Information Warfare: China Censors Cop Shows For The Greater Good

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May 17, 2011: Chinese censors are trying new techniques to manipulate public opinion. For example, in preparation for the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party on July 1st, it has banned, between now and then, espionage and police TV shows. These popular shows will be replaced with specials that praise the Communist Party. You might think this is a hard sell, given the widespread unhappiness over corruption in the government. But the government has found that shows featuring lots of nationalist themes do well. In other words, if the show concentrates on how powerful China has become under communist rule, people will revel in all those fond memories, and kind of ignore all the pro-communist propaganda that accompanies it.

It's always been a mystery when it comes to knowing exactly why a certain censorship policy was implemented. But a year ago, Chinese got an opportunity to find out how all this works. Back then, a senior Chinese government media official gave a lecture before journalism students. It was a closed (to the public) talk, but someone who was there posted a transcript on the Internet. Several points were made during the talk, among them the government attitude that news censorship worked, and that it was good. One of the examples given occurred in 2003, when China's first astronaut landed and cameramen rushed to the capsule (which landed by parachute in a remote area). But when the technicians opened the capsule, and the astronaut stuck his head out, his face was covered with blood. There had been a slight problem with the reentry system, and the astronaut hit his face on some equipment and split his lip. The media crew knew what to do. They had a medic clean up the pilot's face, and lip, closed the capsule hatch and recorded the "first opening" of the hatch (and the appearance of a clean faced astronaut) a second time. Until now, everyone had kept the secret. As the media official pointed out, this is the way the system is supposed to work, and how it actually does.

Another example given had to do with the ethnic violence in western China last year, between Chinese and the local Turkish Uighurs (who resent the growing influx of Chinese.) The media were ordered not to show the true extent of the violence, including Chinese who were burned alive, decapitated and raped. Children were among the victims. Showing all this was felt likely to trigger reprisals against Uighurs living throughout China.

The journalism students were being told something they already knew, and were reminded that those who break the rules, are punished. Government media and propaganda (there is a bureaucracy for this) officials have police powers to enforce their media manipulation activities. In addition, as the lecture last year pointed out, the censorship has a humanitarian impact as well. But the main objective of this censorship is to keep the Communist Party in control.

The Internet media has proved more difficult to control, as can be seen with the release, onto the Internet, of all this.  But the government keeps trying. For example, five years ago, China began to crack down on blog postings. The millions of Chinese blogs had escaped attention from China's Internet censorship police until then, and had grown to be a major source of anti-government discussion and unauthorized release of news. From then on, blogs were watched as carefully as bulletin boards (BBS) and chat rooms. China also began monitoring email and text messaging. All of these monitoring efforts are not one hundred percent effective. But the Internet police do catch people saying things the government does not approve of. Those who are caught are arrested, and some are sent to prison. This causes most Chinese to practice self-censorship on the Internet. Most, but not all, even when they are being told why they must muzzle themselves for the greater good.

 

 


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