Market News (People’s Daily): A snapshot of China’s new moral campaign of Internet self-censorship

As the campaign for the “civilized” kicked into full gear in China, an April 24 editorial in Market News, published by the official People’s Daily, talked about the need for self-censorship for a more “civilized” Internet — a goal to be accomplished by pacts of good behavior between Internet companies in China, including Yahoo!. Clearly, this is about more than simply “indecent” material on the Web (April 14 People’s Daily coverage), but represents the systematic buying in to the censorship system on the part of Internet companies under pressure from the Chinese government. The Market News editorial is a revealing snapshot of the influence of Hu Jintao’s “Eight Honors and Eight Disgraces” campaign on Internet media in China and how the campaign is being sold to the people:

[QUOTE: “After the self-discipline pact was issued, many Websites went through a process of self-examination. In total, they shut down more than 200 undesirable discussion forums and deleted some 1.5 million harmful Web postings.”]

People say “civilized” and I weep,
I’ve wallowed enough 10 years on the Web,
My back is bent and my stomach creaks,
And today, at last, an end to my anguish.

You might say this ragged verse expresses my deepest feelings, and I believe many people will feel the same. The Internet is essentially a good thing, allowing for faster and broader communication of the information of humanity and culture. But if one spends too much time sloshing about there, the good turns to evil, the civilized turns to the uncivilized.

To this point, the idea of going online in a civilized manner (文明上网) is a question of degree, of knowing what the limits are. This is easier said than done, and the proper “degree” is not an easy thing to grasp — it is the same for the individual, for the Website, for the government watchdog. And there might also be some things that transcend national boundaries and are tough to control. These questions can’t help but leave one troubled.

The Civilized Movement Has Begun

In recent days, Qianlong.com and 14 other Beijing Websites took the lead in raising the “Web Media Self-Discipline Pact” (网络媒体自律公约) to run the Internet in a civilized manner. After this, signees to the pact quickly reached more than 40, and now perhaps all of Beijing’s major Websites are party to the agreement. The curtain has drawn back on a vigorous cultural movement for the spirit of the Web.

Speaking of the Web, of course, the question of how to distinguish clearly between the “civilized” and the “uncivilized” has to be answered first. The self-discipline pact defines 11 categories of content, with specific cases of uncivilized behavior including: broadcast of information that violates national law, impacts national security, destroys social stability, harms relations between ethnic minorities, or [transmits] any material of a religious nature; fake news, paid-for news [有偿新闻/a vague concept covering various forms of unethical news under commercialization], news that violates the rights of others, sensationalist news and false advertising; unhealthy text, images, text or multimedia messages, advertisements, or voice messages; games containing violent or pornographic content; vulgar expressions, images, sound or video; violations of personal privacy, etc. Obviously, most of these problems target Websites …

Certainly, the question of a civilized Web touches on not only how to “run” the Internet, but also on how to behave online. I first went online in 1996, so could probably be considered one of China’s first Web users. In my more than 10 years using the Internet, much of my own behavior was not sufficiently civilized. For example, playing online games too much, or sparring with others, looking at things with a touch of “sexy” to them, etc. Of course, these are old scores, and lately I’m much more civilized, even to the point on occasion of writing a wholesome critique of some form of uncivilized behavior …

There are more than 100 million Web users in China, and I won’t say there aren’t those who can remain totally insulated from uncivilized behavior, but I would venture to say they are very few. The situation of most Web users is probably like my own — they all, at one level or another, have a touch of the uncivilized about them. The reason is that uncivilized things generally speaking are powerfully stimulating and seductive. We, who are flesh and blood creatures, find such inducements tough to withstand. But after we’ve toyed with them and seen them for a while we can’t help but find them tedious.

Most of us probably have our own way of looking at Websites. People often talk about the Internet as “eyeball economics”, and Websites are certainly a product of this — if they lose the user’s attention they can’t make money and shut down. Understanding this, we should look with heightened skepticism on the civilized quality of Websites. Speaking simply, some sites (especially comprehensive portal sites and online game sites) have for years done everything they possibly can to attract users, and will not hesitate to “hit line balls” [or walk the edge of the permissible/push the envelope as far as possible]. If overnight they awaken and realize the error of their ways, how much credibility will they have? …

Who Put the Civilized on the Sidelines?

[The author praises the flood of editorials on civilized use of the Internet]

Of course there are many different understandings of what “civilized” means, but when we talk of running and using the Web in a civilized manner, we mean something very specific, which in fact is quite easy to understand. Even so, the self-discipline pact does not always express it very clearly, and in some areas is ambiguous …

More importantly, different countries and social classes have different understandings of what is meant by civilized. Mr. Lu Xun once said that in the eyes of some the bare arm of a woman was the ultimate expression of beauty, while for others beauty was more oblique and suggestive. What is true of arms is true of other questions.

The Internet is the sign of the information age. It is a symbol of human progress and development. So when we have so many uncivilized things, we must ask: How is it that we have become deluged with uncivilized things? Why can’t the civilized be more prevalent? Is it our fault, or that of the Websites? Is the arm to blame, or the eyes? Is it the fault of science and technology, or of our hearts?

After the self-discipline pact was issued, many Websites went through a process of self-examination. In total, they shut down more than 200 undesirable discussion forums and deleted some 1.5 million harmful Web postings. We all know vaguely what these “undesirables” represent, but we also have reason to suspect that they are not entirely behind us”.

[Posted by David Bandurski, April 25, 2006, 2:03pm]

Leave a Comment