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
[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, pg 1.
[iii] Ibid, pg 6.

Trump Must Boost Taiwan Arms Sales Now

Posted on Thursday, April 6, 2017 by Project2049Institute

Trump Must Boost Taiwan Arms Sales Now

It is essential that the administration gets off to a strong start less the Taiwan Strait
flashpoint boil over.

By: Ian Easton

Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both failed to make available to Taiwan the arms needed to mount a credible self-defense. President Donald Trump and his team now have the opportunity to do a better job. It is essential they get off to a strong start. If nothing changes, the long simmering Taiwan Strait flashpoint is likely to boil over.

It is difficult to overstate how dysfunctional America’s security policy is when it comes to democratic Taiwan. Despite China’s disquieting military buildup and expansionist posture, Washington has increasingly dithered on meeting its legal and moral commitments to Taiwan’s defense. The trouble began during the Bush administration, when Washington shocked Taipei by refusing to accept a letter of request for three squadrons of new F-16 fighter jets.

Things deteriorated further when the Bush White House proved unable to deliver on its promise to assist Taiwan in acquiring diesel-electric submarines at a price Taipei’s testy parliament could accept. Even worse, the administration tried to curtail the Ministry of National Defense’s homemade cruise missile project ― a legitimate capability needed for deterring Chinese ballistic missile strikes on Taiwan’s cities.

The Obama administration delivered an even more lackluster performance. It refused Taiwan’s repeated requests for new fighter jets, while actively marketing low-end, cheap capabilities that seemed calculated to be inoffensive to China. In 2014, Taiwan’s government, by now aware of Washington’s self-limiting approach to Beijing, proudly announced its resolve to build its own submarines and invited America to join other countries in providing selected technical know-how in a low-key fashion.

The invitation backfired. In response, Obama’s team forbade the American defense industry from competing for access to the Indigenous Defense Submarine program. They then went on a rhetorical campaign to erode Taiwan’s confidence that it could and should go forward with the submarine build, which enjoyed widespread bipartisan support on the island. This was a remarkable reversal of what Pentagon experts under Clinton and Bush had previously counseled: namely, that submarines were an ideal asymmetric capability and necessary for defending against Chinese invasion.

The absence of top-tier arms sales to Taiwan has directly contributed to an imbalanced security situation across the Strait. The American decisions to withhold support for a next generation Taiwanese air force and navy have negatively impacted the perceived reliability of the United States. This is true not just in Taipei, but also in Tokyo, where the Japanese foreign policy elite regard Taiwan’s fate as tightly intertwined with their own.

China’s colossal armaments drive continues to erode the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait. Compounding the problem, the iron-fisted leader of China, Xi Jinping, has repeatedly hinted that an attack may be just over the horizon. After his turbulent rise to power in 2012, Xi ramped up covert actions and coercive operations against Taiwan. More recently, he has sent bombers and warships out on patrols that circled around the island.

To be clear, there is no chance Taiwan will submit to being ruled by China. The Taiwanese people are rightfully proud of their democratic achievements and unimpressed with Beijing’s intimidation tactics. The blessings of self-determination and the power of nationalism are too deeply rooted for them to back down. Taiwan and China have had separate governments for 67 years, and this reality is almost certainly not going to change by 2021, or even by 2049. But a critical question remains: will Taiwan’s free future be secured by the pen or by the sword?

To ensure that cross-strait conflict is averted, the Trump administration should make available to Taiwan new fighter jets, submarine technology, and many other weapons that have long been off the table. Few things would signal America’s restored strength and renewed sense of purpose to observers in Asia like frequent and high-caliber arms sales to Taiwan. Yes, China will bluster and complain, but Beijing will have only itself to blame. If Xi dismantled the offensive missiles he has pointed at Taiwan and declared his willingness to respect the will of its 23 million citizens, Taipei would undoubtedly invest its national resources differently.

Unfortunately, the threat is likely to get much worse. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the armed wing of China’s Communist Party, has embarked on an ambitious reform program, with both Taiwan and America in its crosshairs. The PLA intends to transform itself into a joint fighting force that is capable of invading and occupying Taiwan while simultaneously defeating the U.S. Pacific Fleet. This is an extremely tall order. It nonetheless represents a disturbing indication of intent.

PLA reforms will probably take a decade or more to succeed ― if they can succeed at all. In the meantime, few options are as likely to make China think twice about the cost of aggression as bolstered arms sales. To keep the Asia-Pacific region peaceful and prosperous, the United States needs a well defended and confident Taiwan.

President Trump and his new team have their work cut out for them. Fixing the policy mistakes of the past will take a concerted effort. Their prospects will be excellent if they cast off the legacy they have inherited and chart a new course.

This article was originally published in The Diplomat (March 29, 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.

20 Years Later: Reevaluating the Taiwan Policy Review

Posted on Monday, April 3, 2017 by Project2049Institute

(Source: Bloomberg)
By: Annabel Virella

In 1994, the Clinton Administration completed a comprehensive interagency review of U.S. policy toward Taiwan (the Republic of China, ROC), the first of its kind launched by an administration since the U.S. shifted official diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. This review resulted in important policy adjustments more in line with U.S. national security interests. The Taiwan Policy Review (TPR) was the most significant development in the U.S.-Taiwan relationship and the first review of policy since the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which governs nearly every aspect of U.S. foreign policy toward Taiwan. The TPR sought to clarify ambiguities in the U.S.-Taiwan relationship by simplifying U.S.-Taiwan interactions. Moreover, it sought to strengthen unofficial relations with Taiwan without disrupting official relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). However, both China and Taiwan remained tepid about the TPR's reception because of its prolonged implementation process that dragged on for over a year. With the backdrop of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, and China’s provocative weapons sales to Iran and Pakistan, the TPR received immense congressional pressure and became a high-profile issue.

The TPR resulted in several principal changes to the dynamics of the U.S.-Taiwan relationship. For one, Taiwan’s top leaders obtained permission to transit the U.S. under approved conditions, and U.S. officials could meet with Taiwan’s president, vice president, and foreign ministers in their offices. In addition, the TPR authorized cabinet-level exchanges on economic and technical issues, as well as U.S. advocacy of ROC membership into international organizations, provided statehood was not a precondition for membership. Taiwan has since become increasingly active in multilateral organizations such as the United Nations (UN), International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank (WB), as a member or observer nation.

Well past its 20th anniversary, the TPR, in hindsight, has significantly improved U.S.-Taiwan relations and the overall dynamics of trilateral relations in cross-Strait affairs. However, balancing the U.S. position in cross-Strait relations is a delicate task; the potential for rapid diplomatic deterioration remains, as current relations among the trilateral parties continue to be fraught with hazards, misunderstandings, and distrust. Therefore, in response to the changes in the security, political, and economic environment across the Strait, a new Taiwan Policy Review should be considered and conducted by the Trump administration. 

The Necessity of a New TPR

Significant international and domestic developments beckon a reevaluation of the TPR’s necessity in the modern context. First, the parameters of the 1994 TPR did not appreciate Taiwan as the full-fledged democracy seen today. U.S.-Taiwan protocol is outdated and disjointed, which is a liability for continued stability across the Strait. Second, all three parties have undergone significant leadership transitions and have re-prioritized their national interests. A Taiwan policy irrespective of such changes, and one that is unreasonably restricted in terms of diplomatic communication and contact with Taiwan under TRA and TPR protocol, significantly impairs the pursuit of U.S. interests in the region.

The Clinton administration drafted and implemented the TPR before Taiwan—a key geostrategic ally—had become the most liberal nation in Asia and a driver of the world economy. Irrespective of these changes, the U.S. One-China policy and protocol towards Taiwan in years since have regressed to eschew backlash from Beijing.

The TPR had originally called for further U.S. advocacy of Taiwan’s participation in international organizations. Yet, despite attempts by Congress to legislate requirements for U.S. support of Taiwan’s multilateral organization applications (i.e. INTERPOL), the U.S. has arguably failed to make a difference for Taiwan's participation in international organizations.

Regarding the necessity of assisting Taiwan’s defense requirements, the U.S. has repeatedly failed to treat Taiwan like a normal Foreign Military Sales (FMS) partner. From 2006 to 2008, the U.S. refused to accept Taiwan’s Letters of Requests (LORs) for the purchase of 66 F-16 C/D fighter jets on three separate occasions. This is essentially comparable to refusing a diplomatic note, which is the highest form of diplomatic disrespect. Arms sales requests from Taiwan, in the latter years of the George W. Bush administration and throughout the Obama administration, were regularly rejected and arms sales notifications were frozen. According to post-1996 Strait Crisis policy, political calculations were made to prefer bundled notifications to Congress as opposed to normal notifications processes (later implemented in 2001). This hindered Taiwan's defense modernization. Meanwhile, China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) continued rapid development of its military into a professional and lethal fighting force looming over Taiwan. Evidently, the U.S. no longer adheres to the full spirit and protocol of Clinton’s TPR. Thus, a revised policy framework is necessary to re-align U.S. interests. Without adequate TPR revision, Taiwan policy will continue to teeter on an unstable foundation riddled with liabilities impacting the future of cross-Strait relations.

Leadership Transitions and Implications

The PRC, ROC, and the U.S. have experienced significant leadership transitions since the TPR’s inception. Maintaining its one-party dominance, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has experienced a notable shift from soft power politics under Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao to hard power politics under the current incumbent Xi Jinping, who was recently named ‘Core’ Leader and may be considering a third term. General Secretary Xi Jinping has deliberately destabilized cross-Strait relations with his political and psychological warfare against Taiwan, relentless military developments in the South China Sea, and strategic economic and diplomatic suffocation of Taiwan. Xi has prioritized resolution of the Taiwan issue in his policy agenda, which is reflected in China’s military expansion and modernization. Because Taiwan is a political priority, the PLA continues its acquisition of the necessary capabilities for invasion (e.g. advanced missile technology, increased joint-operations command and control, psychological warfare influence operations, etc.).

On Taiwan, prior to democratization, the Kuomintang (KMT) Nationalist Party enjoyed nearly half a century of uninterrupted rule. Yet since 1996, Taiwan has experienced three peaceful power transitions between the conservative KMT and the liberal Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Following the landslide victory of DPP President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016, tensions have risen as the CCP attempts to shift the blame and delegitimize Tsai by attacking her image, depreciating her approval rating, and labeling her the “troublemaker” in cross-Strait affairs. President Tsai has expressed her willingness to negotiate with Beijing, but the CCP has insisted on imposing acceptance of its one-sided political framework as precondition to cooperation. Xi’s agenda concentrates resources on authoritative reunification, whereas Tsai prioritizes resolution of domestic economic and labor issues. Tsai has attempted to counter Chinese diplomatic coercion with overtures to India, Latin America, and the U.S., but PRC coercion of Taiwan’s remaining allies continues to threaten Taiwan’s survival and limits her autonomy.   

Following a controversial election, Donald J. Trump became the 45th president of the United States, usurping eight years of political control from the Democratic Party. Traditionally, shifts in party domination almost guarantee new policy reviews. The shift to Republican domination of all branches of government, therefore, implies more fluidity in the policy reassessment, revision, or revocation process. President Trump has already abandoned the Obama administration's predictively passive approach to U.S.-China affairs, first breaking precedent as president-elect with the Tsai-Trump phone call and then delaying U.S. acknowledgement of the U.S. One-China policy until a month into his presidency. Although Trump’s controversial actions and rhetoric may appear ill-advised and diplomatically reckless, he thus-far continues a proactive policy approach in pursuing U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific. For instance, President Trump has reaffirmed Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and has positioned the U.S. for further cooperation with its regional allies in anticipation of a possible long-term competitive relationship with China. U.S. Navy and Pacific Command leaders already plan to confront China’s maritime assertiveness via freedom of navigation operations, pending approval of the new commander-in-chief. In addition, PACOM Commander Harry Harris has outlined his goal to integrate PACOM forces and create more options and capabilities for commanders to maintain U.S. naval dominance in the Pacific. By relying on unpredictability as the crux of U.S. foreign policy, Trump’s administration has cleverly forced the CCP on the defensive, reacting to any U.S.-induced changes to the status quo. However, on the diplomatic front, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared to have conceded to Xi Jinping during his March visit to Beijing, where he echoed CCP framing such as “mutual respect” for core interests and “win-win” cooperation. The upcoming Trump-Xi meeting at Mar-a-Lago will provide Trump and Xi with the opportunity to reassert their positions and vie for influence over each other in the bilateral relationship.  


Publicity, a key feature of the 1994 TPR, has been noticeably absent from any current Taiwan policy reviews presumably underway. Trump’s policy advisers would be wise to eschew media attention that is likely to draw foreign pressure and result in similar implementation blunders that encumbered the Clinton administration. Before significantly altering sensitive policy that has grudgingly maintained peace across the Strait, Trump’s team must realize that the stability of U.S.-China politics relies on formal written components of the relationship, outlined in the TRA and TPR, in addition to implicit understandings and unspoken agreements. Ambiguous protocol guiding U.S. interactions with Taiwan or lack thereof increases the margin for error. Over time, small discrepancies from unpopular, unreasonable, and unnecessary measures such as unjustified procedural changes on LOR submissions, or diplomats confused about official terminology and permitted interaction, can add up to over-complicate and burden U.S.-Taiwan affairs. Domestic developments and shifting dynamics in trilateral relations have resulted in U.S. foreign policy that is more coherent toward adversaries like China and North Korea than Taiwan, a full-fledged democratic ally.

Policy reviewers must focus on how the U.S. can move closer to more normal relations with governments on both sides of the strait over the long term, within the current U.S. One-China policy framework. First, they should consider what is lacking from the U.S.-Taiwan relationship (e.g. high-level consultations on people-to-people exchange, senior level visits, and large bilateral military exercises) and then determine why. Most issues probably stem from the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué, an outdated, short-term solution to a long-term problem. The Communiqué is far from absolute and the U.S. must eventually prepare to renegotiate with the PRC and ROC. However, a precondition of this negotiation should be for both sides to come to the negotiating table as equals. The U.S. must balance legitimacy independently from recognition of sovereignty and should adhere to the Wilsonian ideal of equality of all states. Regardless of foreign recognition, Taiwan has proven itself a nation ruled by self-determination. In an age where the erosion of democracy has become a global trend, the U.S., at the very least, should appreciate Taiwan’s democratic existence. Failure to adjust policy to reflect the current dynamics of trilateral relations will only encourage tensions to boil. Given the current trajectory, it is only a matter of time before conflict erupts in Asia with Taiwan as its flashpoint.

Annabel Virella is an Intern at The Project 2049 Institute. She is a Master's candidate at The Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University where she studies Politics and Policy of East Asia. The author would like to thank Mark Stokes and Rachael Burton for their contributions. 

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