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IDSA COMMENT

The Delhi Incident and China’s Information vs Security Paradox

January 08, 2013

The recent incident of rape and violence against a woman in New Delhi received unprecedented media attention in China. The most simple and obvious factor behind this was that the Chinese government saw yet another opportunity to showcase to its people that democratic governments face a number of problems and therefore compared to the democratic model one Party authoritarian rule is better. This sentiment was expressed by the Beijing Youth Daily through a Weibo message, wherein it argued that “the current problem of India is fundamentally the problem of Indian democracy, which is reflected on the weak regime and the invalid social management.”1 Xinhua also carried an article titled, “India’s ‘Democracy’ Cannot Protect Women”.2 Here, it must be noted that the Chinese government has always employed the media (which is primarily state controlled) to propagate its ideas.

Soon, however, triumphalism gave way to concern and the Chinese censorship regime took over the debate when news of the widespread people’s protests began to filter into the Chinese microblogging space and social media. The Chinese government realized that there is a need to prevent the spread of information regarding the ongoing protests in India against the lack of government response. The Chinese government has always been uncomfortable with reports of people’s protests. It fears that the Chinese people will pick up a cue from these international developments and may follow the same pattern at home.

The reaction of the government was along expected lines. Whenever the Chinese government feels threatened by international developments that can disturb state-society relations within China, it undertakes systemic steps to control information. A similar pattern was followed earlier during the Jasmine Revolution of 2011 as well when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) went to the extent of blocking characters resembling the word Jasmine, almost banned the sale and purchase of the flower and cancelled the annual ‘China International Jasmine Cultural Festival’.3 Such extreme measures clearly highlight the fact that large scale popular demonstrations are something that greatly worry the CCP. In spite of the fact that the CCP has been in power for almost six decades and has been the force behind unprecedented economic reforms, it is yet not confident about its position in power.

This uncertainty and lack of confidence emerges from the fact that Chinese society faces a number of problems both at the social and political levels. The CCP’s decision to introduce economic reforms without any political reforms has given rise to a large number of issues such as corruption and pollution that the Party is not able to address. Secondly, in order to keep the people loyal, the CCP has time and again used ‘state led nationalism’. It has been comfortable with the idea of directing ‘state led nationalism’ against the other. It attempted the same thing with regard to the Delhi incident as well. However, the increasing level of discontent among the people due to increasing corruption and abuse of authority has forced the CCP to be constantly worried that this ‘nationalism’ may turn against the Party itself if the people feel that the CCP has lost its ‘mandate to rule’. Thus, censorship is one tool which the CCP employs time and again to prevent the people from gaining access to information regarding successful people’s movements elsewhere. However, this is becoming increasingly difficult at a time when new communication tools and technologies have been introduced like mobile phones and internet.

Even though the CCP invests heavily in controlling the internet, it is increasingly becoming difficult for it to do so successfully. The ‘great firewall’ of China manages to control the inflow of information on a number of issues. However, the people using the internet always tend to come up with novel ways to discuss and debate issues which the government attempts to ban. A recent example is a web article posted by a Beijing University student about his girlfriend going shopping for the 18th time (a coded attempt to discuss the 18th Party Congress), which became an instant hit.4

These developments clearly highlight a disconnect between the Party and the people. The Party is comfortable with the idea of internet only so far as it is used for economic gains. It gets super uncomfortable when the same technology is used for political debate and discussion. The list of things that the Chinese government is sensitive about is only increasing with the passage of time.5 The CCP is so concerned about stability and peace that the only way it thinks it can continue in power is by controlling what the Chinese people read and listen to.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

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