012), p. 115.

Bolstering Taiwan's Last Line of Defense

Posted on Wednesday, June 28, 2017 by Project2049Institute


Trump Must Boost Taiwan Arms Sales Now

There is a lot Washington can do to boost Taipei's security in the face of the threat posed by Beijing.

By: Ian Easton and Dee Wu

Taiwan has a big problem. In 2016, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) began a sweeping reorganization of its military with the aim of creating a joint force capable of fighting and winning future wars. Of all the operations envisioned by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the most heavily emphasized is the Joint Island Attack Campaign, which is code for the invasion of Taiwan.

The threat was recently brought into stark relief across the Republic of China (ROC), the official name of Taiwan’s government. In May, the ROC military mobilized for war games to test the island’s anti-invasion strategy, holding the annual Han Kuang exercises, a series of defense drills used to simulate what might happen if China launched an all-out war of aggression against Taiwan. As is typically the case, the 2017 iteration of Han Kuang involved computer-aided command post simulations, civil defense drills, field training exercises, emergency reserve force mobilization, and live-fire drills.

Sleepy suburban neighborhoods and small towns across Taiwan were alerted of the events by the wail of air raid sirens, the distant rumble of tanks, the scream of fighter jets, and the crunching impacts of gun batteries. Thousands of men, who normally would have put on business suits before going to work in office buildings, instead donned camouflage fatigues and went to work stringing razor wire, emplacing beach obstacles, and manning machine guns along the coast.

To continue reading this article, please visit the original publication in The Diplomat (June 15, 2017).


Ian Easton is a research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute and author of the forthcoming book, The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia. Dee Wu is an intern at the Project 2049 Institute and graduate student at Georgetown University.  

Can Cambodia Make Electoral History This Week?

Posted on Tuesday, May 30, 2017 by Project2049Institute



Image result for cambodia elections realclear world  
                                                           (Source: RealClear World)

By: Rachael Burton


This article was originally published in RealClear World (May 30, 2017).

 
On June 4, the people of Cambodia will line up to vote in local elections featuring an opposition party that is organized to compete effectively for the first time in decades. Will the long-time ruling party allow these elections to be a fair fight? If so, that would also be a first.

Kem Sokha, president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), is often seen as a mild-mannered figure, one with a strong focus on human rights, social issues, and village economics. Observers were therefore surprised last year when Sokha barricaded himself in the party’s Phnom Penh headquarters and refused to appear in court to answer trumped-up charges against him. The government deployed attack helicopters to buzz CNRP headquarters and stationed armed troops across the street from the building in an effort to intimidate Sokha; but he would not budge. On Sept. 9, 2016, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court found Kem Sokha guilty of failing to appear as a witness, but Sokha was eventually granted a royal pardon from King Norodom Sihamoni, and Prime Minister Hun Sen declared what he called a political cease-fire, suspending his long-running attacks on opposition political figures. Still, the episode served another reminder of how far Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) would go to maintain their hold on power.


In 2013, the CNRP -- then a newly formed coalition of longtime opposition groups and leaders -- shocked the prime minister and his party by winning 55 seats in the national assembly despite rampant fraud and irregularities. As other opposition parties had in the past, the CNRP garnered strong support in the capital, Phonm Penh, and among young people, but it remained weakest in the rural Khmer heartland. This town-country divide has long been most starkly illustrated at the local level: Coming into this year's communal elections, the CNRP and other opposition parties only hold about 3 percent of commune councilor seats. Overcoming the CPP’s entrenched strength at the commune level -- a dominance maintained by a combination of graft, coercion, and abuse of authority -- has been considered an impossible dream since the CPP’s manipulation of the country’s first democratic elections and Hun Sen’s orchestrated coup in 1997. This year however the opposition, united and better organized under the CNRP banner, is expected to perform well due to their unprecedented effort to present candidates for all seats on a platform emphasizing the development of rural areas, and thanks also to the expectation of a cleaner electoral system courtesy of substantial donor support from Japan and the European Union.


As the CNRP’s prospects have improved, Hun Sen and the CPP leadership have escalated their threats of civil war and violence. Claiming alternately that a CNRP victory could lead to a civil war and that the authorities will violently suppress any CNRP-led protests if the ruling party loses, Hun Sen and other senior officials have blatantly threatened the right of the Cambodian people to cast their ballots free from intimidation.


Political crackdown under Hun Sen


Since 1985, Hun Sen has solidified himself at the epicenter of power in Cambodia. A former battalion commander under the Khmer Rouge, he fled to Vietnam and collaborated with the Vietnamese to overthrow his former comrades. Upon his return to Cambodia, he was appointed deputy prime minister and foreign minister of the Vietnamese-installed People's Republic of Kampuchea. Over the course of 30 years characterized by capricious brutality and growing authoritarianism, Hun Sen and his family have amassed unparalleled power and influence over Cambodia's military and its socio-economic and political environment. Since 1998, Hun Sen has served as prime minister of Cambodia, a post he aims to retain until at least 2026. As the leader of the CPP, he has asserted control over Cambodia’s judicial and electoral processes through violence, repression, and corruption. More recently, he has turned to China as a political and economic patron and has used his access to Chinese investment funds to cement his rule while enriching his friends and family.


CNRP and the communes


Cambodia's National Elections Committee announced that 7,878,194 people had registered to vote in the 2017 Commune Elections, representing 81.47 percent of the total number of potential voters older than 18. To have a viable chance of success in the 2018 general election, the opposition party must expand and solidify support in the rural communes. Prior to the formation of the CNRP in 2012, the CPP had won more than 70 percent of the vote in local elections, securing 1,592 of the 1,633 communes -- 97 percent.  Issues such as land grabbing, a widening wealth gap, corruption, and illegal logging are high priorities for voters in the countryside. Therefore, the CNRP has attempted to reorient its message to the communes, marketing itself as a responsible party of the people in contrast to the Hun Sen government. In this vein, Kem Sokha has said that the CNRP would dramatically reform the current ministerial structure focused on rural development, using an anticipated $823 million in allocated savings to fund each of Cambodia's 1,646 commune councils directly. (That sum would account for nearly one-fifth of the national budget.) The councils, who currently each receive about $57,000 in funds primarily to support administrative costs, would benefit from expanded capability to support community programs. CNRP is championing decentralization and advocating against corruption, as is evident in their attempt to use the following campaign slogan: "Replace the commune chief who serves the party with a commune chief who serves the people."

The CPP under Hun Sen’s leadership routinely exploits the collective trauma the country still shares from the chaos, death, and instability of the Khmer Rouge, emphasizing the party's role in ensuring peace and economic growth after 1997. Such themes resonate particularly with older voters fearful of any deviation from the status quo of Hun Sen’s Cambodia. Recycling old rhetoric, Hun Sen's threats of force aim to incite fear in the hearts and minds of voters. Defense Minister Tea Banh has echoed such threats, threatening to "smash the teeth of anyone who dared to demonstrate against election results" in the event of a CPP victory. This is reminiscent of the government’s 2013 threats to incite social upheaval after the CNRP earned promising election results. Despite widespread accusations that the CPP had rigged the elections and engaged in voter fraud, CNRP supporters did not protest the results with violence. Rather, the widespread protests that followed the election results were subjected to relentless provocations by CPP thugs and violent unprovoked attacks by security forces.


Once again, the CNRP has responded to Hun Sen's current incendiary threats with calm and non-violent efforts to reassure their supporters. Sokha has appealed to all political parties to refrain from using force, threats, coercion, or deception to vie for influence and power, and has called on politicians to appeal to voters by discussing their political platforms, policies, and agendas.


According to Voice of America, internal CPP surveys suggest the ruling party could suffer a 10 percent loss to the CNRP and 10 other registered parties at the commune elections, with some estimates suggesting that the swing could go as high as 30 percent. As evidence of the CPP’s growing concern, Hun Sen recently announced that he would take part in official campaign events to support his party’s commune councilor candidates. This would be a rare move -- he has not directly campaigned since 1998. The CNRP has already solidified strong support among urban and youth voters. If their appeal in the rural communes improves by as little as 10 percent, the shift could have a significant impact on the CPP's representation and on political momentum heading into the 2018 general elections.

Hun Sen in China's orbit


Hun Sen explicitly favored then-candidate Donald Trump during the 2016 U.S. election cycle -- both leaders share a habit of criticizing negative media coverage of their administrations. However, the transition to Trump has yet to yield improved relations with the United States. The Hun Sen government has in fact escalated its anti-American rhetoric as it increasingly turns toward its "big brother," China, for economic and military assistance. In April, Beijing and Phnom Penh signed a memorandum of understanding that will broaden bilateral cooperation in the following sectors: politics, economy, trade, investment, tourism, culture, and people-to-people relations. While Hun Sen touts Beijing's "no-strings-attached" foreign policy, Cambodia plays an increasingly unhelpful role in advocating on behalf of the Chinese position within ASEAN, giving Beijing substantial leverage to advance its strategic interests in the region.


Supporting sovereignty, self-determination and genuine democracy in Cambodia


Southeast Asian countries have no choice but to engage in some form of balancing between the United States and China, but those who are smartest and best at this balancing act know it should not be conceptualized as a zero-sum game. For instance, Southeast Asian countries looking to diversify their economic partners and U.S. companies seeking investment opportunities both benefit from the kind of political stability and predictable rule of law found in sovereign democratic countries. Likewise, the type of investors who are drawn to high-risk political environments are not going to encourage broad-based, sustainable growth in the places that need it most. It is in these areas of shared interest -- where the United States and like-minded partners such as Japan and the European Union have a comparative advantage in terms of practice and preference -- that we can work most effectively with partners in the region who are on the front lines of China’s economic and political rise.


As Cambodians go to the polls on June 4, they face a stark choice about the future of their country’s sovereignty and independence, as well as whether they will make progress on their long road to peace and democratic self-governance. The CPP’s threats of violence and its reliance on election-rigging are remnants of Cambodia’s past. The entire region, as well as those who seek to engage it in a positive and forward-looking way, will benefit from a Cambodian electoral environment that is free from violence and intimidation, and a government that allows Cambodians to take the next step toward genuine sovereignty and peace.


Rachael Burton is a Research Associate at The Project 2049 Institute. She currently conducts research and analysis on Chinese influence in Southeast Asia, the Chinese Communist Party's foreign policy, and the People's Liberation Army (PLA). The views expressed are the author's own.

The Chinese Communist Party’s Censorship Practices and Future Implications

Posted on Wednesday, April 26, 2017 by Emily David

                      
(Source: China Media Project)

By: Emily David

Conventional wisdom surrounding the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) censorship practices involve two main principles: 1) the CCP aims to remove all negative commentary critiquing the Chinese government, the Party, its leaders, or its policies, and 2) the CCP makes an effort to introduce positive posts in order to counter negative narratives that may emerge. Yet substantive research by Dr. Molly Roberts on censorship in China suggests otherwise. Co-authored with Gary King and Jennifer Pan, Dr. Roberts has contributed to two main works that challenge established views and provide significant contributions to our general understanding of the CCP’s censorship apparatus.

Adding to the nuances of the Party’s censorship practices, Dr. Roberts’ work on the CCP’s post-deletion practices [i] entitled, “How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression,” concludes that the CCP’s censorship is actually targeted towards posts which could lead to collective action activities, rather than posts that criticize the government. Her work on astroturfing (otherwise known as “reverse censorship”)[ii] titled “How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, not Engaged Argument,” asserts that the CCP inserts posts with the aim of diverting attention, instead of cheerleading for or promoting the government.[iii] Both of these findings provide important and novel insights into the Chinese Communist Party’s interests and goals.

To expand upon these conclusions, the Project 2049 Institute and Dr. Molly Roberts discussed the Chinese Communist Party’s censorship practices and their implications for future CCP policies, both foreign and domestic. Dr. Roberts is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of California, San Diego. Her research interests include the intersection of political methodology and the politics of information, with a specific focus on methods of automated content analysis and the politics of censorship in China. She has published numerous papers and is currently working on a book that explores the impacts of incomplete censorship.

The conclusions of both your works on post-deletion and astroturfing tactics in the People's Republic of China (PRC) have a similar theme―the Chinese government, on a general basis, tacitly allows posts that critique the Party, its leaders, and its policies while strategically practicing a policy of non-engagement to "correct" such criticisms.   This demonstrates that the main threat to the Chinese Communist Party is collective action, not negative commentary. While this explains the Party's domestic interests, what do these conclusions reveal about the PRC's foreign policy interests, strategies, and goals?

As you mention, the Chinese government's censorship strategy is mostly focused on its domestic interests as the censorship is aimed at a domestic audience.   However, there are moments when the PRC’s foreign policy and domestic interests overlap. For example, in the past, nationalism and negative sentiment toward other countries have created protests in China, which can be destabilizing.  The evidence from the leaked dataset suggests that while online propaganda in China can be nationalistic, it doesn't seem to be focused on taunting foreign countries, as some have speculated. 

You have noted in the past that in order for China’s post-deletion to be effective, the government must control all websites, which includes blocking U.S. news and social media sites in addition to their own. You pointed out that this could be problematic given that such a process creates two completely differing views of international relations in the U.S. and China. Have you completed any additional research on this issue, or have you witnessed any negative repercussions of this issue in U.S.-China relations?

While we know that censorship has an impact on access to information in China, due to the fact that relatively few people in China evade the Great Firewall, it's very difficult to estimate its impact on beliefs about international relations and the United States, especially over the long-term. This is partly because censorship coincides with related phenomena, like increasingly nationalistic curricula, that also have an influence on public opinion regarding international relations in China.  This makes it difficult to know what U.S.-China relations would look like without censorship.  More research needs to be done in this area. 

In your work on astroturfing, you conclude that the goal of the CCP’s massive operation is strategic distraction rather than engaged argument. How do these results fit with what is known about the Party’s censorship program? And how do the results alter our broader theoretical understanding of "common knowledge" and information control in authoritarian regimes?

The work on astroturfing and censorship highlights how the CCP uses a combination of methods to "set the agenda" of the media environment in China.  We know from experience living in a democracy that one of the most effective strategies for politicians when asked a difficult question is to change the subject.  Our work shows that the CCP is also using this strategy to reroute citizens toward topics and issues that reflect better on the regime.  It aligns with our previous work on censorship in that the government is less focused on manipulating sentiment on any particular topic, but is focused instead on removing information about really dangerous topics (in particular collective action), and distracting with others, to set the agenda.

In the same article, you briefly explore how the Chinese government’s general cheerleading for China, the revolutionary history of the Communist Party, or other symbols of the regime could create a general sense of optimism towards the country's development, which transfers to optimism towards public outlook of the Party. While you argued that it is not a valid conclusion to be drawn from your research, can you share your thoughts generally on the relationship between the cheerleading posts submitted by the government and the Chinese people’s view of China and China’s place in the world?

The overwhelming positivity of the posts is striking and is consistent with what seems to be a larger effort of the Chinese propaganda system to promote positivity in the media environment. We see this in authoritarian systems around the world. Particularly during sensitive time periods, governments emphasize positive stories in the media to offset the influence of other challenges faced by the regime.  Again, this is part of an agenda-setting strategy; these posts tend to remind citizens of the good aspects of their life and of symbols that reflect the CCP's successes.

As you have suggested, the Chinese government’s strategy of allowing negative posts to remain in tact is fairly effective because it allows the CCP to better understand the people’s grievances and gives the government the opportunity to react and change if necessary, thus helping to maintain their hold on power. What does the effectiveness of China’s censorship and information control apparatus demonstrate about the CCP’s regime institutionalization and longevity? What of their insecurities, if any?

The Internet has undoubtedly helped governance in China by allowing citizens to communicate their needs in a public forum.  What is often overlooked, is that the Chinese government has in part embraced this; the CCP has set up websites for citizen feedback, required local governments to respond to concerns citizens voice online, and used the Internet as a means for checking local government performance. Top leaders in the CCP have repeatedly emphasized publicly that the government should use the Internet to respond to and resolve citizen complaints.  Rather than censoring criticism, it's clear that the government has realized that it's often more effective to identify and respond to it. 

How does your upcoming book on the impacts of incomplete censorship add to the conversation regarding the censorship practices of the Chinese Communist Party and its global impact?

The book proposes a framework for understanding the approaches governments take to censorship in a digital environment, and explores, more broadly, how citizens react to censorship.  Censorship in China is rarely complete -- censorship typically frustrates, but does not completely prevent, access to information.  Citizens can typically find ways around it. However, we know from surveys and from social media data that very few Chinese citizens evade it.  Conventional wisdom would suggest that people may be afraid to evade censorship, but I show in the book that this is not typically the case.  Costs of access, even really small ones like a slow webpage or a pay wall, have big effects on what information people consume on the Internet.  Instead of being afraid, many people in China have no reason or find it too bothersome to spend the time to evade censorship.  While there are cases when many people are willing to evade censorship, like during crises, for example, or when their habits are disrupted (see this paper with William Hobbs on what happened when China blocked Instagram), these are the exception rather than the rule.  The book suggests that we have to think of censorship in broader terms: small frictions or even flooding like astroturfing can have large impacts on the consumption of information, particularly in the age of the Internet.

What issue areas do you believe are important to explore further? What needs additional research in order to better inform our knowledge of China, the Chinese Communist Party, and its current role in the world?

An area that needs further examination is the economic impact of censorship.  A way to think about censorship's effect on the U.S.-China relationship is to think about censorship in the context of international trade. By blocking some U.S. websites and making them more difficult to access, censorship acts as a tax or a tariff on foreign information. Domestically, this protects some companies in China that would compete with blocked U.S. websites, but hurts many businesses, and likely stymies innovation in China because entrepreneurs have more difficulty accessing information.  In addition, it hurts students who have less access to information, and, therefore, probably has negative long-term effects on human capital.  More research should be done to estimate these impacts.  This would help us better understand the cost the CCP is willing to pay for censorship, and it would also help to identify the domestic losers and winners created by censorship policies.

Emily David is a Fellow at the Project 2049 Institute. She completed her Master's in Chinese Politics, Foreign Policy, and International Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. The author would like to thank Rachael Burton and Annabel Virella for their contributions.  



[i] Dr. Roberts presented on her research at the following conference, “China as a Responsible Stakeholder? A Decade Later,” Project 2049 Institute, March 23, 2016 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=36SfwXfSKuE.
[ii] King, Gary, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret E. Roberts, “How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, not Engaged Argument,” American Political Science Review, at http://j.mp/1Txxiz1, pg 1.
[iii] Ibid, pg 6.

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