Corruption in China. Guilty Until Proven Innocent?
A number of Chinese citizens have put together open access anti-corruption websites after the reformist-minded Beijing News ran a story on India's “I Paid a Bribe” website. The Chinese websites (“I Took a Bribe,” “Yeah, I Took a Bribe,” and “I Bribed”) follow the example of the Indian website, allowing a platform for anonymous submission of user's anecdotes about corruption.
Reports from the China Media Project (CMP), where you can read translations of users' stories, indicate that the sites have become extremely successful over a short period of time, but also raise concerns about these sites being “harmonized” by the government. The Sina Microblogging platform for “I Took a Bribe” has already been disabled, and Baidu, China's number one search engine, no longer shows any results for searches of the website's name. The speed of the government's response seems to indicate a knee-jerk reaction. The original story from Beijing News was run only six days ago, one June 8, barely time at all to assess whether this kind of site could be a boon or a detriment to the often lukewarm efforts of the central government to fight corruption.
The central government is following a clear pattern by censoring these websites. On the one hand, the corruption of Chinese politics is all but built into its system for maintaining social control (see, for example, China Digital Times' article on the Machinery of Stability Preservation), so central and local governments both have a great deal to lose if the citizens are able to attack that corruption directly. On the other hand, the Chinese government is notoriously insecure about its public image, especially when comparisons are drawn between China's regime and other governments who are less able to control information about their misdeeds. After state-approved television ran a story highlighting corruption in India and celebrating their fight against corruption, it would be impermissible for citizens to publicly draw comparisons between the Chinese and Indian situations.
In addition to the threat of censorship the CMP also translates concerns, voiced first by an anonymous user that “sources must come through proper domestic news media, otherwise the ‘political’ risk is rather great” and suggesting that posts be required to have links to sources, and later echoed by an editorial in the Southern Metropolis Daily, an arm of the Party's newspaper in Guangzhou:
1. How can the sites avoid stepping over legal boundaries? If they become platforms through which attacks are deliberately launched against others in personal vendettas, etc, their value will be seriously diminished.
2. How can the websites maintain themselves financially? How can they avoid such influences as payment for removal of posts or accepting payments from informants, an issue that directly concerns the sites’ credibility?
3. How can the sites interact effectively with the government? At present, the sites do not have direct or implied support from the government, so whether or not they can be sustained remains a question.
While CMP places its editorial emphasis pragmatically on point three, the government's objections are absurd in full, and only seek to elucidate China's largely successful war on legitimate information. China's censorship strategy since Tienanmen, and reinforced through the Great Firewall, has been to obsessively and neurotically censor anything that might be critical of the government. Those few newspapers and “legitimate” media outlets who are not populated by Party goons are subject to constant vigilance, and operate always under the threat of “harmonization” or worse, being “asked to tea” with their local Security Bureau.
By systematically and fastidiously controlling all mainstream, legally sanctioned forms of media, the government has de-legitimized legitimate media. There is no legitimate media in China because, in order to be legitimate, media has to be free to criticize the government and pursue the truth, whether that's embarrassing to the country or not.
This is not to say that credibility isn't an issue on anonymous Chinese websites like “I Took a Bribe,” but rather to say that China's unrelenting censorship changes the rules of political discourse. In the West, we're used to people, even governments, being innocent until proven guilty. But in China, it's illegal to say that the government is guilty, no matter what kind of proof you have. Under those rules, we have to presume that the government is guilty until it can prove its innocence.
Christopher Michael Luna is a Contributing Writer for The Propagandist