Government Monitoring of Online Media and its Influence on Netizens’ Language Use in China

Government Monitoring of Online Media and its Influence on Netizens’ Language Use in China

Wengao Gong (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60960-833-0.ch011
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In the last 15 years, China has witnessed the world’s fastest growth in terms of Internet infrastructure construction and number of Internet users. In order to realize its ambition in maximizing the economic value of the Internet while minimizing its destabilizing and disruptive potential, the Chinese government has adopted a policy that encourages the technological development of the Chinese Internet. The government, however, also maintains a very tight control over the Chinese people’s online activities. In order to avoid or break through the government’s regulatory effort, netizens in China have worked out many interesting ways of expressing ideas online. Among the various linguistic strategies adopted by Chinese netizens, five are particularly prominent and arguably more effective. They are using homophony, dismantling Chinese characters, using sarcasm, extending the semantic sense of words, and using English or Pinyin initials. This chapter examines how government monitoring of online media in China is employed to restrict people’s freedom of expression and how Chinese netizens are using certain features inherent in their language and culture to exercise their right of free expression in such a context.
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The Internet, Freedom Of Expression, And Monitoring

When the Internet was first invented, its primary function was to facilitate information sharing free from the constraints of time and geographic location. Many people believe that “cyberspace has no territorially based boundaries” (Johnson & Post, 1997, p. 6). This seemingly borderless nature of the cyberspace created by the Internet and the World Wide Web has fired many people’s imaginations about what changes this new technology would bring. Terms like “free access of information,” “freedom of speech,” and “democratization of information” soon became buzzwords in news media and academic writings alike. Many scholars (e.g., Friedman, 2000) and politicians hailed the Internet as an ideal tool for promoting democracy and free access of information, especially in countries often labeled as “authoritarian” or “totalitarian” regimes. Within this context, Friedman (2000, p. 62) describes the Internet as “the pinnacle of the democratization of information” because it is totally decentralized, it is owned by no one, and it cannot be turned off.

This Web-based democratization of information, according to Friedman (2000), could render repressive regimes powerless, and the trend to test this claim is often irresistible. Friedman argues that authoritarian regimes could not afford to refuse Internet technology; otherwise they would fall economically behind the nations that adopted it. Once authoritarian states embrace such technology, however, they will not be able to control information as they had previously because it is virtually impossible to control what people are doing online.

Wacker (2003) expresses similar sentiments about the power of the Internet in confronting government regulation and control. According to him,

the global nature of the Internet, the wide geographic distribution of its users, and the diverse character of its contents lead many policy-makers to believe that activity in cyberspace is beyond the regulation and control of any single state (2003, p. 58).

It is true to say that cyberspace is more difficult to regulate than real-world/physical space, but does it follow that the online environment is really a borderless and anarchic space as preached by some scholars? Should the Internet be regulated? A review of literature shows that there is no consensus as to the answers to these questions, especially when it comes to the issue of Internet regulation.

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