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The Rationale And Costs Of Chinese Censorship

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While China has opened itself to the world in many ways and is gradually acting upon some of its global responsibilities, it continues to keep its media and computer networks under tight control and seeks to prevent the elements of globalization it finds distasteful from influencing the Chinese population. Historically, the government has heavily censored uncomfortable political issues such as the Tiananmen Square protests, the corruption of government officials, and the independence movements in Xinjiang and Taiwan. According to Reporters without Borders, today China has one of the least free presses in the world and operates an incredibly sophisticated internet and electronic censorship system.

The Chinese government has previously generally paid scant attention to non-political programming. Recently this has changed, as the authorities have increasingly begun to target the content of Chinese entertainment television, labeling certain shows "vulgar" or "excessively entertaining." Such 'dissident programs' include a singing competition called Super Girl and a dating show called If You Are The One. The authorities have ordered media outlets to limit the amount of such 'entertainment shows.' The government has even prohibited television plots that involve spies and time travel. The censors have instead suggested that television stations air more cultural, informational, and educational programming.

There is some debate as to why the Chinese authorities have adopted this approach at this time. Some believe that the singing contest Super Girl was targeted, in particular, because it incorporated audience voting -- but this explanation is weak and, as far as Sino-pessimists are concerned, would be too good to be true. The government also targeted similar programs that did not include audience participation. Moreover, there is little reason for the government to feel threatened by a television program that incorporates voting, given that the Chinese people have been voting in local elections for many years -- and viewers are voting for a talent contestant, not a political ideology. It therefore seems unreasonable to assume that Chinese authorities fear a television program because it is tangentially related to the notion of democratic governance.

A more plausible viewpoint holds that the move is indicative of a generational divide between a modernizing younger generation and a traditional older generation. The older generation -- which largely controls the Chinese Communist Party -- is worried that it is losing control of the media and is trying to bring television back to its traditional socialist roots. Under this paradigm, the function of the media is not to entertain the masses, but to educate the people, build social solidarity, and bolster state power. For these individuals, Chinese television has grown too western and culturally degrading.

There seems to be a very real fear among Beijing's elite that if left unchecked, television programming could lead to Chinese cultural decline. Some may quickly dismiss or even ridicule this concern, however it becomes more understandable if we consider the content of much of American television programming today -- such as Jersey Shore, Jerry Springer, Mob Wives and Toddlers and Tiaras. Indeed, we would argue that people all over the world would be pleased if governments restricted the broadcast of such trash, and we agree that it does actually contribute to the cultural degradation of America. Of course, no one is forced to watch such programs, and the fact that so many apparently do is a sad indication of the state of American society today. So why would the Chinese government want its people to descend to the same level of decay?

Moreover, the Chinese government sees television (particularly state-run TV) more as a cultural institution rather than a mode of entertainment. In that regard, television shapes culture in profound ways, and culture in turn shapes society and ultimately, the future of the Chinese state. The officials in Beijing look at the United States and see a nation with a failing economy, a burgeoning deficit, and a dysfunctional political system. They also see an American media replete with trashy television, scandal-prone Hollywood stars, and drug addicted pop stars. Although many Americans may not necessarily see a connection between the two, the officials in Beijing do.

By making television programming more respectable, they hope to promote enlightenment and morality, and avoid a cultural decay that, in their minds, has gripped many western nations. We actually agree with that -- however (and no offense to Warren Buffett) hearing Buffett play the ukulele and sing "I've Been Working on the Railroad" (a song first recorded in 1927) on China's equivalent of Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve is not likely to endear many people to the Chinese government's definition of 'entertainment.'

Even if the Chinese censors have the best intentions (which can of course be questioned), there are, naturally, costs to censorship. Beijing already employs tens of thousands of people to monitor the internet, a number that is certain to increase as the country becomes more digitalized. Censorship will also become less effective as time goes on; When censors restrict one form of media, people will gravitate to another, less controlled, form. In a globalized world, unless the government cuts all ties to the outside world -- as North Korea has done -- it cannot control everything, and censored content will increasingly seep through. Another problem is that restrictions on lowbrow programming will only make these programs more popular in some circles, especially among the young. What would be considered standard programming in the West will be infused with an aura of forbidden fruit where it is restricted. As a consequence, censored material may garner even more cache among China's youth -- something the old guard wants to avoid.

The new rules will also hurt China's image abroad. The prohibition against "excessive entertainment" has been widely criticized and belittled around the world. To many observers, these moves seem archaic and are disturbingly reminiscent of "1984" and the old communist bloc. It also confirms what many Sino-pessimists are saying: that China is racked with internal dissent and its government is increasingly tightening its grip in order to strengthen its power. After all, what does a country destined to becoming the next superpower really have to fear from a signing contest called Super Girl?

Censorship also unnecessarily hamstrings the growth of Beijing's international power and influence. One of the United States' biggest assets is "soft power," generated by the global appeal of American movies, music, and television. China cannot hope to expand its global cultural influence if it retards the growth of its own entertainment programming. By limiting the production and export of its cultural goods, China is unnecessarily limiting its already meager cultural influence abroad. Surely, patriotic television programs will only be watched in China.

Additionally, the Party's grip on the media may have economic consequences. Some foreign investors may be wary of investing in a country with rampant censorship, as it is indicative of a country where the government is more likely to favor its domestic industries, and will monitor a business's communications. Moreover, censorship implies that political and economic data needed to understand and monitor a country may be missing, difficult to acquire, or false. It is not easy doing business in such an intrusive and uncertain environment. The World Bank Group's 'Doing Business 2012' ranking already lists China as 151st in a list of 183 countries when it comes to starting a business. The new rules only exacerbate generational tensions and seem to be a waste valuable political capital in a time of growing global economic inequality and discontent.

In light of the admittedly trashy programming that passes for much of 'entertainment' today in the West, it is easy to understand why the Chinese government wants to encourage the enrichment of television programming in China. However, this move comes with costs. Censorship will increasingly become more difficult to achieve and less effective with time, it will drain an even larger amount of physical and political resources, and it will unnecessarily weaken Beijing's image abroad. Worst of all, censorship seems only to confirm what many believe -- that 'benign' Chinese authoritarianism is not so benign after all.

*Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions (CRS), a cross-border risk management consulting firm based in Connecticut (USA), Director of Global Strategy with the PRS Group, and author of the forthcoming book Managing Country Risk (March 2012). Michael Doyle is a research analyst with CRS.