Media Censorship

“防民之口,甚於防川,川壅而潰,傷人必多,民亦如之。”  《国语·周语上》


To seal the mouth of people, it is worse than to block the outlet of a river. A river will flood when blocked, and many people died. (To block) people will do the same.  (From “the Words of the States”)

Why do authoritarian regimes censor information? What contents do they censor? When do they censor? When do citizens censor their own speech in the authoritarian context? 


The Dilemma of Criticism: Disentangling the Determinants of Media Censorship in China

Forthcoming in Journal of East Asian Studies

The recent literature claims that China censors information that has the potential to ignite collective action. This paper extends this finding by arguing that Chinese censors respond differently to political challenges as opposed to performance challenges. Political challenges call into questioning the Party’s leading role, whereas performance challenges are directed at the failures of public goods provisions. A survey experiment of about 60 media professionals finds that censors are inclined to block political challenges and to tolerate criticism of the government’s performance. However, when criticism contains both performance and political challenges, censorship is far more likely. By exploring the range of censorship activities, the results suggest that the Chinese regime’s reliance on popular support constrains its censorship decisions.

Accepted version: Shao_Dilemma of Criticism_forthcoming

Published version

Categorical Censorship: The Climate Change in Information Control in China

(coauthored with Rongbin Han)

Generally, autocrats control online expression to maintain their rule. But the more specific motives behind authoritarian information control often remain opaque. In particular, when, how, and why does an authoritarian state adjust the overall level of its control? By gauging the impact of selected socio-political events on the state’s categorical control behavior in China, this article finds that the state has adjusted the level of control in response to ritualistic events, policy shifts, leadership change, and external shocks. Such adjustments are not merely driven by the concern over stability maintenance, but affected by complicated factors such as the state’s symbolic concerns, its perception of threats and policy priorities, and the will of leaders. Moreover, adjustments in state control are often not optimized or instantaneous, but mechanical in nature.

Blurring the Lines: Rethinking Censorship Under Autocracy

(coauthored with Dimitar D. Gueorguiev and Charles Crabtree)

Self-censorship is subtle and difficult to observe, but its effects are potent and pernicious. We argue that policies encouraging self-censorship not only make it easier to stifle critical viewpoints, they also disadvantage those on the periphery of politics and power. Our guiding intuition is that actors without a connection to the regime have an informational disadvantage about what is on and off limits, which causes them to self-censor to a greater extent than those with more proximate links to the regime. We explore this hypothesis through the case of China, one of the world’s most restrictive information environments and a sanctum of self-censorship. Leveraging evidence from virtual field experiments and online surveys, we show that self-censorship practiced by censors, journalists, and even average netizens is closely related to their relative proximity to the regime. Specifically, members of the private media and politically unconnected individuals self-censor to a greater extent than their public sector and state-affiliated peers. This surprising finding helps explain how China’s rulers have been able to successfully contain and control a mushrooming information sector with only moderate use of overt censorship. It also helps explain how and why China’s state-backed media, despite a reputation for pro-regime bias, remain surprisingly competitive in the domestic market.

Latest draft: Follow this link