What would happen if China didn’t censor the internet?

This week’s column comes from one of Kaiser’s answers originally posted to Quora on January 5, 2011. (Illustration by Derek Zheng for SupChina.)

What would happen in China if the government didn’t censor the internet?

I’ll start with the most burning question to me: the question of political stability.

Assumptions and caveats: I’m going to assume that an “uncensored internet” would be one that would still place restrictions on at least certain forms of pornography and restrict my scenario creation to a hypothetical near-future where the Chinese government simply gives up, presumably under mounting domestic (and some international) pressure, trying to either block sites from outside of China or restrict political speech within China. Note that I see this as far-fetched. Throwing the proverbial floodgate open at once? I can’t see that happening except in conjunction with a major upheaval in elite politics — something close to “regime change” or a collapse of the Party-state.

One more caveat: I’m assuming that removing internet censorship is effectively removing all media censorship in this scenario.

Political stability

I’ve noted before in talks I’ve given that there’s one thing that neo-conservatives in the U.S. and conservatives in the Chinese Communist Party have in common when it comes to beliefs about the internet in China, and that is this: Left unfettered, the internet would represent an existential threat to the continued rule of the CCP. It goes without saying that they have radically different ideas of whether that would be a good thing or a bad thing. As I’m neither a conservative in the U.S. or China, I have a very different perspective.

The basic assumptions at the heart of internet censorship in China are something like this (note the circularity):

Economic development and rapid growth is a desirable end in itself for China. Continued growth and development depends on social stability: a minimum of “mass disturbance,” of ethnic unrest, of “class warfare,” and the like — thus the constant evocation of 和谐 héxié, or harmony. Social stability in turn depends on the Party’s control over coercive organs (the People’s Liberation Army, the People’s Armed Police, the Public Security Bureau), and on control of propaganda and media. The Party can only maintain its monopoly on power by delivering economic growth and continued development.

I’m sure few would argue with the assertion that freeing the internet would make the Party’s hold on power significantly more difficult in some regards. Organization of underground opposition parties would suddenly become substantially easier. It’s fear of the organizational potential of Web 2.0 tools like Twitter and Facebook, the role of which may have been exaggerated in such “color revolutions” as Moldova and Ukraine, and in the uprising after Ahmadinejad’s controversial reelection in Iran, that are the chief reasons why these were singled out for blocking. There’s no question that right now, China’s closest Twitter equivalent, Sina’s Weibo, is the most closely-watched of all domestic internet sites precisely for this same reason — its ability to facilitate many-to-many, instantaneous communication, and its potential as an organizational vehicle.

No doubt, issues that the Party has long tried to prevent inquiry into would bubble up into public discourse with possibly very disruptive effect. We’re all thinking of course of 1989 and the violent suppression of the student-led protests in Tiananmen, but there are many more skeletons in recent historical closets. We can’t assume that, were all these closets allowed to be opened and their contents hauled out into the light, that the result would be uniform condemnation of the Party; there would doubtless be a loud cohort of self-styled patriots who would probably still argue that bringing all this up is no good for anyone, and that we should all contentedly focus on the future and leave sleeping dogs lie. But what’s sure is that a very loud, very noisy and divisive debate would follow.

So would real chaos ensue? There’s little doubt in my mind that things would get messy, but just how messy is something I have trouble speculating on. Disruptions — strikes, demonstrations, marches, acts of remonstrance often taking on dramatic forms (like self-immolations) would almost doubtless increase significantly. As to whether it would be enough to spark an organized political opposition is unclear to me.

But it’s worth considering how most Chinese people would see it. As a historian friend of mine said recently on the podcast that I host, the bad guys in American nightmares — Darth Vader, the Empire, what have you — are all about excessive authoritarianism. In China, conversely, the deepest nightmares come from periods of perceived absence of order and authority: The chaos of the Cultural Revolution, of the Warlord Period of 1916-1928, and before that a half-dozen other periods of Chinese history where chaos reigned. So don’t be dismissive of the argument that stability should, in some circumstances, trump freedom in China. It resonates with lots and lots of Chinese people, irrespective of how jarring such an assertion might sound to an American or a Briton.

I personally believe that things would sort themselves out a whole lot quicker than CCP conservatives probably imagine, and that in fact a free media would have a lot of positive impact on the ability of the party in power to govern effectively: a strengthened watchdog function, chiefly, whereby malfeasance and abuse of power by corrupt or crooked officials would be even more in the spotlight than it is now. And now, as anyone who watches the internet in China closely knows full well, officialdom already quakes in its collective boots over the ability of ordinary netizens to expose their wrongdoing and take them down — or at least cause them serious financial pain. Nary a week goes by where we don’t see an instance of the empowered netizenry taking someone down.

Impact on the internet landscape

Let me note that I used to work for Baidu, China’s leading search engine, and that I have options or equity in other Chinese internet companies for which I have either worked or consulted.

It’s often alleged that Chinese internet companies are in some sense the beneficiaries of China’s regime of internet censorship — that the fact that similar sites hosted outside of China are blocked for the vast majority of internet users confers an advantage on their Chinese counterparts. That would seem to make sense: after all, U.S.-based internet companies like Facebook, Google, Twitter, and eBay have vanquished local competitors or rival U.S.-based services in all but a handful of markets around the world. In the case of China, however, one can only speculate. There are strong arguments to be made on either side of this, and it would be fascinating to actually see it play out, were regulatory variables (most notably censorship) to vanish.

Kuora: Censorship of American tech companies in China, and the question of reciprocity

It’s fair to point out that when these services weren’t blocked in China, most of them were still distant also-rans behind their Chinese counterparts: YouTube badly lagged Youku and Tudou in the months before March 2008, Facebook was far behind (what was then) Xiaonei and Kaixin001 in the months before July 2009, and Twitter had a mere fraction of the user base that Fanfou had before both were made inaccessible in June (Twitter) and July (Fanfou) of 2009. And of course, Google’s market share before its semi-exit from China in the summer of 2010, and even before its declaration of willingness to leave China rather than endure censorship in January of that year, was less than 30% and by most accounts already falling.

This alone though is far from conclusive proof that were censorship and its related regulatory issues to disappear, the Chinese companies would still enjoy such a dominant position. Much would depend on the strategies adopted by, and the resources put into the China market by, the various competitors. I think we can all agree, though, that if non-Chinese companies played it smart they could all gain appreciably in market share, and that (by my lights) would be a very good thing, stimulating more innovation, as competition does.

Competition with ex-China internet players aside, the collapse of the Great Firewall would be commercially very good for Chinese internet companies. They would no longer have to shoulder the appreciable costs of censorship — hardware, software, sheer manpower, and most importantly the time and attention that senior management has to devote under current circumstances to staying in the good graces of the people with their hands on the kill switch. Especially with the consumer-facing internet companies, we need to recognize (as they very much recognize) that a censored user experience is a reduced user experience. Operators of Chinese internet sites would, I’m confident, benefit enormously commercially from being freed from the costs (both financial and in terms of UX) of censorship.

Also see:

Chinese web censorship works. Unfortunately, it’s never going away

Who will push back against Chinese internet censorship?

Kuora is a weekly column.