China could be doing better at censorship, think tank finds

Complex overlapping bureaucracy sometimes lacks the funds and skills to do it right

China's censorship regime remains pervasive and far reaching, but the bureaucratic apparatus implementing it is unevenly developed and is not always well funded, according to a report released on Tuesday.

The report, titled Censorship Practices of the People's Republic of China," was commissioned by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) and written by the Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis at Exovera – an AI-centric provider and subsidiary of defense contractor SOS International.

The document analyzes censorship practices in the Middle Kingdom and concludes that "Despite the importance the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] places on domestic information control, its censorship apparatus is unevenly developed and plagued by unfunded mandates."

While China's Central Propaganda Department, Cyberspace Administration, Ministry of Public Security, and Ministry of Industry and Information Technology all play their roles in online and offline censorship, the report finds they "wield a number of overlapping and redundant capabilities."

At a local level, things get messier.

"In particular, administrative authorities and institutional linkages that govern local internet censorship are organized haphazardly, with many localities having redundant or overlapping areas of responsibility and poorly delineated means of interbureaucratic coordination," the document adds.

Regional governments end up relying on a collection of ad hoc information channels to monitor and guide public opinion, resulting in a fragmented and confusing approach to ensuring only the right info reaches Chinese netizens.

"The practice of imposing unfunded mandates on local governments has resulted in suboptimal censorship implementation, with many localities being criticized by their supervisory propaganda committees for their 'careless' and 'half-hearted' approaches to information control," explained USCC.

A lack of skilled staff is another problem, and as a consequence the organizations that implement censorship sometimes use part-time workers or volunteers.

The report suggests inefficiencies lead to gaps in censorship that undermine Chinese authorities' ability to control information in local jurisdictions – and can even contribute to social unrest.

Even when censorship at the local level can be accomplished, it's undermined by human error and mismanagement. Some regions have been criticized for being overly reactive and likely to exacerbate public opinion crises. One such example occurred during the 2022 COVID anti-lockdown protests.

But even though resources remain uneven – propaganda orgs can have annual budgets anywhere between 10 million and 50 million renminbi ($1.4 million to $9.5 million) and can have ten employees or 50 – they are all expected to have the same functions and achieve the same results.

The result is that in less funded and more rural areas, those responsible for censorship are, frankly, overworked.

One more efficient source of censorship is China's big ISPs and web giants, which have been told to keep their services clean and are doing so with either in-house or outsourced censorship teams.

The report also notes that China is trying to export its censorship schemes and propaganda-pushing ops. China's efforts in regulatory forums like the International Telecommunications Union aim to "upend the current model of internet governance," while Chinese publications carry the party line to the world. China also floods social media with its preferred messaging, drowning out dissent.

The US should counter China's tactics, the report suggests, by attempting to have views other than Beijing's reach Chinese netizens. Satellite broadband is an obvious means to do so – and even if that medium is censored the US will benefit from having made Beijing fight on another front.

Another suggestion is to develop tools that detect and defend against botnet attacks and other attempts to spread propaganda. The think tanks also want the US Department of Commerce to "conduct a study examining common tactics used by China to coerce overseas companies into adhering to CCP messaging."

Sanctions on tech that would allow Beijing to use AI in its censorship efforts are also encouraged. ®

– With Simon Sharwood

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