Chinese Censorship and the Philosophy of Language

Chinese censors are probably not familiar with the “AAA framework,” but they should be. AAA, which stands for “Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas”, is a theory of linguistic meaning that states that “‘meaning is a relationship between two sorts of things: signs and the… things they mean.” The Great Firewall of China is very good at tracking and blocking signs (words), but is getting worse and worse as tracking and blocking meaning. This is because Chinese dissidents and politically-motivated pranksters are getting better and better as creating new signs – new words and images – for critiquing the government that bypass machine-based censoring programs.

In her talk on networked authoritarianism for the conference on Liberation Technology in Authoritarian Regimes last month, scholar of the Chinese Internet Rebecca MacKinnon reported that, when she tried to post a comment on imprisoned Nobel prize recipient Liu Xiaobo on three local Chinese sites, including Baidu and Sina, she was blocked from posting with a moderation message. On the micro-blogging site Sohu the name Liu Xiaobo was removed from the post when it was published.

Yet she might have might have been able to post about Liu Xiabo using Latin letters or a homonym. The creation of alternative signs allows dissident to freely express a censored meaning. Reports the Economist:

News on October 8th that an imprisoned activist, Liu Xiaobo, had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize spread quickly through domestic microblogs despite the authorities’ best efforts to block it. Users wrote homonyms for Mr Liu’s name, or abbreviations in Latin characters.

These alternative signs are the new proxies, routing meaning around censors. As the graphic below shows, by creating alternative signs for a censored meaning, dissidents can post – and thus communicate – ideas the censors are trying to repress. Examples abound, from images of Green Dam Girl and Grass Mud Horse to discussion of “harmonized” blogs.

Just as the Internet does not solve the free speech problem of activist, automated censorship software does not solve the massive censorship problem of user-generated content. In the end, in a massive system like China’s Internet censorship regime, it is the developers vs. the dissidents.

Unfortunately, for censors there is an extra step – updating the software. Users can iterate new signs in a matter of seconds, whereas it takes hours or days to update censoring software to block new signs. Because it is easier to create new signs than find and block them across an entire system, I believe censors will always be playing catch-up with the Internet’s creative linguistic activists.

The 4 Ways Tech Can Change Politics

How can people use digital technology to change politics? Starting from within political institutions and moving outward, people can use technology to change politics in the following four ways:


This is e-government – people inside government using technology to change government, usually to make it more efficient, but occasionally to make it more accountable and democratic. On the efficiency side you have e-filing of income taxes and clearinghouse sites like On the accountability and democracy side you have and, efforts to give people the information they need to hold government to account.

An interesting sub-group of insiders are those who use digital technology not only as a means of government reform, but as a model for how government should function. This is the idea of “government as a platform” or Government 2.0. As a recent post on O’Reilly Radar put it, “Gov 2.0 is about a transformation process involving innovation for transparency, collaboration, and/or participation,” it “does not exist in a government vacuum…. To the extent that it serves or interacts with citizens, those citizens serve as an operating environment for government.”

The country that is trying this Government 2.0 approach most seriously is Great Britain, where thePrime Minister David Cameron’sBig Society program is cutting back on social services and asking citizens to step in and co-create British society. Practically, this means collaborative budgeting and unfunded local initiatives like people building a bike path in their village. A recent New Yorker article said of the Big Society, “This is Wikipedia government, collectively created by the impassioned, the invested, and the bored.” Without money (the country isin adebt crisis), access toinformation is the currency of this new endeavor. “Transparency is the Cameronian fetish; government is meant to be a ‘co-production’ of citizen and state.”

2. Entrants

Political institution can be changed not only by people already in government, but by helpingnew types of people enter government who previously would have been doomed to failure by their outsider status. The prime example here is without question the 2008 election of Barack Obama, where thousands of online micro-donations allowed the campaign tofund itselfwithout relying on the traditional big donors and PACs and for supporters to communicate with one another and self-mobilize without the direction of the campaign through social media tools like MyBarackObama.

Two other prominent examples of digital technology helping outsiders into office by reaching out directly to self-organizing supporters arePresidentRoh Moo Hyun in South Korea in, whose supporters mobilized online and via text messaging in 2002, and President Victor Yushchenko of Ukraine, whom the Orange Revolution brought to power, through the help of mobile technology and online citizen journalism in 2004.

The post-election atmosphere into which these candidate step is rarely peaceful. President Obama is brutally attacked from the conservative right and disappointed left. Yushchenko oversaw various government crises, including two dissolutions of Parliament, before losing the election of 2010. Roh’s story is surely the saddest. After a dramatic fall from grace he committed suicide in 2009. The difficulty these outsider candidates face once they enter formal political institutions is less a mark of personal failure than an indication of how truly threatened the old guard feel by these new insiders and how viciously they will fight to thwart them.

3. Pursuaders

The third group, pursuaders, seek to influence political institutions from the outside. This group refers not only to the digital activists that are the common theme of this blog, but also more traditional nonprofits and, perhaps most forcefully of all, business interests. In the persuader (or advocate or lobbyist) role, these groups have no interest in being members of the government, but seek to convince those in government to act and legislate according to their interests.

There are many types of pursuader individuals, from paid lobbyists to nonprofit employees to passionate volunteers. However, it is the least well-connected that are most likely to rely heavily on technology to make their voices heard and to mobilize supporters to take action on their behalf. To a corporate lobbyist with the Senator’s home phone on speed dial, creating an active Facebook group or trying to raise awareness of an issue through creating a hashtag on Twittermay seem not worth the effort. However, as the rise of astro-turfing has made clear, even the well-connected sometimes need a popular front to reinforce the legitimacy of their claims.

Even though digital activists are often seen as radical, and are jailed and harassed in repressive countries, they are actually operating within the existing political environment. They access the basic institutions of government and, even when they seek a leadership change, go about it through the proper institutional channels of elections. In the case of issue advocacy they are even less radical, asking only that those already in power side with them on a particular issue. Digital activists are not the radicals of this spectrum.

4. Usurpers

The true radicals here are the usurpers, those who use technology in their attempts to take political power, usually through violence. Though this site does not address violent activism often, its role in changing politics cannot be ignored.The Mumbai terrorists used encrypted Blackberry phonesto coordinate with one another during the 2008 attacks and seek information about the progress of the attacks, which has caused a backlash against encrypted mobile data not only in India but also in the Middle East.

In Somalia, the Islamist insurgency group Al-Shabaab uses their web forum, Al Quimmah, tocommunicate with the Western media and recruit fighters internationally. Their desire for power is serious, and they have been successful. According to Wikipedia, as of summer 2010 the group controls most of the southern and central parts of the country, including significant portions of the capital, Mogadishu. Where it controls territory it changes political institutions by Islamacizing them, enforcing the harsher tenets of Sharia law.

Once in power, these usurpers become insiders, butwithout the benefit of popular legitimation through elections. This insecurity causes them to use technology repressively to maintain control, as the once-revolutionary Communist Party does in China and the once-revolutionary mullahs do in Iran. Though in many cases usurpers limit technology use by their citizens rather than use it proactively to assert their power, the more creative governments use digital technology and social media offensively, such as China’s 50 Cent Party, Iran’s online identification of protesters, and Hugo Chavez’s heavy use of social media to maintain his popularity in Venezuela.


For those interested in exploring the intersection of politics and technology, it is important to understand the full spectrum. From the most conservative bureaucrat automating some of his tasks to the most radical terrorist using the Internet to legitimize himself internationally, digital technology is at play at all political levels, from the institutional center to the revolutionary edge. We will only understand how technology affects politics if we understand the interplay of its diverse manifestations.

image: ceBIT Australia

LibTech: Rebecca MacKinnon on Networked Authoritarianism

Disclaimer: I have done my best to transcribe the comments of these speakers at the conference on Liberation Technology in Authoritarian Regimes, and I apologize for any errors.

China specialist Rebecca MacKinnon begins with the coverage of Liu Xiaobo’s receipt of the Nobel prize. When she tried to post this piece of news on three local Chinese sites, including Baidu and Sina, she was blocked from posting with a moderation message. “You can wait to be moderated,” she notes, “as you can wait for Godot.” In other words, it won’t get published. On the micro-blogging site Sohu the name Liu Xiaobo is removed from the post when it is published. This is what faces Chinese authors when they try to publish on political topics.

This censorship is being outsourced to the private sector, it is not being done by the government. They are reinforcing the networked authoritarian state. The stick is that businesses that do not censor effectively lose their licenses. In addition to financial success, a carrot is the “self-discipline awards” for successful self-policing sites, which are put on annually by the government.

She notes that Lokman Tsui’s paper on “Iron Curtain 2.0” does a good job explaining that this is a new form of authoritarianism. It’s not a wall, it’s a hydro-electric dam. Like a torrent of water, China both needs and fears information, and does not fully block it but controls it. Scholar Min Jiang has also developed a good typology of online civic spaces in China: government propaganda, commercial government-controlled spaces, emergent NGO spaces (which are often the victim of cyber attack, international diaspora spaces that are free by often inaccessible.

Networked (or deliberative) authoritarianism allows China to increase its legitimacy. For example, a challenge to the one-child policy was allow to stay up on a government platform, where the idea was debated. Scholar Yongnian Zheng makes a distinction between “voice” activism, which critiques inefficiencies or local corrupotion and thus strengthens the regimes by allowing it to root out ineffectiveness, “exit” activism that challenge the authoritarian system itself find no space and results in imprisonment and web site shut-down.

LibTech: Xiao Qiang on China

Disclaimer: I have done my best to transcribe the comments of these speakers at the conference on Liberation Technology in Authoritarian Regimes, and I apologize for any errors.

Xiao Qiang is the next speaker at the conference on Liberation Technology in Authoritarian Regimes. He is a professor of journalism at UC Berkeley, Principle Investigator at Counter-Power Labs, and founder of the China Digital Times. He starts by starting that by 2013, 53% of the Chinese population will be online and a quote by Hu Jintao about the importance of maintaining socialist culture and the stability of the state as the Internet grows. As a result, there is registration of web site owners and many filters for publication on the average Chinese news site. He also shows a map-like image of different arms of the government encircling and controlling the content available to Chinese citizens.

Despite this, the Internet has allowed a resistance discourse to exist that was not possible in the broadcast era. It has also allowed forbidden discourse to exist outside of China. As examples of resistance discourse, he gives the examples of the viral sateirical memes of “river crab” (homonym for “harmony” and a critique of censorship – “my blog was harmonized”). It allows bloggers to speak of censorship under the radar (these discussions are not blocked inside China). Another is “grass mud horse,” (“f*ck you mother”) and “valley dove” (“don’t be evil”, motto of Google ), the opponent of the river crab, which are depicted in videos, images, and cartoons inside China. “35th of May” is new to me, it is a way of talking about the Tiananmen massacre, which occurred in April.

“It is not only resistance, it is visible resistance,” says Qiang. Regardless of the source of these memes, there has been an information cascade effect, changing the way the public views censorship. A recent poll showed that 48% hate the censorship of the Great Fire Wall, and 38% believe it should be taken down.

“So what? Where does it lead for China,” says Qiang. There is a increased discourse on universal values, on the right to know, participate, express, and control. The number of people talking about the memes and has increased dramatically in the past few years, though it remains a tiny percentage of the number of total blog posts in China – the online opposition in tiny but growing.

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