August 17, 2009ChinaForeign Affairsinformationinformation warfarenuclear deterrenceSecuritysignaling

Which voice came from the mouthpiece?

As long as China controls its information landscape, it will be responsible for being misunderstood

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

How seriously should you take vitriolic—or soothing—opinion that comes out of China over the internet? Ananth Krishnan warns against the tendency to assume every voice is that of a government mouthpiece.

News reports also claimed the write-up could not have been published without the permission of the Chinese authorities — another dubious claim tied to the simplistic notion that the Chinese government vets every opinion expressed on all of China’s hundreds of political websites. The Chinese government blocks and censors numerous websites that are politically sensitive, discussing subjects like the Tiananmen Square protests or the Falun Gong. But suggesting that the government controls and moderates debates and political opinions in blogs and newspapers is a stretch.

It also belies a lack of understanding of the changing nature of China’s information landscape. China has 338 million Internet users and more than 100 million blogs and websites, such as the one where this post first appeared. It only takes a quick glance through half a dozen such sites—even influential” ones—to look at the divergence of opinions and vibrancy of debates, with many voices even strongly criticising the Communist Party and its government. Yet the simplistic perception still endures in India that in authoritarian China, every analyst or writer must surely speak in the same voice.

Interpreting information from these four avenues is further complicated by the fact that they are sometimes inter-linked. For instance, the Chinese government sometimes uses influential think-tanks to hint at changes in policy. Views and opinions from mainstream Chinese newspapers and think-tanks must indeed be taken seriously in India. But at the same time, a more nuanced understanding of China’s information landscape is needed to avoid shrill hyper-reactions to anonymous bloggers and irrelevant fringe groups.

This is crucial to creating a level of discourse in India that allows for a deeper, more meaningful engagement with China’s opportunities and threats. [The Hindu]That is a very sensible conclusion. What it does not state explicitly is that much of the reason why China is misunderstood to the extent that it is, is because of China itself. The lack of transparency in public discourse, the overbearing role of the state in permitting some views while going to great lengths to proscribe others, and the deliberately unclear linkages among the party, government, academia and media often results in people assuming the worst.

A relatively harmless result of this is the demonisation of China in societies that deal with it. More dangerous is the mistaking of noise for signal—it’s bad for everyone if the fulminations of an angry youth” run the risk of being confused with tacit but deliberate military threats issued by a key senior official. If China doesn’t want to be misunderstood, it should do its part first.



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