The National Library of China holds an artifact that represents what must be the most ambitious attempt to control information in history.
Everything is vast in china and the reading room at the National Library is no exception. The terraced interior seats two thousand people and houses physical and digital copies of some of the most treasured documents of Chinese civilization. On the lowest level is an original copy of the Siku Quanshu- an encyclopedia of scientific and philosophical thought from the height of the Qing dynasty in the 18th century. The Qianlong Emperor issued a decree in 1773 demanding that his subjects make available any important literary works so that they could be included in his compilation. Over the next 15 years hundreds of thousands of books and documents were handed over. Most were transcribed and included in the Siku Quanshu but countless books that were critical of the Emperor’s dynasty and teachings were burned.
When the project ended the Siku Quanshu comprised of 79,000 chapters in 36,000 volumes. Seven manuscript copies were made but all but one were destroyed in wars and rebellions in the intervening years. In total the Siku Quanshu consisted of 800 million words. As a single body of knowledge it was only surpassed in volume by Wikipedia in 2010 (presumably with the addition of another plot analysis of Dr Who).
It’s tempting to assume that the age of book burning to silence political opponents is over but the internet has not ushered in a new era of transparency and free speech. It has simply sped up the arms race between dissenters and government censors. China has built an immense censorship apparatus to control discussion on the internet. ISP restrictions (the so-called Great Firewall of China) work in conjunction with software for detecting undesirable key words, phrases and images. It’s estimated that more than 2 million internet police are employed by the government. In addition to reporting and removing messages that are ‘not amenable to the unity of the people’ there are also vast numbers of people – dubbed the ’50c Party’ – who are employed to dilute online hostility with pro-government messages.
According to one study, based on leaked information from the Internet Propaganda Office for the Zhanggong district, their methods differ from what is popularly assumed;
The vast majority of scholars, journalists, activists, and participants in social media have, until now, been convinced that the massive 50c party is devoted to engaging in argument that defends the regime, its leaders, and their policies. Our evidence indicates the opposite — that the 50c party engages in almost no argument of any kind and is instead devoted primarily to cheerleading for the state, symbols of the regime, or the revolutionary history of the Communist Party. We interpret these activities as the regime’s effort at strategic distraction from collective action, grievances, or general negativity, etc.
It also appears that the 50c party is mostly composed of government employees contributing part time outside their regular jobs, not, as has been claimed, ordinary citizens paid piecemeal for their work. This, nevertheless, is still an enormous workforce that, we estimate, produces 448 million 50c posts per year
Read about Chinese censorship in Western press and you get the impression that it’s only a matter of time before cracks will start to appear and the whole firewall will come crashing down. But the reality is more complex. It’s certainly easy to ‘tunnel under’ the wall using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) but the suppression of these VPNs does not appear to be a high priority for the Chinese government. My experience in Beijing was that bars and cafes frequented by ex-pats and uni students openly advertised (only in english) that they offered Wi-Fi with a VPN service in the same way hostels used to have signs saying they accepted travelers checks. Clearly there are cracks in the Great Firewall but they appear to be deliberate. According to an article recently published in the Washington Post:
The Chinese government has long known and accepted the fact that a small percentage of its population circumvents the Firewall using VPNs. It is, after all, essential that domestic and foreign businesses be able to access information across borders, and it keeps the English-speaking elite happy to allow them a small window on the world.
If that is true the challenge for the regime is not the impossible task of keeping all of the people in the dark all of the time. Instead they only need to filter the information flowing through to the working classes, parrot party slogans and run interference whenever they detect an upsurge in discontent. With 780 million Chinese active on the internet it’s still a monumental task but it appears to be working.
The Qianlong Emperor would be impressed.
Article in the Washington Post by Simon Denyer: China’s scary lesson to the world: Censoring the Internet works
Harvard paper from the Institute for Quantitate Social Science by Gary King, 2017: How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, not Engaged Argument