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How an Information Cascade Could Tear Down the Great Firewall of China

The freedom to speak, write, post, and blog about almost anything we want, what we’re thinking, how we’re feeling, is such a common practice in the United States that we often take it for granted. We all freely post our thoughts and opinions on Facebook or Twitter, and many write columns or blogs to voice their beliefs to the public. It won’t take too long after sifting through internet forums or social news websites that you’ll find people complaining about political issues and how certain agendas are violating their own personal beliefs. Many of these people form organized groups and gather to protest against governmental policies and actions, some of the most prevalent today being the Tea Party Rallies and the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Although no one knows if these protests will eventually be successful, they are allowing their voices to be heard and gaining new supporters every day, which further strengthens their cause.

In the People’s Republic of China (which excludes special administrative regions such as Hong Kong) all these freedoms have been effectively eliminated, in what has been called by many as the “Great Firewall of China”. It is no secret that China places powerful restrictions on their internet regulations, with over 18,000 websites blocked and any critical comments and posts about the national government erased within minutes. Sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Hulu, and Blogspot are blocked, and search engine results are dramatically altered to filter out any results that may express a dissented opinion against the Chinese government or seek to overthrow the Communist Party. Anything that the government believes might harm the reputation of the PRC party is flagged and these links are terminated, effectively separating these informational nodes from the rest of the structural network. (Relating to this course, it could be viewed as a separation of “Hubs” from “Authorities”).

Searches that even mention controversial topics such as Tibetan and Taiwan Independence, the Tiananmen Square Protests, freedom of speech, police brutality, and corruption of Chinese officials (which is very prevalent) are either severely filtered or completely blocked. These topics are part of a list of blacklisted keywords (some of the most notable: “democracy” and “human rights”) and any site that contains them is shut down, with the user’s account is permanently banned. Additionally, any Wikipedia articles that cover or mention any of these subjects are inaccessible, with many articles about democracy unavailable.

The PRC government has even resorted to actually paying people to post excessively patriotic comments on Internet message boards in an attempt control public opinion and advance the Communist party. The hired citizens are known as the “50 Cent Party” and shamelessly promote the national government on forums and chat rooms to steer the conversation away from any anti-PRC party agenda. One of the most famous incidents of internet censorship occurred on the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident, when the government actually shut down all of its servers for “maintenance” between June 3 and June 6. Sites such as Fanfou (a mircroblogging site) sarcastically referred to this as a celebration of “Chinese Internet Maintenance Day”.

Unfortunately, censorship in China is not just limited to the internet; media such as television, film, newspapers, books, and even phone calls and text messaging are constantly monitored by the Chinese government. Many newspapers that report unfavorable articles about the Communist Party are immediately shut down and many of the writers fired and some even arrested. Unlike the U.S., China does not hesitate to resort to violence to suppress protests and rallies; in 2005, Chinese security officers actually opened fire against civilians in the Dongzhou protests. The government refused to release the death toll information (with estimates ranging from 3 to several dozen) and requests for proper burials of the victims by affected family members were denied. If the United States government ever did something this drastic and horrific against protesting groups, all hell would break loose.

One of the biggest fears of the PRC party is that their citizens will use sites such as Facebook or Twitter to organize rallies and movements against their government. If Chinese citizens see others posting about the horrific atrocities that the Communist Party has committed, they could be tempted join a rebellion to overthrow them. Eventually with enough protestors, a cascade effect could occur, allowing more and more Chinese will follow suit in belief that the majority consensus is correct. Even pro-PRC supporters could ignore their own personal “signals” and adopt the popular decision. It is often assumed to be a rational choice to follow what other people are doing (one of the key aspects of the Observational Learning Theory) and if the majority rallies against the PRC party, the increase of protestors could be unstoppable. Although China does allow such social networking sites such as QQ, it is heavily monitored and controlled by the government so they can control the informational flow and prevent the possibility of an information cascade. Since websites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Blogspot have their servers outside of the government’s jurisdiction, they are banned from China. These censorship laws virtually destroy any right to free speech for Chinese citizens and severely impede any progress for ethics and human rights. Having the freedom to express our opinions and speak out against what we feel is wrong is one of the greatest and most underappreciated privlege that we have in the United States, a basic right that has been forcibly pried away from the citizens of China. Although we as a society are always focused on the minor flaws in our system, it is only through seeing the injustices and atrocities that occur in other countries and how people are willing to die to get the very rights we take for granted, that we truly realize how lucky we are.

For more information of about censorship in China, go to http://www.cfr.org/china/media-censorship-china/p11515 or http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship_in_the_People’s_Republic_of_China

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