By Jackson Lied
Concern over China’s censorship practices are rising again due to recent concerns over Google’s project titled Dragonfly. If completed, it would reestablish a search engine in China and most importantly, it would be programmed to conform directly with China’s will regarding censorship.
On Thursday, October 4, at the Hudson Institute, Mike Pence listed many of his, and the United States, quarrels with China. On the topic of Google’s project, he was reported by the Wall Street Journal as saying, “Google should immediately end development of the Dragonfly app that will strengthen Communist Party censorship and compromise the privacy of Chinese customers.”
This project has also been found to be decisive within Google itself. Multiple senior staff have resigned due to moral issues regarding the project, according to The Mercury News. The Mercury News and Wall Street Journal both have Google’s official response as being that the project is not near completion, and that regarding those who left, Google does not speak privately about individual employees.
However, this issue with Google’s Dragonfly app is only one issue in a complex and changing media situation in China.
Now more than ever, China’s control over its media is strong, pervasive, and pointed. Participating in a trade war with the U.S. and facing evermore foreign pressure, China has been forced to appear still powerful to its domestic audience as well to smaller countries that are, or will be, arenas for Chinese investment and manipulation in the future.
The foundation on which China builds its self-image is its president Xi Jinping. He is portrayed, unlike past leaders, as relatable and vibrant, yet also powerful and controlling. State media outlets such as China Daily ensure Xi is always the front page or top story. NPR after interviewing two of China Daily’s reporters made note that Xi and Premier Li Keqiang are always the first and second story respectively whether they had done or said anything that day or not.
It is not only the traditional media that has seen change and increased control, but also the newer source of information and entertainment, internet memes. The Chinese government through the creation of its own memes and control over internet access in general has managed to put together a system used to deliver subliminal messages in a way that attracts younger generations. Older generations of Chinese citizens mount photos of Xi on their living room walls, but the younger generation now posts pictures of Xi on an entirely different type of wall.
Chinese controlled media was not always in such high gear. NPR showed that the amount of money and the amount of media being produced increased dramatically directly following the 2008 Olympics in China. This is because China received significant foreign criticism following the games and was forced to begin reestablishing its image. This is not so different a reestablishment as that beginning to take place due to criticism coming in from the current trade war.
And though this pervasive media campaign may work on certain audiences, this does not translate well to the western world. China’s control over its media can make it seem overly impressive and economically gigantic, but to the liberal western world who values universal beliefs such as freedom, specifically freedom of speech, it has the opposite effect.
This failure then, is perhaps due to a lack of an alternative. China has spent so much time and effort tearing down these western values such as freedom and democracy, but it has not expounded on its own values. Thousands of years of Chinese political and philosophical tradition are simply being ignored by the current media structure, causing a lack of an ideological grounding in China’s messages.