China

Censored: China and its Digital Secrets

Roberts, Margaret E., Censored: Distraction and Diversion Inside China’s Great Firewall. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020.

In my online “CyberWar and Espionage” class I show a famous clip of President Bill Clinton talking about China’s efforts to censor information online (p. 76). He wished them well with that, and said that it was similar to trying to nail jello to the wall. Over the years I have noticed that this footage often infuriates students -especially international students- who view it as an example of American hubris. Of course, in the years that followed not only did China successfully create an entire digital ecosystem, it also managed to successfully control critical information. And China’s example has since been followed by a plethora of authoritarian or authoritarian-leaning states (p. 7). But what strategy did China use to achieve this seemingly impossible goal? This question is at the heart of Robert’s insightful and carefully researched book, Censored: Distraction and Diversion Inside China’s Great Firewall.

In essence, what Roberts argues is that the standard approach to censorship -which relies on fear- would no longer work in a digital era: “The costs to governments of fear-based methods of censorship are more severe in the information age, as there has been an increase in the number of producers of information in the public domain” (p. 54). Instead, she argues, China adopted “porous censorship.” This does not mean that China can delete all negative information. Instead, China’s approach has been to raise the costs of information (which she terms “friction”), by imposing what equates to a tax on time or effort (p. 2, 42). What this means is that elites are often able to invest in technology (such as Virtual Private Networks) that allow them to escape the limits of censorship, while the masses cannot (although there are risks even with VPN usage. See p. 163) Still, this approach achieves two goals. First, it creates a division between the elites and the masses (p. 6, 8). Second of all, it avoids popular anger or backlash, when people realize that information is being censored. If people don’t understand that a particular web page takes four times as long to load as a deliberate policy, they are less likely to become irritated (p. 121-122). At the same time the government can promote other information (flooding), which can distract from the negative content that they want to obscure (p. 5-6): “Friction and flooding are more porous but less observable to the public than censorship using fear, and therefore are more effective with an impatient or uninterested public” (p. 18).

What Roberts is trying to do is to explain how a government can simultaneously have a digital environment which is ubiquitous, while also limiting information that might undermine the regime. Her work achieves this goal, and explains why a regime such as China does not target absolute censorship (p. 4). Censorship doesn’t have to be perfect to achieve its goals (p. 4). By concealing censorship the government minimizes its costs, which include drawing the attention of its citizens to certain topics (p. 8).

Roberts prose is at times prolix. There are moments where she repeats ideas or elaborates on examples, when a more concise treatment would have worked as well. But the book also rewards attention. At the core of her work is a detailed look at censorship in China, which is based on pain-staking research on such topics as how the Chinese states censors information about the immolation of Tibetan monks (p. 19, 155-162). Her ability to digitally scrape information from the Chinese online environment is impressive, and her analysis of this data is rigorous (see for example pp. 122-145). While this allows us to have a deeper understanding of China’s digital world, what’s even more significant is how she develops a theoretical understanding of censorship. This allows not only to better understand the choices made by the Chinese state, but also other forms of censorship in democratic countries (p. 16-17).

Most of all, the book creates a new perspective of censorship, which breaks down simple binaries of free and unfree. Yes, there is censorship in China. But the notion of “porous censorship” allows us to understand how the Chinese state achieved the seemingly impossible, and created an effective censorship apparatus for a fully digital citizenry. Of course, this system has an authoritarian underpinning. Google was eliminated, and a uniquely Chinese digital environment created (p. 55-58). The Great Firewall blocks key websites (p. 109). But most Chinese don’t necessarily perceive that they are living in a heavily censored world (p. 25, 110, 150, 165). They can find information online. The Chinese equivalents to YouTube and Twitter work for them. And sometimes they unleash scathing criticism of government officials or policies (p. 113). But censorship is also pervasive: “For typical Internet users, the government uses the strategy of porous censorship to walk the fine line of controlling information while preventing censorship from backfiring” (p. 115). The laws regarding what citizens can post to the internet prohibit a wide array of information (p. 117). All social media in China requires that citizens sign up using their real names (119): “Previous studies have estimated that anywhere between 1 percent and 10 percent of social media posts are removed by censors on Chinese media social sites” (p. 151). There are clear limits on expression, but the government tries to conceal these restrictions as much as possible.

The velvet glove has worked effectively, even though during a crisis -such as in Wuhan during the early COVID-19 outbreak- fear still remains an important tool, particularly for “journalists, activists and key opinion leaders” (p. 116; see also 119). Roberts argues that although it is an effective strategy, porous censorship can be a destructive approach for a regime when faced with a crisis (p. 10, 14). But it’s also true that China’s regime has to date effectively overcome multiple major crises, including the February 2020 Wuhan debacle.

Two decades ago it was widely believed that the rise of the internet would undermine authoritarianism globally (p. 12). That didn’t happen. As Roberts describes, “political entities have a wide range of effective tools available to them to interfere with the Internet without citizens being aware of it or motivated enough to circumvent it” (p. 13). But she also describes the “dictator’s dilemma,” namely that censorship comes with costs, one if which is that increases the likelihood that the regime will become too distanced or out of touch with its populace (p. 22-23, 52, 111). This rich work of political science scholarship describes how China has sought to resolve this dilemma, so far with remarkable success. Of course, there are economic and political costs to this approach (p. 76). But in the end, China has created a nuanced and layered strategy to control digital information, as Roberts thoughtfully details. I think that this book would be an excellent choice in undergraduate senior seminars and graduate classes that address censorship or authoritarianism.

Shawn Smallman, 2021

Card in a Shenzhen hotel, which explains the internet restrictions to guests. Photo by Shawn Smallman

 

Did a strange lab leak cause the COVID-19 pandemic?

Photo by KOBU Agency on Unsplash

In November and December 2019 a novel corona virus began circulating in China. The world -and China’s citizens- first learned of this thanks to a group of Chinese whistle blowers , including Opthamologist Dr Li Wenliang, who would ultimately die of the virus. These whistle blowers were denounced by their administrators and some of them -such as Dr. Wenliang- received a police warning. After he died from COVID-19 on February 7, 2020 there was a wave of popular outrage, and sympathy for his pregnant widow, which caused authorities to censor Chinese social media platforms. So the Chinese state sought to conceal the COVID-19 outbreak in its early stages, much as it once did with SARS. But where did the virus come from? And what do we know about its origins?

Wet markets have often been associated with the start of earlier outbreaks of infectious diseases, such as avian influenza and SARS. This makes sense because these environments bring together a diversity of wild animals that may carry unknown pathogens. Packed into cages in poorly ventilated areas, viruses can passage across the species barrier in a way that would be difficult to achieve in the wild. When the outbreak first appeared in China, many people first looked at cases that appeared to be associated with a local wet market. But as earlier cases became known, the tie to the wet market lacked strong support in the data, although a recent study perhaps strengthens this case.

Attention turned to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which reportedly had collected novel bat viruses, including some from a cave in Yunnan. Lab leaks have caused pandemics before. For example, in 1977 an influenza pandemic swept the world. Because the virus was nearly identical to historical samples from an earlier outbreak, there have been suspicions that it began as a result of a lab leak in the Soviet Union. Gain of function experiments -in which scientists deliberately increase either the transmissibility or infectiousness of an infectious agent have been controversial for many years for this reason. Accidents have happened.

Nearly a decade ago I was attending an influenza conference in Oxford, and happened to have breakfast with three well-known figures in the field of influenza virology. One of the people at the table was an outspoken advocate for gain of function research. This person’s work had attracted international controversy on this issue. He/she was an outspoken, confident person, who was more than willing to talk about the gain of function debate, and appeared to enjoy both the attention and the controversy. I thought that this person was eloquent, informed and generous in sharing their thoughts with a complete nobody like me. I was enjoying the conversation immensely. But as the discussion went on, another person at the table -a legend in influenza virology- became increasingly glum looking as he or she picked at their eggs. I felt increasingly awkward, and noticed that my charming colleague didn’t seem to be noticing their colleagues’ withdrawal from the conversation.

Finally, the gain of function researcher turned to another person -a German colleague- and said words to the effect: “You understand how these constraints are maddening.” And this German researcher said (as best as I can recall): “Yes, but I don’t do anything nearly as dangerous as you do.” One thing that I loved when I used to lecture in Germany (actually, I loved everything about Germany) was how frank my students were in giving feedback, and this response was true to form. What I took from the debate was the extent to which gain of function research worried even those people with the best practical knowledge of laboratory work with influenza viruses. As time has passed, there has been increasingly skepticism that gain of function research will produce knowledge at all worthy of the risks. But did the Wuhan Institute of Virology in fact have novel corona virus sequences, and -if so- what kind of research was being done with these strains? …

The warning signs in Hong Kong

In 2017 I traveled to Hong Kong to do research for a paper about the pandemic risks posed by wet markets (marketplaces which sold and slaughtered live animals). I traveled to wet markets large and small, and took notes on their practices and clientele. I also interviewed public health experts and doctors about the territories system to control avian influenza in poultry.

Card in a Shenzhen hotel, which explains China’s internet restrictions to guests. Sorry for the bad lighting. Photo by Shawn Smallman

While in Hong Kong, I also traveled to Macau and Shenzhen. When I crossed into mainland China, I was struck by the extent to which information was restricted. It’s one thing to know that China has a separate digital ecosystem. It’s another to no longer be able to use Google Maps, and to know that there’s no point in even trying to use a VPN to connect with websites at home. When I arrived in Shenzhen, I found this card in my hotel. You couldn’t access your files in Google Drive, check Twitter, watch a YouTube video, or see your kids’ posts on Instagram. The Great Firewall of China is  both pervasive and efficient.

While I was in Hong Kong, I also had an opportunity to talk to someone whom I greatly respected. At one point in our discussion they asked me “Do people see what is happening here in Hong Kong? Are they following what is happening here?” I said that no, in my opinion most Americans did not. In the United States people were focused on the new presidency of Donald Trump. She/he seemed very disappointed by my answer, and asked the same question again with slightly different wording. I gave the same answer. In 2017, I don’t think most Americans -and perhaps most Europeans- were carefully following what was happening in Hong Kong. That would change over the next year and a half. …

Ethiopia, Innovation and COVID-19

In Taiwan, before entering museums (and many other public institutions, offices, etc.), one needs to enter the Real-Name System (with one’s cellphone, by scanning the QR Code), on top of getting one’s temperature taken / sanitize hands with alcohol. By leaving one’s name and contact information, if a person got infected by COVID-19 and have been to the museum, the government will know who he / she have been in contact with. Photo by Isabella Mori.

One of the realizations that has come with COVID-19 is that the old binary between developed and developing countries is deeply flawed. Some nations that are less wealthy (Vietnam, Thailand) have succeeded very well in limiting the virus’s spread (at least in June 2020), while some wealthier countries (the United States and Great Britain saw their governments fail to control the outbreak, despite not only their relative wealth, but also sophisticated health care systems.

In the United States the CDC and FDA decided not to adopt a test for COVID-19 that was recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). But their effort to create their own test was badly flawed. When that test proved not to work, it set the US testing back perhaps a month or more behind other nations at the most critical moment in the virus’s spread within the United States. In contrast, countries that adopted the WHO’s recommended test were able to test their populations at scale.

In Boston, there was a testing debacle after a number of people were infected at a Biogen conference. Even after people reported symptoms and repeatedly sought testing they were unable to be tested, because they did not meet the overly strict criteria that included travel to China, or contact with someone from China. The result was a disaster, which saw the outbreak flare so that Boston had one of the worst outbreaks in the world. Meanwhile, Vietnam carried out a very thorough testing program that has allowed to control the outbreak to this date.

One of the most interesting points for me has been the relative difference in innovation between some developing countries and the United States, which is the home of Silicon Valley. In the U.S. there is still no national contact tracing app. Instead individual states (such as North and South Dakota) have had develop their own. But at a national level, the rate of innovation has been painfully slow. In contrast, some developing countries have moved with amazing speed. One of the success stories has been Ethiopia. As Simon Marks described in an article on the Voice of America website, Ethiopian developers quickly created seven different apps to help with everything from contact tracing to supporting health care workers. What is clear is that the size of nation’s economy does not necessarily correspond to its ability to innovate and adapt. American exceptionalism aside, wealthy nations must overcome the hubris and sense of exceptionalism, which have hampered their response to the pandemic. When developed nations take an interest in the the innovations in places from Ethiopia to Thailand, their own response will improve.

A few years ago, I was in Hong Kong, Macau and Shenzhen. When I asked at a coffee shop in Hong Kong if I could pay with a credit card, the clerk said that they could do that. Would I mind waiting while they took the machine out from the cupboard? It would take just a minute to find the keys to the cupboard. At this point, I was embarrassed and ask them not to. But they wanted to help me, and insisted on hooking up the credit card machine for the foreigner. But credit cards felt antiquated in a world in people used WeChat to pay for their subway cards, get their groceries, and order deliveries. People never had touch a device to put in a PIN. When I came back, I realized how antiquated our entire payment architecture is. I think about this during the pandemic every time I go to a gas station or department store and have to first swipe a card, and then put in my PIN on a grungy pad. Of course this is the tip of the iceberg. Why do I still need to pay bills with a check in an age of Venmo and Paypal? In Australia checks have nearly disappeared as a payment form, and it has been more than a decade since most people used one. Five years ago I was talking with an Australian. She said that she was stunned when she moved to the U.S. and people still wanted checks. And why do forms in the US still ask for my department’s fax number?

In Shenzhen I saw the sophisticated drones, electronic devices, and pristine infrastructure. Afterwards when I traveled to New York and saw the state of the airport, it felt like traveling twenty years back in time. In the United States, there is a sense of exceptionalism, which equates modernity and power with being American. But from Asia to Africa there are innovations, technologies and approaches that Western nations -particularly the United States and Britain- would benefit from adopting, particularly during this pandemic. It’s not that the developed/developing binary doesn’t isn’t useful in some circumstances. But in some respects it can conceal more than it reveals.

Shawn Smallman

Fear, Fact and Fiction: COVID-19’s Origins and Spread

 

Photo by Isabella Mori, who provides this context: In traditional Taiwanese night markets, since people / food stands are in close contacts, most people / vendors wear masks now, in order to protect themselves and others.

I gave a talk yesterday for WorldOregon on COVID-19, and what we know about it’s origins and spread, as compared to conspiracy theories. What you might not know when you watch this is that I wrote a talk before asking how long it should be. So I wound up having a fifty minute talk for a twenty minute delivery. Throughout the whole talk I was trying to summarize. My bad. But I had a good time and enjoyed hearing the questions. Thanks WorldOregon! …

Maps, Charts and data for COVID-19

Local market sign in Cambridge, Massachusetts, March 17, 2020

The COVID19 pandemic is now moving quickly. While northern Italy has been overwhelmed by infections, Spain and Iran are also now experiencing a disaster. Here in the United States, there are serious outbreaks in Seattle and New York. So what are the best maps and other data visualizations to keep track of what is happening? Here are my top recommendations:

Global Level Data- 冠状病毒数据

This John Hopkins map provides a global look at COVID19’s spread, combined with charts of country cases, as well as the number of dead and recovered. I would guess that this is one of the three most popular maps for tracking the pandemic.

Outbreakinfo is an outstanding dashboard, which provides a vast amount of information in a limited space. This is one of the top three sources for tracking the pandemic.

The Worldometer Coronavirus webpage has a plethora of charts with data on the outbreak, in particular country by country data on infections, new infections, deaths and recoveries.

Health map provides another global map of the outbreak, although it is not accompanied by the data in charts that accompanies the John Hopkins’ map above. It does have, however, an “animate spread” feature that shows a visual history of the virus’s spread, which is hypnotic.

The University of Washington novel Coronavirus map is similar to the John Hopkins map, but has a less cluttered (and less detailed) collection of data in charts.

A US high school student created this useful website with COVID19 data both globally and in the United States.

The Value of World Language Study

Chinese Gardens, Montreal Botanical Garden, Canada. Photo by Smallman

Eric L. Einspruch
Principal, ELE Consulting, LLC
March 4, 2020

Introduction

I was recently asked to comment on the value of learning world languages. My perspective is informed primarily by my study of Mandarin Chinese at the Confucius Institute at Portland State University (CIPSU), where I have taken language classes, music classes, and received tutoring since 2011. I have also twice participated in a two-week summer language program at Xi’an Jiaotong Liverpool University in Suzhou, Jiangsu, China. As markers of having achieved a bit of progress, I have passed the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK) Level 4 written exam, the Hanyu Shuiping Kouyu Kaoshi Intermediate Level oral exam, and the Chinese Central Conservatory of Music  Yangqin (扬琴, Chinese Dulcimer) Level 2 exam.

The Value of World Language Study

My comments, given in Chinese and prepared with help from one of my teachers, are provided below. I begin by providing a brief self-introduction: I am an independent researcher and program evaluator, an adjunct professor at Portland State University [in the College of Urban and Public Affairs and in the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health]. I am the Chair of the CIPSU Advisory Board [Editor’s note: PSU ended its CI program in 2021], and I am a student of Chinese language and music. I then say that I want to speak to three points.

One Expat’s Life In China In The Time Of Corona Virus

University of Hong Kong sign

I am very grateful to Jim P. for this guest blog post.

One Expat’s Life In China In The Time Of Corona Virus
A PSU Alum’s observations

A few things to get out of the way up front. I moved to China after graduating from PSU in the summer of 2015, and getting my Type Z (Foreign Expert) visa which took a few months. I finally arrived here in late December of 2015. I live and work in the city of Yantai, on the northeast coast of the peninsula portion of Shandong Province. The city has a population of ~7 million, though it feels much smaller than Portland because it is spread out over a much larger area, and there are large swaths of agriculture (namely corn) between different areas of the city.

When the Corona virus was first announced, I was getting off work before the beginning of the two week long Spring Festival holiday (which is what most English people think of as “Chinese New Year”). The next day, I came down with a cold. Nothing like having a nasty cough when everyone is freaked out by a disease that’s major symptom is a cough (I didn’t have a fever, or flu-like symptoms). At first it seemed like most things were still open, and much like life as usual for the beginning of the holiday (except everyone had masks on). However, as soon as the fireworks were over, everybody went back inside, and ventured out rarely (mostly to take out trash). …

COVID19 and teaching in China

This letter written by Mi Fei. By 米芾(べい ふつ、1051年 – 1107年、中国の北宋末の文学者・書家・画家) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I am very grateful to our guest blogger, who teaches at a university in China, for this powerful guest blog post:

January 24th is the biggest holiday of the year in China: the lunar Chinese New Year. As usual, most Chinese prepared for it several weeks before the occasion: food, candies, tickets back home…Nobody expected this New Year would become a most unforgettable one even in his/her whole life. The coronavirus became a household word almost overnight and quarantine also came suddenly before people realized. Over the past almost a month, people, especially those in epidemic areas, went through hard times. On the other hand, we are moved by one story after another about the devoted doctors, nurses, volunteers and all those in the whole world that extended their hands to help.

The spring term in our university originally planned to start on February 17. At the end of January, it was clear that the starting date had to be postponed. The school administration sent some documents early in February notifying all the staff and faculty to make a plan for the month. We were asked to make better use of the online platforms and resources. As a result of the encouragement from the Ministry of Education and development of online courses, there have been thousands of moocs available on the Internet for free, which in my opinion cover nearly all disciplines. As for my course (college English), we have been utilizing the online platforms for the textbook developed by the publishing press over the past five years. Therefore, what we need is to transfer the platforms from kind of self-learning to more guided learning. At the same time, we selected some relevant moocs either as a required component of the course or as recommended resources.

Iran, COVID-19 and a pandemic

新型冠状病毒

Sign to SARS memorial in Hong Kong

Canadian health authorities have announced a positive test for SARS-2-COV in a returning traveler from Iran. Yesterday, Iranian authorities announced two deaths from COVID-19. There are eighteen confirmed cases, which are spread across the country, and include a case in Tehran. It would seem plausible based on a the death count so far, and a case fatality rate of two percent, that there are over a hundred cases circulating in Iran. It is telling that one of the Iranian cases is a doctor, which suggests transmission within the health care system. Given that a case has appeared in Canada, which likely has fewer travelers than Iran’s neighbors such as Iraq, we can expect that health authorities will announce  new cases in these nations in coming days. Unfortunately, two of Iran’s neighbors -Afghanistan and Syria- are in the midst of civil wars, and have damaged health care systems. Sadly, the cases in these countries will likely first be detected in critical cases, which will make it unlikely that these countries can control community transmission. …

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