Prof. John Keane of the Sydney Democracy Initiative comments on the situation in China:
James Madison famously remarked that a popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy. The present government of the People’s Republic of China has set out to disprove this rule.Rejecting talk of farce and tragedy, its rulers claim their authority is rooted within a new and higher form of popular government, a “post-democratic” way of handling power which delivers goods and services, promotes social harmony and roots out “harmful behavior” using state-of-the-art information-control methods more complex and much craftier than Madison could ever have imagined.Information flows in China are not simply blocked, firewalled or censored. The authorities instead treat unfettered online citizen communication as an early warning device, even as a virtual steam valve for venting grievances in their favor.This cooptation requires a vast labyrinth of surveillance that depends on a well-organized, 40,000-strong Internet police force. Skilled at snooping on Wi-Fi users in cyber cafés and hotels, it uses sophisticated data-mining software that tracks down keywords on search engines such as Baidu, along the way issuing warnings to Web hosts to amend or delete content considered unproductive of “harmony.”Government officials working in “situation centers” meanwhile watch for signs of brewing unrest or angry public reactions. Reports are passed to local propaganda departments, where action is taken. So-called “rumor refutation” departments, staffed by censors, pitch in. They scan posts for forbidden topics and issue knockdown rebuttals.A pivotal role is played by licensed Internet companies. Bound by constant reminders that safety valves can turn into explosive devices, they use filtering techniques to delete or amend “sensitive” content....What are we to make of this repressive tolerance? Looking from the top down, likening the Chinese authorities to skilled doctors of the body politic, some wax eloquent about the new surveillance tactics of “continuous tuning” (tiao). The simile understates the ways in which the labyrinthine system of coordinated do’s and don’ts is backed by predigital methods: fear served with cups of tea in the company of censors; sackings and sideways promotions; early-morning swoops by plainclothes police known as “interceptors”; illegal detentions; violent beatings by unidentified thugs.Proponents of the Communist Party’s Web-monitoring tactics are silent about such violence. They also overstate the efficiency, effectiveness and legitimacy of the China labyrinth. They ignore the popular resentments sparked by a regulatory system that treats more than a few subjects as ticklish, or taboo....The upshot is that the authorities now find themselves trapped in a constant tug-of-war between their will to control, negotiated change, public resistance and unresolved confusion. They may pride themselves on building a regime which seems calculating, flexible and dynamic, willing to change its ways in order to remain the dominant guiding power. Yet they also know well the new Chinese proverb: Ruling used to be like hammering a nail into wood, now it is much more like balancing on a slippery egg.Whether the authorities can sustain their present balancing act, so proving Madison wrong, seems doubtful. Within the China labyrinth the spirit of monitory democracy is alive and well. Whether and how it will prevail against the crafty forces of surveillance is among the global political questions of our time.