Internet censorship and the political economy of control
Last month, independent media critic Michael Anti wrote of how microblogging site Sina Weibo enables the Chinese central government to easily identify a potential political threats before it reaches a significant size and to keep a close eye on what dissidents are up to in an essay which has been further translated here:
As the servers are controlled by the central government, officials on the local level are no longer able to suppress users’ criticisms of municipal government. This enables the central government to exert a tighter control on the local level. When the Bo Xilai scandal broke out for example, the central government allowed users a certain freedom to criticise and discuss the provincial politician’s fall from grace.
Beijing uses Weibo to manipulate public opinion, control local government and stabilise the ruling regime. Local-level politicians have responded to this Internet-driven change in various ways. On the one hand, they try to exercise better and more transparent governance. On the other hand, they pay for lobbyists in Beijing to persuade those who control the Internet to delete potentially “dangerous” Weibo messages. According to some estimates, this “Weibo clean-up” sector is worth more than ten million annually.
That said, in a blog post from last week which challenges Anti's description of an all-seeing, all-knowing and monolithic Big Brother (in one word: competent) central government, writer and activist Liu Di also points out the contradiction between an under-rug-swept lobbying industry and the central government it supposedly targets, accountable only to itself and with a monopoly on the power to delete:
This sort of business might allow certain central government bodies or officials to reap benefits for themselves, but it doesn't necessarily help the central government strengthen governance over local governments.
If such were the case, bodies and officials with the power to delete content would have their own interests in mind as they did their job, the best approach to which would be to not delete content they could afford to keep up.
The less they delete, the more money people would put in, and unfortunately the central government's authority and ability to maintain control would then just have to take a back seat.