Not all censorship is created equal

I’m a fairly staunch critic of censorship in all its forms, however one thing that bothers me is when people fail to distinguish between very different kinds of censorship, and ignore certain double-standards.

The most recent culprit was this article in the Atlantic Wire by Adam Martin, which was spread across Yahoo News. The article refers to the recent sackings of Baidu employees, who were fired for accepting bribes to delete unfavorable comments on companies.

The writer says “The story is interesting because… censorship is already such a common practice in China, and Baidu is such an active part of it. But the company and the government don’t like employees to act as censors on their own.”

I’d argue that there are two entirely different things going on here. One is an issue which is particularly pertinent to China, the other is common everywhere, and the Baidu issue isn’t at all about what the government “likes.” The government didn’t care about what Baidu did on that issue at all. They probably had no idea, rather, the story is linking it to the government to make the story grab attention.

Essentially, there is political censorship (which we’ve all heard about) then there’s profit-driven censorship. Sometimes they’re similar, but in this case, they’re quite distinct.

First things first. Baidu is a foreign owned company, and the government doesn’t actually have much love for Baidu. It’s tolerated because A) it is already successful and B) it abides by the government’s draconian restrictions and C) the government doesn’t have much choice at present, though there have been quite savage attempts to hobble Baidu in the past. I’ve written before about how CCTV launched a series of scathing reports into Baidu’s advertising practices, around the same time a government-owned search engine, Jike, was launched. 

So Baidu does not = Chinese government. They do what they must to turn a buck, not unlike the Western companies operating in China.

So, back to Martin’s piece:

“Clearly, Baidu is no stranger to meddling with content. It just doesn’t want its employees doing it without the company’s oversight — and neither does the Chinese government. Three of the four fired employees were fired for removing posts people had paid to have scrubbed. A fourth was fired but spared from arrest because she hadn’t yet done anything illegal.”

“And neither does the Chinese government?” Where does this assertion come from?

“The Chinese government,” which I’m assuming refers to the Central government rather than local governments, does indeed censor, but that tends to be for political reasons.

If you want to see what the blunter forms of this look like, the China Digital Times does a great job of cataloging directives from the Ministry of Truth. The more subtle method is to simply pick senior editors who know what Beijing wants and will adhere to that. This is what’s been happening at the formerly great newspaper, the South China Morning Post.

They’d hardly get involved in a dispute this small, though (entirely hypothetically speaking) I could perhaps see a situation where local government officials with business interests tried to get things censored.

But that’s not what Martin seems to be saying, his implication is essentially that Baidu doesn’t like this bribe-induced censorship, so the government doesn’t like this censorship.

The Baidu incident was something that could just as easily happen overseas. A search engine finds out that employees were taking cash to remove certain comments. Issues relating to commercially-driven censorship happen all the time in Western countries too, drawing this to the Chinese government is a pretty long bow. Sure, Baidu censors when asked, that’s how they’ve become successful. In this case though, it’s a different issue and they’ve done the right thing by firing these employees.

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