It is not an understatement to say that in China, there is a “black hole” for foreign information. The 2019 Press Freedom Index ranked China 177 out of 180 jurisdictions. The situation for purveyors of foreign media has only gotten worse in 2019, as The Guardian and The Washington Post reportedly joined a long list of foreign news sites blocked behind the Great Firewall of China.
The consistent censorship of foreign media in China has all but ensured that the vast majority of Chinese citizens only access news produced by a domestic media landscape tightly monitored by government authorities. While some of the most curious brave possible punishments to access foreign information, the majority of the country’s people are content to enjoy government-sanctioned news devoid of politically sensitive and subversive elements.
That lack of exposure to uncensored information has provided the majority in China an insular view of the world, easily manipulated by government authorities for political purposes. Unsavory historical events, such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, are censored to minimize political discontentment. Current events that paint the Chinese government in a negative light, such as the ongoing Hong Kong protests, are erased from Chinese cyberspace. The lack of access to multiple viewpoints weakens the average Chinese citizen’s ability to think independently and critically, making people more prone to accept government propaganda wholesale.
Multiple analyses also cite the widespread censorship and lack of freedom of information as a major reason for China’s continued inability to innovate. As China moves from a low-cost producer of foreign-designed goods to a high-income consumption-based society, such analyses argue, it is essential for it to go from a copycat to an innovator for continued economic development. In essence, the future health of the Chinese economy depends on having the freedom to access information from around the world.
Small groups of Chinese with foreign connections are finding themselves falling afoul of Chinese authorities on flimsy evidence for crimes like corruption. Fearing for their own safety, these foreign-connected Chinese are becoming increasingly unable and unwilling to pass uncensored information into the Chinese mainland
However, at the moment, the push toward more access to foreign information is far from enough. Small groups of Chinese with foreign connections are finding themselves falling afoul of Chinese authorities on flimsy evidence for crimes like corruption. Fearing for their own safety, these foreign-connected Chinese are becoming increasingly unable and unwilling to pass uncensored information into the Chinese mainland.
However, China analysts may be overlooking one group of insiders who are best placed to help bring about more freedom of information in China. The most effective group of people defeating censorship behind the Great Firewall, ironically, is the thousands of human censors paid to take down politically problematic content on the Chinese Internet.
A January New York Times feature explained how these young men and women must first learn what the government does not find appropriate for the Chinese audience. In that process of learning, they become some of the most well-informed people in China. With their access to uncensored content, the censors have the resources at hand to act as a human conduit for foreign information to flow to the Chinese grassroots, who have hitherto been content with only receiving censored information.
Of course, it is difficult to expect the young censors to subvert the government openly by making more censorship-worthy information available on the Internet. They are, after all, evaluated on their performance as censors, and underachievement will not only harm their careers but also their very status as crime-free individuals.
But as the censors cycle through more and more uncensored materials on a daily basis, it is conceivable that they acquire greater literacy on how many Chinese people have unfortunately been deliberately kept ignorant of information they really should know about. Appealing to the sympathy of the censors toward the masses’ ignorance, then, may persuade them to slip some information covertly, even if only stored in their minds, to their family and friends. Such slipped information, then, can pass through the vast Chinese human network, bypassing the censored Internet.
For these censors to help enrich China’s access to foreign information would need a nudge from those outside the Chinese system. Those who are seeking greater freedom of information in China, while at the same time working with the Chinese government at the top levels, should contact human censors at the grassroots level, in order to push them to create collectively a condition for large-scale censorship to become unsustainable. Only by introducing more leakage into the Great Firewall can there be more freedom of information for China in the short term.