The Not-So-Great Firewall of China

Social media won't drive the downfall of the Chinese Communist Party, but it is forcing government to be more transparent and responsive to the public.

Every news organization needs a social media strategy. Even China's government-controlled Xinhua News Agency now "tweets" news bulletins through Twitter-like microblogs called weibo -- through which more than 300 million users share details of their daily lives, jokes, gossip, and news.

Chinese companies running weibo services are required by the government to censor and monitor their users, blocking politically sensitive content. Yet despite weibo's best censorship efforts, China's chattering classes have outsmarted the system, using literary allusions, code words, and innuendo to pass around juicy leaks and tidbits from the foreign media about the alleged murder of English businessman Neil Heywood by associates of Gu Kailai, wife of the former Chongqing Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai, whose fall from grace has precipitated the biggest leadership crisis in China since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.

Censorship has even backfired in bizarre ways. After a long silence by official media on the subject, last week at 11 p.m. Beijing time Xinhua attempted to tweet an official news bulletin announcing that Bo had been stripped of his party posts and was under investigation for "serious discipline violations." Sina Weibo, the most popular of China's weibo services, censored Xinhua's tweet.

The use of Bo's name had triggered the company's automated censorship system -- programmed, ironically, in compliance with central government orders to block all tweets containing Bo's name. At the same time, Sina posted the text of the same Xinhua bulletin to its own news feed. Five minutes later, in response no doubt to irate phone calls, Sina unblocked Xinhua's tweet. Xinhua then posted a tweet (later removed) complaining that its own breaking story had been scooped by Weibo. This provoked a flurry of sarcastic commentary by witty weibo users, joking about how the government's propaganda apparatus had fallen victim to its own regulations.

The lesson of this episode? China's censorship and propaganda systems may be complex and multilayered, but they are obviously not well coordinated. Writing in the Guardian this week, dissident artist Ai Weiwei declared that while China's Internet censorship system may be the envy of autocrats worldwide, China's leaders need to understand that in the long run "it's not possible for them to control the Internet unless they shut it off." He was half right: While the Chinese government's tactics may be ham-handed and likely doomed to failure in the long run, they are working well enough to keep the Communist Party in power for the short to medium term.

In unpacking social media's role in China's latest political power struggle, it is important to understand that Bo Xilai's political downfall actually strengthens the power of the central government, currently led by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.

Bo was a popular -- and populist -- challenger to the political and economic status quo. He built an independent power base in Chongqing, an internationally celebrated megalopolis in western China. His neo-Maoist ideology gained an impassioned following among conservative nationalists as well as members of China's growing urban poor who blame the current leadership's economic policies for unacceptable levels of economic disparity. Bo represented a political threat to the liberalizing economic and financial reforms that Hu and Wen say they are determined to carry out before they pass the baton to a new set of leaders in October.

Chinese blogger Michael Anti likes to describe weibo as a public opinion "battlefield." Shutting down weibo at this point, now that it has become such an integral part of so many Chinese people's social lives, would be impossible without provoking widespread public anger against the government. Instead, the central government's strategy is to "occupy" weibo to defeat challengers like Bo in the court of public opinion -- while doing all it can to weigh the scales in its own favor.

Almost every week, there are stories in the press or on Chinese social media about what even the official Chinese media call "hot online topics": stories about how people in a particular village or town used weibo to expose malfeasance by local or regional authorities. This calls the central government's attention to problems which it can then swoop in and solve, making the central government look like it is more concerned with the common people than are local officials. Citizens even manage to use cyber-vigilantism -- popularly known as the "human flesh search engine" -- to bring about the resignation of badly behaved officials. Sometimes laws and regulations are even changed, and policy reforms implemented, as the result of concerned citizens' online campaigning.

Clearly, China is no longer a classic Cold War-style authoritarian state. I call its new style of information-oriented governance "networked authoritarianism." Thanks to the Internet in general and social media in particular, the Chinese people now have a mechanism to hold authorities accountable for wrongdoing -- at least sometimes -- without any actual political or legal reforms having taken place. Major political power struggles and scandals are no longer kept within elite circles. In the case of the Bo-Gu-Heywood scandal, social media "is forcing a level of transparency in how the government handles this case that never used to exist," explains media entrepreneur and blogger Jeremy Goldkorn, who has been living in China since the 1990s. China's political system may not have changed, yet the public has become both a constituency and a pawn in the nation's political battles.

If anything, weibo may even help the Communist Party re-centralize its political power at the expense of local officials and regional governments, which over the past three decades of economic reform have gained greater autonomy from Beijing. The weibo companies are all headquartered in the capital and required to take orders from the central government. ("For a local government to have content blocked or deleted requires getting on a plane to Beijing," Anti explains.) The advent of weibo has created a cycle in which the public is increasingly emboldened to use social media to report on localized abuses by individual officials, with some reason to hope that once the central government is alerted to the problem justice will prevail.

At the same time, the consequences of any efforts to organize protests, meetings, or movements focused on criticizing or changing the central government remain the same as they been for more than two decades, since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. Liu Xiaobo, who circulated the "Charter 08" treatise calling for multi-party democracy and who won a Nobel Peace Price in 2010, is serving a 10-year jail sentence. Many signatories of his charter received visits from the police. In early 2011, dozens of people who re-tweeted calls for "jasmine protests" inspired by Tunisia's "Jasmine Revolution" were questioned or arrested. Weibo postings by intellectuals calling for political reform are quickly removed, and have not been allowed to go viral as the Bo Xilai rumor postings managed to do. Chinese journalists are being muzzled more tightly than ever to prevent them from conducting investigative reporting that might damage the central government's power.

Meanwhile, Beijing is doing everything possible to remind China's Internet users of who is in charge. Several websites popular with Maoist supporters of Bo Xilai have been shut down or suspended. The People's Daily issued an ultimatum against online rumors and people who spread them. The professional media has received strict instructions not to report unauthorized news on the Bo-Gu-Heywood case. More than 1,000 people have been arrested for "spreading rumors."

Last week, the "great firewall" system that normally blocks blacklisted foreign websites temporarily blocked all foreign websites. Since then, bloggers and Internet industry insiders report that the overall level of website-blocking has noticeably increased. Postings by weibo users with more than 10,000 followers will be individually vetted. The government is also pushing the weibo companies to implement a "real name" registration system by the middle of the year, which means at least in theory that it will become much more difficult for weibo users to disguise their identity from the authorities, if not from the general public. "If it is really implemented," says Beijing-based Internet investor and commentator Bill Bishop, "the real effect will be a reminder to people that the government is watching and they should be careful about what they say."

The paradox of the Chinese Internet is that despite all of these measures, weibo remain a lively place, where most Chinese Internet users feel freer to debate and discuss matters of public interest than ever before. A wide range of policy positions, political loyalties, and ideologies can be found throughout Chinese society, and thanks to the Internet those differences have become publicly visible for the first time. Millions of Chinese Internet users engage regularly in public-policy debates because they feel that at least in some cases, the weight of public opinion can make a real difference.

These trends in the long run are great cause for optimism about what the Internet means for China's political future. As Anti puts it, "The political change will come from non-Internet factors, but thanks to the Internet people will be more ready to do something positive with it."



Who Broke Syria?

Bashar al-Assad did. But the international community and the media made things worse.

Less than a week into a U.N.-brokered ceasefire in Syria, the arrangement is already looking pretty shaky. The Syrian government has promised to pull its army back from major cities, but now seems to be reneging on that deal. But rather than castigating its motives, perhaps it might be a good time now to take a fresh look what exactly has been accomplished by the internationalization of the Syrian "problem."

I've been going to Syria for some years now, both as a journalist and an ordinary citizen, and it's been inspiring to see how the country has changed. Some of my friends are ordinary civilians; others are now involved in the motley collection of opposition groups that have emerged since the uprising began in March of last year. What's often lost in the account of crisis given by po-faced humanitarians, with their pictures of dead bodies and tales of indecipherable evil, is how inspiring the revolt originally was for many ordinary Syrians. Virtually all the people I know in Syria have changed their opinions radically in the last year, and their demands have grown bolder and more ambitious.

As spring 2011 gave way to summer and fall and the flagging Baathist regime moved to snuff out dissent, some opposition groups looked to the force of arms to protect their demonstrations and their communities. At around the same time, international efforts to apply pressure to the regime led to sanctions that virtually no one in Syria wants (even the Free Syrian Army), an ill-fated mission by Arab monitors that disappointed everyone, and now a U.N. initiative that has initially stemmed the daily round of killings, but failed to satisfy either the government or the opposition.

So what's going wrong? The problem, in my view, is that the tools of international law are a very blunt instrument with which to solve real problems of civil strife. In November, for example, I smuggled myself into Homs as the desperate opposition movement was beginning to turn to the Arab League to mediate in its conflict with an increasingly brutal regime. As the situation worsened, the daily demonstrations (I could still hear them breaking out in November along with the occasional crackle of sniper fire) were joined by armed militias that grew up to protect Sunni areas of the city. Then the geopoliticking began.

In December, the Syrian National Council seems to have made an orchestrated effort to turn Homs into a Syrian Benghazi -- the eastern Libyan city whose imminent destruction by Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces provided the catalyst that sparked the international intervention in Libya last year. The council spread stories in the international media, for example, suggesting that the Syrian Army had moved up reinforcements with which to strike the city, and that it had given the rebellious Homsies 72 hours to lay down their weapons or be killed. When I phoned a respected veteran activist in Homs, he told me that the charge simply wasn't true. Things were bad enough, he said, without having to make up scary stories. In retrospect, by leaning on precedents within international law rather than the force of its own movement, the exiled Syrian opposition seems to have aimed to exaggerate the civilian losses in the city into the claim of genocide in order to push buttons within the international community.

The United Nations bought it. Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that "many voices are warning that a major assault" on Homs is about to begin, that a further military buildup had already begun. "I am not in a position to confirm those reports," she said, "but the prospect of such an attack is extremely alarming."

If there was a strategy to internationalize the conflict, however, it failed. The United Nations could do nothing, but the promise that it might may have put ordinary activists and Free Syrian Army rebels in the city at even greater risk. Many were led to believe that help was coming, when it most definitely wasn't.

The history of most humanitarian interventions in the last 15 years has been similar: By promising more safety than it can credibly deliver, the United Nations has often put the lives of those on the receiving end of its efforts in even greater danger, everywhere from Srebrenica to South Lebanon. By changing the incentives facing both parties to the conflict, the United Nations, at its worst, only makes their incentives more perverse -- and their negotiating positions even more intractable.

Much the same applies to the international media. Beginning in late December, Western journalists fanned out, under the coat-tails of Arab League observers, to find the "war story." They duly met members of the Free Syrian Army, and came back pleased as punch with pictures of masked, professional-looking soldiers wielding rocket-propelled grenades. In the short term, the result was a propaganda coup for both the journalists and the Free Syrian Army. As soon as the media departed, however, the government forces moved in to kill or capture many of these guerrilla fighters, whose implicit claim that they could control territory for any length of time turned out to be dangerously hollow.

That was then. As the situation has ground toward a temporary stalemate, everyone in the opposition now realizes that NATO has neither the mettle nor the resources for another Libya. That kind of organized military intervention is simply not going to happen. But the next phase of diplomacy is in danger of making matters substantially worse. The remaining carrots offered to Bashar Al-Assad's regime are now being matched by thinly veiled sticks whereby the international community promises to turn a blind eye to Saudi and Qatari efforts to back the military opposition with force of arms.

This internationalization of the conflict has been met by ordinary Syrians with a mixture of incredulity and opportunism. Driving around the center of Homs at the end of February (until I was picked up by the Syrian Army and sent back to Damascus), I stopped a group of old men in the center of town and asked for directions. "Are you Russian?" was their first question. Probably government supporters, and quite possibly Alawites, they knew that the only foreigners they really wanted to talk to were Russian, Moscow being the Assad regime's most outspoken defender on the international stage.  

Amid the catastrophic decline of their economic fortunes, many Syrians are rather proud to be center of this international attention; at least, they say, their country is not being ignored or forgotten about. But they're also deeply patriotic and understandably proud of their country's fragile ethnic and religious mosaic. As several Syrian teenagers pointed out to me, the same Qatari government that has been moving to protect the human rights of Syrians has been denying them visas to visit Qatar. Nor is it lost on them that Qatar and Saudi Arabia are so democratically backward as to make the Syrian government look like a hippie commune. The SNC's apparent decision to accept money from the Gulf States to pay salaries to Free Syrian Army guerrillas sounded breathtakingly arrogant, and makes for shockingly bad politics. Not only does lend credence to the conspiracy theories peddled by the government that the uprising is the handiwork of foreign agitators; it risks splitting the indigenous opposition movement and empowering exactly the kind of Sunni extremist groups who are most likely to stoke sectarian tensions.

None of this is to argue that Syrians should not take matters into their own hands. After more than a year of grueling state violence, there are very few absolute pacifists among the Syrian opposition. Just about everyone I met in Syria was caught between the terrible foreboding that things will -- must -- get substantially worse before they get better, and not wishing any violence upon their fellow countrymen. But if the Saudis and the Qataris are allowed to funnel unlimited cash and weapons through the country's traditional smuggling routes, the likely result will be to empower a crooked new class of arms-dealing middle men and the kind of fringe Salafist groups that are quite happy to turn themselves and everyone else into martyrs for the cause.

Whatever the Syrian government now says, the influence of these extremist Sunni factions is currently marginal, even inside the Free Syrian Army. Most of the military defectors are simply conservative Sunnis from farming communities. But Syria is currently exhibiting a brand new irony of our post-war-on-terror era. The secular Syrian liberals and leftist groups that have most in common in Western values don't want NATO intervention, while it's exactly the kind of people who don't much like us -- the aging remains of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the newer, more radical Sunni salafists -- who are begging for our help.

Who knows: If the unthinking drift toward creating neo-mujahideen in Syria and Iran (a strategy advocated by Foreign Policy's own James Traub) continues, following a decade in which radical Sunnis became America's Public Enemy No. 1, Osama bin Laden might have to be posthumously converted back into the freedom fighter America saw him as in the 1980s, marching into battle to drive out one of the last vestiges of godlessness in the Middle East.