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OpinionColumnistsPeter Goldmark

Goldmark: Internet challenges China's muzzle on free speech

A police officer stands guard outside the headquarters

A police officer stands guard outside the headquarters of Southern Weekly newspaper in Guangzhou, China. (Jan. 10, 2013) Photo Credit: AP

We all understand the way the Internet has changed everything in the United States, from the way goods are sold to how news is distributed and political campaigns are run.

But in China, the growth in number of users, size of e-commerce markets, and profitability of the Internet has already exceeded, or will shortly surpass, what has happened here. Some 564 million of the nation's 1.3 billion people were accessing the Internet in 2012, up 10 percent in a year. And the changes that behavior will bring to China are even more profound than what we've seen in the United States.

Weibo, a cross between Twitter and Facebook, claims twice as many messages per day as Twitter. Want to see what young Chinese are saying to one another? Google and hit the translation link. E-commerce site Taobao, which sells a wide range of goods, reports sales of about U.S. $15 billion per month -- more than twice the combined revenue of Amazon and eBay. Even in the land of cooked books and phony numbers, this suggests a staggering turnover.

A mistake we Westerners often make in looking at China is to connect the dots too quickly. Chinese society and government are about as impenetrable as you can get, even for the Chinese themselves. There are too few dots and they are often misleading; even experienced observers are cautious about saying they understand what's really going on.

The recent ruckus about an editorial in the Guangzhou-based print publication Southern Weekly is a case in point. Some reports say a pro-free-expression editorial was yanked by the Communist Party censor and a pro-party piece put in its place, possibly without the editor's permission. Other reports paint a picture of a long struggle between a tough, new head of propaganda for the party in Guangdong Province and a regional paper that had been acting pretty independent. There were reportedly staff demonstrations; some employees may have gone on strike or been sacked or both.

Two weeks and hundreds of pages of international commentary later, neither we nor the Chinese public knows what really went on. We do know that the party seeks to continue its control of the media and to keep free expression in the press and on the Internet down. It is now safe to say that the new paramount leader, Xi Jinping, who becomes president in March, faces the challenge of reviewing the role of the state and party in the media in general, and digital communication in particular.

We also know that beyond the huge and expanding e-commerce market and social media use, there is another Internet arena where a far more dangerous game plays out. And that is the endless cat-and-mouse game between people challenging traditional government-controlled news outlets and testing the limits of party control on one hand, and the various agencies of party and government that try to control digital expression on the other.

By email, Peter Herford, a former CBS News producer and now professor of journalism at Shantou University in China, walked me through the digital landscape in China and explained that in the complicated shadow war between the free-expressers and the censors, electronic algorithms were the key. As hundreds of millions of Chinese explore the world and reach out to foreign sites, even the thousands of state employees directly monitoring Web users cannot keep up. Millions of messages are sent each day on Weibo and other social media sites, and it can take minutes for an electronic algorithm to conclude something is suspicious -- but it takes only a second for the free-expresser to anonymously or pseudonymously post a message and disappear.

In the United States last year, there were more views of "Gangnam Style" than of any other video. For Americans on the Internet, entertainment is king. In China, a subtler drama with higher stakes is unfolding that may bear powerfully on that nation's future.

Peter Goldmark, a former budget director of New York State and former publisher of the International Herald Tribune, headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund.