Thursday, August 20, 2009

Rise of the $1 censors?

There's been a lot of talk on some China blogs lately about China's so-called public opinion crisis, where public opinion spirals out of the government's control. To Western readers, this is a natural part of civil society - people express their views openly. But not so in China, where Rebecca MacKinnon has dubbed the government's strategy to control public debate "cybertarianism". The Chinese government pays bloggers to weigh in on online debates in Chinese - these so-called "50-cent censors" advance the government's view of situations without declaring who is paying them to do so. I haven't yet heard of 50-cent censors operating in the comment sections of English-language websites, but I wonder if they already exist. I have met some incredible English speakers in my travels in rural China, people who asked me about George W. Bush's frequent use of certain words like "robust" to describe the economy because they spent so much time on The initial responses to the always excellent Arthur Kroeber's piece on about the Rio Tinto case made me wonder whether there weren't $1 censors (surely they get paid more for posting in English) at work. Arthur's piece actually comes out fairly positive for China, saying it's not as bad as Russia; the piece doesn't directly address the question of what crimes were at stake, as commentators immediately pointed out. I'm assuming (as perhaps Arthur does, though I haven't asked him directly) that bribery is widespread in China, among both foreigners and locals, and that the larger issue at stake is the consistent application of the rule of law. As the public debate (see Niall Ferguson's piece in Newsweek, as one example) continues to heat up about China's rise and the resulting shifts in the world order, it will be interesting to see how the online chatter develops.

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