July 24, 2013, by Tony Hong

Chinese Connections: Communication and Complexity

By Shipra Khanna,

Studying International Media and Communications Studies with Chinese at the University of Nottingham UK.

As a student of International Media at the University of Nottingham UK, I have continually been intrigued by China and it’s censorship upon social media and communication. I have always had the opinion that indeed restriction and censorship upon something would lead to added interest in it. It is bound to have created ways to defy rules and overcome regulation which, to an extent it has, with technologies like VPN or even, for example, The Chinese version of Facebook – ‘Ren Ren’ or ‘WeiBo’, the Chinese equivalent to Twitter.

However, these past two weeks in China have really made me re-evaluate and question the need and use of social media.

We have been taught that social media is a means of liberating us as individuals, giving us a voice and platform to share our opinions for the world to see and certainly, placing bans on it, is the Chinese government’s way of demonstrating and maintaining control. Nevertheless, it may be argued that viewing social media as a form of free thought is just a very western centric perspective. Are we not disregarding different social, political and economic contexts?

Particularly, in the context of China, it may be argued that the censorship is in place to protect citizens of the state. More so, because the use of new media in China has developed rapidly very recently, from the 1990’s onwards and it has inherently changed the way popular culture has been consumed. Therefore, the restrictions on new media avoid vulgar content and deter anonymity on the internet which has very positive social implications. 

Furthermore, although the main use of social media in China is to blog about what is known as ‘Info-entertainment’, it has been seen that ‘Citizen journalism’ can be a very useful political tool, enabling people to co-ordinate protests and launch awareness raising campaigns on a global scale such as seen in the example of ‘The Arab Spring’ where it is touted to have ‘provided access to inaccessible areas’. Thus, the state’s censorship on new media actually allows them to maintain a more harmonious society.

Conversely, it needs to be taken into account that there are alternates or ways around these restrictions. As mentioned earlier, through software like VPN, one can access global social platforms like Facebook and Twitter or even, if we refer to Chinese New Media sites like ‘Ren Ren’  or ‘WeiBo’, through the use of encoded language on blogging sites, users can comment on issues without authorities realizing. As a result, one can question the extent or effectiveness of these censorship measures on New Media.

Similarly, if we look at the notion of how social media can be a key aspect in creating a digital divide. On one hand, you have the view that this censorship on new media is alienating the Chinese online community from the global cyber community. However, on the other hand, if we take a closer look and bring the focus back to China, there is a great amount of diversity within the country itself. Although, several cities in China are highly developed, there are still several rural areas which possibly may not have access to the internet. Thus, there is the potential that there may be a digital divide within the country too as, we are making the assumption that the effect of social media is the same for everyone and that everyone has access to technology when the access to it is fairly uneven throughout the country.

In actual fact, it may be viewed that the government’s censorship on social media is a key factor in maintaining a more ‘harmonious’ and neutral society particularly, in preventing society to be divided and avoiding reverting back to a ‘Literati’ vs. ‘Folk’ segregation which Professor Jeremy Taylor explained about in his lecture.

Finally, to draw the argument to a close, if we draw reference to theorist, Rheingold and his notion of ‘society being a panopticon’. He explains how the increasing use of new media gives citizens a space for social comment, this has led society to become a space with a central point where there is always someone watching you. Rheingold’s theory brings us to the issue of surveillance and censorship and how in today’s day, several governments or authorities monitor the social media use in their country. Thus, is China’s restriction on social media really that extreme? Or do several countries monitor their cyber community just without openly saying so?

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