Scaling Authoritarian Information Control: How China Adjusts the Level of Online Censorship

AuthorRongbin Han,Li Shao
DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1177/10659129211064536
Published date01 December 2022
Date01 December 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Article
Political Research Quarterly
2022, Vol. 75(4) 13451359
© 2022 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
sagepub.com/journals-permissions
DOI: 10.1177/10659129211064536
journals.sagepub.com/home/prq
Scaling Authoritarian Information
Control: How China Adjusts the Level of
Online Censorship
Rongbin Han
1
and Li Shao
2
Abstract
Autocracies can conduct strategic censorshiponline by selectively targeting different types of content and by adjusting
the level of information control. While studies have conrmed the states selective targeting behavior in censorship, few
have empirically examined how the autocracies may adjust the control level. Using data with a 6-year span, this paper
tests whether the Chinese state scales up control over citizenry complaints in reaction to a series of socio-political
events. The results show that instead of responding to mass protests and major disasters as previous studies have
suggested, the state tends to adjust the control level because of political ceremonies, policy shifts, or leadership changes.
The ndings help rene the strategic censorship theory and offer a granular understanding of the motives and tactics of
authoritarian information control.
Keywords
authoritarian information control, strategic censorship, Internet, China
The literature on censorship in autocracies has explored
the selective targeting phenomenon extensively (e.g.,
Bamman, OConnor, and Smith 2012;Fu, Chan, and
Chau 2013;King, Pan, and Roberts 2013;Qin,
Str¨
omberg, and Wu 2017), with the focus on why the
government blocks certain types of content but not the
others. However, the level of censorship may not be
constant over a specic type of content. For example, to
celebrate the 70th Anniversary of the founding of the
Peoples Republic, Chinese authorities banned overly
entertainingTV shows for a hundred days from 1 August
2019 onward, while promoting only 86 selected main-
stream propaganda TV series.
1
Such a ban instead of
targeting a specic type of taboo topic represents a scale-
up of the level of information control, albeit for a limited
time period. How to explain such temporary scale-up of
controlon certain content during special time periods?
Building on the strategic censorship model by Peter
Lorentzen (2014), this article provides evidence on how
the Chinese state adjusts the level of control over online
information across the time. More specically, we address
the question: under what circumstances does the Chinese
government scale up the level of information control?
This article differentiates selective targeting in state
censorship, which has been heavily studied, from ad-
justments in the information control level and focuses
only on the latter. If selective targeting is about sorting out
what type of content is tolerated or censored, thus con-
cerns primarily with mapping the boundaries of expres-
sion, adjusting the level of control indicates the scenario in
which the state shrinks or expands the zone of permissible
expression. Using a metaphor of highway patrol here, we
are not studying whether trafc police catching and
punishing drivers going above the speed limit of 65 miles
per hour but when and why the trafc authorities tem-
porarily or permanently adjust the speed limit from 65 to
45 miles per hour. We operationalize adjustments in the
control level as changes in the volume of a broad category
of online expressioncitizenry complaints about local
problems (again, not specic cases of such complaints).
We then test whether a series of socio-political events
have caused uctuation in this category of expression by
1
Department of International Affairs, University of Georgia, Athens,
Georgia
2
Department of Political Science, School of Public Affairs, Zhejiang
University, Hangzhou, China
Corresponding Author:
Li Shao, Department of Political Science, School of Public Affairs,
Zhejiang University, 634 School of Public Affairs, Zhejiang U Zijingang,
Hangzhou 310068, China.
Email: shaoli@zju.edu.cn

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