China reacts to Egypt

by Edmund Downie:

China watchers following the protests in Egypt over the last week have made inevitable comparisons between the events in Cairo and the events of Tiananmen Square.  On the surface, at least, the similarities are clear: major protests that arose more or less spontaneously and express fiery anger against an overbearing government.  For this reason, it’s no surprise that the events of Egypt have still drawn the attention of Chinese government censors.  Their reaction forms an excellent case study for the Chinese government’s attitude towards the internet, illuminating some of the important nuances in the approach the government is taking towards the online public sphere.

Egyptian protesters (Flickr, Creative Commons)

In the Chinese media landscape, traditional media outlets like newspaper and television receive the largest share of state control.  Reports on Egypt coming from these sources reflect this level of control.  Newspapers are only able to publish dispatches from Xinhua, the official state news agency.

However, online, the rules are less clear.  Searches on the China’s best-known microblogging site Sina for Egypt or Cairo are blocked.  However, as of earlier this week, Charles Custer at China Geeks reports that major search engines like Baidu (the Chinese equivalent for Google) do not block searches for Egypt.  In addition, foreign news sites are all available, including Al-Jazeera, which has 24-hour live streaming footage from Cairo.  Custer suggests that the government is not looking to completely suppress the spread of information about the story, but, rather, to control how the story develops and make sure that it does not explode out of control.

Custer’s observations provide much-needed nuance to Western pictures of Chinese internet censorship, which depict a policy of complete intolerance.  Instead, as the Egypt incident shows, the Chinese government has more subtle and realistic goals for censorship.  Instead of searching for Egypt on Sina, for example, Chinese netizens have to turn to foreign websites (though many of these lack good Chinese-language versions) or find references through other portals like Baidu.  Certainly, this isn’t a free internet, but nor is it a completely censored one either.  You simply have to know where and how to look.

For a more thorough treatment of the topic, consider reading James Fallows’ piece in the November 2008 issue of The Atlantic: “The Connection Has Been Reset.”