Tuesday, July 14, 2009

What Scares the Chinese Communist Party?

The past couple of months have seen events heat up (and then cool down) over internet censoring system in China, called Green Dam Youth Escort. This program is purportedly meant to protect Chinese youth from pornography, though many are concerned that the program could be used to expand surveillance or censorship. In May, the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) ordered that all computers sold in China have that software installed by 1 July. The ultimate result was a rare occurrence in national Chinese politics: on 30 June, the CCP retracted its directive. Actually, to be more accurate, they "postponed" the directive. In fact, a government official said that the CCP "will definitely carry on the directive on Green Dam. It's just a matter of time." But even if this does happen, it is questionable whether or not the directive will be enforced strictly.

Setting aside the distinct possibility that Green Dam will eventually be mandated on all Chinese computers, there is a more important question that bears on whether or not the directive is ever truly carried out: why did the CCP step back in the first place? In other words, what scares the CCP enough to so clearly reconsider their policy?

In short: the people of China.

The blowback against Green Dam came from both domestic (primarily netizens) and foreign (IT industry, governments, civil liberties groups) sources in China. But while some claim that pressure from the outside was important, I think that pleasing foreign audiences is only a bonus in the calculus of the CCP decision -- not the primary factor.

There are two particular reasons why Chinese citizens -- not foreign entities or foreign NGOs -- are most responsible. First, the reaction from Chinese internet users, who would be most affected by Green Dam, was powerful. This community of 300 million is a tremendous social force, particularly if a great number of them become unified behind an interest. And the CCP monitors internet chatter constantly, gauging reactions to certain policies. In the case of Green Dam, the CCP had overstepped a line. Chinese netizens saw it, at best, as a computer-wrecking software and, at worst, a threat to their rights. Most profoundly, an open letter was published by a group of anonymous Chinese netizens, in which they explicitly threaten the CCP:

"We hereby declare that we, the Anonymous Netizens, are going to launch our attack worldwide on your censorship system starting on July 1st, 2009."

The attack was never commenced. But the CCP also retracted its directive the day before the netizens' action was to take place. So it is hard to know for sure whether or not the letter was a bluff. In any case, the rejection of Green Dam by the Chinese public was clear. And as a one-party state, significant discontent of the people cannot be expressed through voting or organized lobbying. It can only be expressed through dissent. This is not a road down which the CCP wants to trek.

Second, in past events involving domestic civil liberties, foreign entities have had little to no leverage over the CCP. China and its government is now too large, powerful, and prosperous to be heavily influenced by other governments when it comes to domestic policy. The CCP knows full well that any threats of economic sanctioning are empty because most large nations are too intertwined with China's trade sector. And no amount of protest from the outside has ever changed CCP policy over, for example, forced citizen relocation for infrastructure projects and the Olympics, policy in Tibet, political prisoners, or policy in Xinjiang. (A caveat: governments or foreign entities that work to develop Chinese civil society can arguably have a long-term effect on grassroots pressure for change from within the country.)

Even foreign companies that were affected by the Green Dam directive do not have as much influence as some would like to think. Technology firms do business in China knowing very well that the government has myriad restrictions. But if and when the Green Dam directive is carried out, those companies will continue to do business in China for the same reason that they were there before the new rule: the Chinese tech market is huge. (And this is particularly attractive in a time when the world's previous champion of consumerism -- America -- is dealing with a deep recession.)

In addition to both of these reasons, Green Dam has been shown to be rather ineffectual, thus reducing the opportunity cost for the Chinese government.

The lesson here is that the CCP knows to whom it is primarily accountable. And those people are standing firmly within the borders of China. More accurately, many of them are probably sitting in front of their computers... blogging.


  1. I am not sure of the power of netizen is that strong. In my opinion, the two most active groups of netizen in China are fenqing (youth cynic?), and intellectuals.(This doesnt mean others do not serf internet, but they rarely make comments on political affairs.)

    Fenqings are quite irrational. Most intellectuals limit the topics(even political ones) under the cover of academic discussion, with the experience learned from cultural revolution. Both of them avoid direct conflicts against the gov.

    p.s. I like your comment on "foreign companies that were affected by the Green Dam directive do not have as much influence as some would like to think. "

  2. Thanks for the comment. From what you've said, I read "intellectuals" as "older people", given that you said they've experienced the cultural revolution. But this just isn't true. I have read many ultra-rational, thoughtful young people (born after the CR). And although they avoid direct conflicts with the CCP, this doesn't preclude them from demanding reform and expressing anger at CCP oversteps. As an example, I would simply suggest reading some of the statements during the end of June (during the Green Dam run-up).