Flirting with censorship

During the last two weeks, the governments of China and France have both tried to remove the shield of anonymity that allows internet users to voice opinions without being held accountable for them. In late December the state run Xinhua news agency announced that new regulations would require anyone signing agreements with internet service providers to share “genuine identification information” about themselves. Furthermore ISPs would be obliged not only to “instantly stop the transmission of illegal information” but also to take down illegal posts, log details of the source of the information, and refer offenders to “supervisory authorities.” In France the government’s skepticism was more measured. Following a widely publicized spate of racist and homophobic comments on Twitter, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, François Hollande’s new minister of women’s rights, called on the network to ensure that perpetrators of similar rants – which are illegal under current French law – could be identified and prosecuted.

Beijing’s record of censorship is appalling. In the last decade it has imprisoned dozens of writers for nothing more than peaceful political dissent. Coming just a month after Xi Jinping assumed control of the People’s Republic, the new regulations clearly signal the government’s wariness of China’s social media networks. With 540 million Internet users and a thriving microblogging culture, social media in China has begun to flex its political muscles. During the last few months a series of high profile sex and corruption scandals have shown the country’s traditional powerbrokers the fearful consequences of greater transparency.

While the court of public opinion is a familiar hazard to most Western politicians, it is still a relative novelty in China and the new regulations suggest the confusion that recent events have sown in the party’s upper ranks. Traditionally, the PRC has pursued a dependable, albeit heavy-handed, strategy towards the foreign media: when they report inconvenient news their websites are simply shut down. In October, for example, China banned the New York Times’ English- and Chinese-language sites following an exposé about the business interests of the family of premier Wen Jiabao.  It has also delayed issuing a visa to the incoming New York Times China bureau chief since last March.

Its tactics may be debatable – undeterred by the Wen backlash, Bloomberg just produced an even more damning report on the  business dealings of the country’s ‘princelings’– but Beijing’s strategy has largely succeeded in keeping foreign criticism out of domestic hands.

Local grievances are more difficult to contain, however, and the senior ranks of the CCP are also aware that platforms which allow citizens to root out corruption by themselves can prove extremely useful to the government, providing that the habit of criticizing power doesn’t get taken too far. Uncertain as to his next steps in this brave new world, Liu Qibao, the recently appointed propaganda minister, seems to have chosen to err firmly on the side of caution and censorship. Given the rapid and ongoing growth of China’s online communities, it is likely to be a decision he will regret.

In France the rationale for censorship is more plausible. The tweets Minister Vallaud-Belkacem was responding to are unquestionably disturbing. Thousands of vicious jokes were circulated via the hashtags #simonfilsestgay (“if my son is gay”); #simafilleramèneunnoir (“if my daughter brings a black man home”);  #unbonjuif (“a good Jew”) and  #unjuifmort (“a dead Jew”). These are not trivial matters in a country that has passed laws to address its chronic problems with anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia.

The minister’s request that Twitter “remove manifestly illegal tweets, or at least to make them inaccessible so that the harm they have already caused to gay people does not continue” is perfectly reasonable within the legal context of the EU – in which 11 countries have hate speech laws – but it does raise warning flags for those accustomed to the more thoroughgoing provisions of America’s First Amendment. Acknowledging those reservations but nevertheless endorsing Minister Vallaud-Belkacem, the New York based writer Jason Farago wrote in the Guardian that “Digital speech is new territory, and it calls for fresh thinking, not the mindless reapplication of centuries-out-of-date principles that equate a smartphone to a Gutenberg press.”

In a telling rejoinder to Farago, the columnist Glenn Greenwald countered that “Nothing has been more destructive or dangerous throughout history – nothing – than the power of the state to suppress and criminalize opinions it dislikes. I regard calls for suppression of ideas as far more menacing than – and at least just as hateful as – bigoted Twitter hashtags and online homophobic jokes.” Greenwald added that “It is not possible, nor probable, but certain – 100% inevitable –that empowering the state to imprison people for the expression of ‘hateful’ ideas will be radically abused, will be exploited to shield power factions from meaningful challenge.” Greenwald also notes that “it is undeniably true that arguments in favour of equality for women and gay people have triumphed over bigotry, not because bigots have been imprisoned, but because those ideas have proven more powerful, more persuasive.”

One need look no further than China to see the importance of Greenwald’s defence of the ‘marketplace of ideas’ and the peril, however reasonable it may seem in a given social, legal and political context, of criminalizing words and opinions that offend those in power. Hateful ideas, whether censored or expressed, are always with us, but it is the true mark of a democracy to counter them with superior arguments rather than succumb to the easier and ultimately futile approach that France and China have chosen to pursue.

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