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Giese and Mueller 2010: How to behave yourself on the net
Electronic Journal of Communication

Volume 20 Numbers 3 & 4, 2010

How to behave yourself on the net:
Ethical limits of public communication in China

K. Giese
GIGA Institute of Asian Studies

Hamburg, Germany

C. Mueller
Bremen University of Applied Sciences
Bremen, Germany

Abstract: Western discourses on the Chinese internet are often dominated by the narrow perspective of criticizing politically motivated censorship and persecution. Public discourse in China on the possibilities and limitations of individual freedom of speech in weblogs, however, show that this understanding does not necessarily fully correspond with the social and political reality as perceived by the Chinese themselves. In this article the authors explore recent Chinese discussions on regulating free speech online, which address the need to safeguard personal rights and ethical standards rather than political considerations and state censorship. Based on the media coverage of a case of defamation in a weblog, the authors conclude that Chinese public opinion as mirrored by state-sponsored online media clearly favours free speech with self-restraint based on common ethical norms and self-regulation. Although no clear understanding of these norms seems t o exist yet, both unrestrained expression and censorship are disapproved. The state is called upon for assistance in ethical education and cautious control only if self-regulation fails.

Ethics – the neglected dimension

Since access to the internet has been available to the general public in China, Western media coverage on related developments has more often than not been characterized by rather narrow perspectives. If not euphorically commenting on rapidly growing numbers of Chinese netizens,  discourse on blocking foreign media websites, censorship of political content, or the persecution of internet dissidents has clearly dominated both media and public opinion in Europe and North America (Damm, 2009; Reporters Without Borders, 2007; among many others). There is no doubt that these judgments are completely legitimate; such objections against limitations of the freedom of expression and information imposed by the Chinese government can even be regarded as necessary. Comments in Western media and by Western scholars, however, usually neglect legal restrictions or censorship by internet providers or moderators of online forums t hat exist within their own countries, legitimate or not. Uihlein (2005), for example, has thoroughly described the different roles and the various degrees of acceptance for censorship and sanctions carried out by moderators of bulletin board systems on the Chinese internet, and Arsène (2008) has argued that a one-sided perspective on the policing of content within Chinese communication forums is seldom an adequate approach:

Moderators have the power to delete messages, and they often do so. This role is often described as crude censorship by Western internet observers, who tend to forget that this function is also crucial on Western Web platforms. Indeed, the Chinese moderators’ role is quite ambiguous, as they also perform work necessary to guarantee that the space remains peaceful and allows good exchanges. (Arsène, 2008, p. 88)

Taking this quotation as a reminder that more careful observation of internet developments in China seems necessary, we will not discuss the legitimacy of media or scholarly discourses on censorship imposed upon the internet by state, commercial or individual actors in China. Instead, we attempt to shed some light on a largely neglected issue, namely the desire for some degree of control and limitation of free speech voiced by Chinese internet users themselves (Guo, 2007; Arsène, 2008, p. 87f; Fallows, 2008).

The initial idea for this analysis arose when weblogs began to develop into a mass phenomenon in China in 2003, and discourses on self-discipline and limitation of free speech appearing on the Chinese internet were brought to our attention. Contrary to the impression usually created by non-Chinese media, neither political censorship nor persecution took center stage. Such discourses were initiated instead by issues such as pornography, addiction to internet gaming and gambling, the protection of minors and so on – all well known and controversial in Europe and North America, as well.  In the Chinese case, the controversial question of limitations of free speech and media producers’ freedoms has regularly attracted the widest attention when the internet was the arena for infringements of individual personal rights and dignity (cf. Arsène, 2008, p. 86). The sexual diary of Mu Zimei, published on her personal weblog and a ttracting huge numbers of both readers and imitators, is probably the most prominent example. But her frank descriptions of sexual encounters and her open promiscuity were not the only reasons for heated public discussion both online and offline. It was also the case that her diverse and sometimes prominent sex partners, who could in many cases be identified by informed readership (though Mu Zimei herself did not reveal their names), became laughing stocks because of her unflattering descriptions of their physical shortcomings and unsatisfying sexual capacities (cf. Farrer, 2007). Although Mu Zimei’s and her many successors’ weblogs continued to attract attention and spark controversial public discourse in China, we will not discuss them further here because the issue of personal rights infringement and damage to victims’ reputations is usually intertwined with questions of sexual morality in public controversies related to these cases, but it is not specific or limited to the internet in China.

Following some brief introductory remarks on the development of the blogosphere in China and the general framework of internet regulations, the case of Chen Tangfa, less known outside of China but – although for very different reasons – similarly prominent within the Chinese public, will serve as a case study. After a Chinese blogger publicly insulted Professor Chen in 2006, a broad discussion centering on the issue of ethical boundaries and limitations to the freedom of speech on the internet began among Chinese netizens. Our efforts, however, are not aimed at analyzing this controversial discourse within the blogosphere and other more or less free and uncontrolled communication forums of the Chinese internet, since, without intimate knowledge of a particular online forum gained by long term observation and participation, it is almost impossible to differentiate between exclusively private and individual statements and those of agents of the state actively and purposefully promoting opinions regarded as desirable by the authorities. Due to these limitations, it may be more instructive and rewarding to concentrate on the official media discourse reflected by contributions to the online versions of Xinhua News Agency, Renmin Ribao and the English language China Daily, which proved to be no less controversial. Further, we do not attempt to quantify the arguments of the Chinese official discourse in order to draw generalized conclusions on binding ethical limits implicitly issued by state authorities. Our aim is rather to shed light on this controversy by providing a qualitative exploration of the arguments and counter-arguments that evolved within the Chinese official media around the question of ethically grounded restrictions of public opinion and free speech. We opted for state-sponsored online media because these government mouthpieces, which usually address political and social key issues in standardized language and stere otype formulations, have shown a considerable variation of attitudes when first monitored and hence reveal the open nature of the debate.

The comments discussed in this article were obtained by retrieving relevant contributions carried by online outlets of state-sponsored media from the search engines incorporated within the portals of Xinhua News Agency, Renmin Ribao and the English language China Daily. The search words used for this purpose were “Chen Tangfa,” “moral,” “ethics,” “internet,” and “weblog” and a combination thereof, among others. We included articles published by these media themselves as well as pieces the portals carried from other state media such as the Jiefang Ribao or the Nanfang Zhoumo. These articles were posted within different sections of the portals, stretching from the “regular” news sections and special sections (IT or Information Technology, Theory, and Culture) to sections dedicated to criticizing the media world, as well as a forum section of Xinhua News Agency’s portal. It was also not our aim to establish a representative basis for quantitative analysis and generalizations, or to artificially reconstruct what might seem as a consensus in the questions under discussion. On the contrary, our goal was to show and explore the variety of positions that were observable among opinion pieces of state-sponsored online media including the voices of scholars and professionals quoted as experts in support of specific arguments and opinions. Focusing on exploring varying attitudes and positions rather than counting them, we chose exemplary statements that document specific strands of the discussion and tried to avoid redundancy. Of course we cannot completely rule out the possibility of a published debate under the guidance of the Party, but even in this unlikely case, the rather broad scope of reflected opinions is instructive in its own right.

Blogs – a new mass phenomenon of the Chinese internet

A weblog, or “blog” in short form, is a personal webpage, which consists of a series of entries arranged in reverse chronological order, updated frequently by adding new textual or audio-visual contributions. As a form of Web 2.0 online communication, it is both public and intimate/private in nature, providing bloggers with a space for self-expression and allowing them to determine the topic and general character of the blog such as in a diary, but at the same time also facilitating public two-way communication by making their contributions available to all internet users and facilitating interaction with the readership through the built in function of commenting. Since the technology was introduced in China the number of bloggers on the Chinese internet has increased rapidly, reaching an estimated 20 million by 2007 (“China eases off,” 2007). This development alone reflects the huge popularity and significance of thi s new interactive medium.

The first Chinese blogging service provider offered this new service in 2002. At that time, the technology and its potential was literally unknown in China with only a small number of advanced early adopters publishing their own blogs. New entrepreneurs of blogging services evolved from this group of early bloggers during the course of 2003 copying the business model of the pioneering company. By the end of 2003, blogs suddenly received widespread attention by the general public thanks to Mu Zimei and her sexual diary published as a weblog. Since that time, the term blog has left the small community of bloggers and become introduced in the everyday vocabulary of the general public in China (Xiao, 2004).

By August 2006 the number of blogs reached 33.7 million, a 30-fold growth rate according to official Chinese figures (“Zhongguo boke,” 2006, p. 5). Accordingly, the number of bloggers, mostly young and well-educated urbanites, was reported to be 17.5 million (“Zhongguo boke,” 2006, p. 7). Chinese statistics, however, count everybody having registered a weblog as blogger (“Zhongguo boke,” 2006, p. 4), although the percentage of active bloggers, who regularly update and frequently add new contents to their blogs is much lower, comprising only 7.7 million individuals or roughly 44 per cent of those registered as bloggers by the Chinese authorities as of August 2006. Still, this is an impressive figure; adding an estimated 75.6 million regular readers, this constitutes one of the largest blogospheres worldwide. Other sources have estimated the nu mber of bloggers in China at 20.8 million by the end of 2006 (Tong, 2007). If these figures are true, more than 15 per cent of the 137 million Chinese internet users maintain their own blogs and more than half of Chinese netizens read blogs more or less regularly. The term blog also was the most frequently used keyword within the search engines of the Chinese internet in 2006 (Tong, 2007).

Based on regular surveys of internet development in China conducted by the China Internet Network Information Center, 83.5 per cent of respondents identified as bloggers stated that recording and expressing their personal emotions and moods was the key motivation for maintaining a blog. Another 60 per cent indicated that blogs would allow them to express and efficiently make known their opinions and attitudes on a wide range of topics (cf. “Zhongguo boke,” 2006, p. 21). Hence, from the producers’ perspective, blogging is regarded as a self-defined channel for promoting individual viewpoints and convictions to the widest possible audiences. The corresponding motivations of blog readers mirror this situation. Though 52.4 per cent claimed to be in search of “entertainment,” more than half the respondents declared they appreciated most that blogs offered alternative opinions and viewpoints on current phenomena and problems; further, 37 per cent and 34 per cent respectively highly valued blogs for providing either news or background information that otherwise is not available in state controlled and mainstream media (“Zhongguo boke,” 2006, p. 31). Moreover, there is ample evidence that the traditional Chinese offline media keep a close eye on the blogosphere. According to the market research company iResearch, many headlines in journals and newspapers are drawn currently from individually and independently published blog contents (Tong, 2007). Hence, within only a few years, blogs have become a significant social phenomenon reaching much larger online and offline audiences than those actually reading blogs directly, and thus have the potential to influence more of the Chinese public than just internet users.

Internet and blogs: Political control versus commercial interests

In light of the social relevance the internet in general and blogs in particular have gained in China, it is not surprising that the latter have also become a target of state control and the subject of discourses within the Chinese society debating limits to freedom of speech. Like other forms of communication, blogs on the Chinese internet exist within a paradoxical framework of conflicting interests: On the one hand there are commercial actors, namely service and content providers who are interested in attracting the largest possible audiences often through continuously stretching the limits of the possible. On the other hand, there is the longstanding state tradition of monitoring, controlling and censoring the media in order to maintain the existing balance of power and the dominant position of the Party in interpreting the social and political reality of the PRC. Limitations on free speech and media imposed by the state Party are primarily targeted at controlling a nd steering political communication and public discourse. At the same time, however, state policies are also fundamentally influencing the ethical and moral demarcations of what is regarded as acceptable social practice within public communication.

In the PRC, government regulations on freedom of speech also constitute the limiting ethical framework for free speech on the internet. Article 35 of the Chinese constitution stipulates, among others, the general freedom of speech and the press (“Constitution,” 2007). Article 51, however, defines the limits in which this freedom may lawfully be exercised: in exercising their freedom and rights Chinese citizens must not infringe upon the interests of the state, of society and of the collective, or upon the lawful freedoms and rights of other citizens (“Constitution,” 2007). Hence, freedom of speech is generally granted under the condition that it does not conflict with the interests of other groups or individuals. More significant in terms of the ethical boundaries of communication are the internet regulations of 2000, which explicitly outlaw certain kinds of content, such as informati on that may insult or slander third persons, pornography, violence, or behavior like spreading rumors (Giese, 2001, p. 136). These regulations, on the one hand, target individual producers of this kind of content globally defined here as information, who on this basis can be held directly responsible for their communication products. On the other hand, internet service and network providers also can be sanctioned as even the act of disseminating incriminated content is outlawed by these regulations. It probably can be assumed that threatening commercial providers with monetary sanctions, revoking of business licenses, as well as imprisonment offers a strong incentive for censorship. Reports of individual cases of this kind of state sanctioning that are widely covered by state media can probably also be interpreted as additional incentive for compliance by service providers (Hachigian, 2003, p. 59). The very vagueness of definitions regarding unlawful content, information or behavior adds to the precarious position of those in charge and thus their willingness to pro-actively censor communication. As a result of the paradoxical position of internet providers torn between the competing interests of business logic and state demand for control (Wacker, 2003, p. 69), the Chinese internet has become a space in which any communication deemed political is subject to rather strict censorship, while all other apparently non-political contexts – including all the issues framed as social questions by internet users (cf. Arsène, 2008, p. 85) – allow for much less limited freedom of expression. In this “nonpolitical” realm, sensationalist reports, questionable information often trespassing the thin line bordering rumor and slander, and even obscenities are freely distributed with hardly any consequences (cf. “Filtering by domestic,” 2005).

In these less politically sensitive areas, providers usually react only to content in distinctly bad taste and that threatens their commercial interests by having left the common ground of what is acceptable to the silent majority. More often than not, it is the wave of criticism by netizens themselves following such abuses of the freedom of expression that stimulates providers to call upon users of public or semi-public online communication forums for self-discipline and restraint. Hence, in these cases, it is not political interests of the state that dominate behind the scene, but rather the stretching of the limits in individual cases of what can be assumed to be still acceptable by the broad majority of customers. As early as 2002, the Internet Society of China (“Public Pledge,” 2002) publicly committed itself to self-regulation. In a public statement, the service providers, among others, committed themselves to encourage i nternet users to adjust their online practices to conform to general ethical principles. In 2003 when the number of blogs skyrocketed and Mu Zimei’s weblog became as popular as it was scandalous, the Chinese blog service provider took the initiative and published a first Moral Codex for Blogs (boke daode guifan) calling upon bloggers to be honest, avoid harming others, and behave responsibly (Fang, 2003). The so-called Blog Pact (boke gongyue), which was signed by 20 providers in the spring of 2006, also called for more self-discipline of both providers and users (“Do bloggers need,” 2006). Chinese bloggers were asked to practice a higher degree of self-discipline and to adhere to just moral standards and ethical principles (Huang, 2006). Later renamed the Pact of Self-Discipline and Civilized Use of the Internet (wenming shangwang zilü go ngyue), this agreement demands that providers and users of blog services actively acknowledge and strive for common goals such as

  • promoting a healthy and civilized internet
  • diversity of opinion
  • self-reliant creativity and fight against plagiarism and counterfeiting
  • mutual respect, prevention of slander, and fighting the spreading of rumors  (“Zhongguo hulianwang,” 2007).

More recently yet another pact titled Blog Service Pact for Self-Discipline (boke fuwu zilü gongyue) that aims to establish a common awareness of morality (“Boke fuwu,” 2007) was published by the Internet Society of China. This reflects the fact that public controversies over ethical boundaries of internet communication beyond political issues possess their own inherent logic and follow their own rules that differ from discourses on political censorship, not least because Chinese internet users themselves

… believe that the Internet is the right place for bursting out with anger, frustration, excitement, and all kinds of extreme emotions that cannot be expressed openly elsewhere. (Arsène, 2008, p. 89)

Neither the power of the state nor the exercise of this power by representatives of the state dominate this discourse, and government institutions are usually not identified as main actors in related discourses. Rather it is the blog service providers who take initiatives or react to public disputes between internet users, specific interest groups and media representatives. The Mu Zimei phenomenon stimulated widespread public debate on ethical and moral issues in China, but much less is known about a second and equally relevant case. Although fundamentally different from Mu Zimei’s sex blog, the case of Chen Tangfa in 2005/2006 initiated a similarly public discourse, which, without the vehemence of the Mu Zimei discourse, is most suitable for demonstrating the conflicting positions involved in establishing and safeguarding ethical boundaries of public communication on the internet in China.

The Chen Tangfa case

In September 2005 Professor Chen Tangfa, who teaches at the School of Journalism and Communication of Nanjing University, discovered a blog which, according to his point of view, contained insulting and slanderous statements about himself. One of his former students had written statements like the following concerning Chen’s teaching methods and teaching materials:

Today I slept until 3 p.m. Suddenly, I remembered the exam the following day in Chen Tangfa’s ‘Ethics and law for journalists’; stood up, copied notes. Then recognized that the notes are useless, too chaotic and also not complete enough, decided to use the book. Read it off the reel, but could not memorize anything, nothing of the book’s content at all. (...) Judging him by the book he wrote, he is of sorts, flying in the face of logic, not to talk about a point of view of his own. No wonder, I did not remember anything from his book. The poorest textbook, fuck! (“Xuesheng bokeli,” 2006)1

Reportedly Chen also was labeled a “villain“ (liumang),  a “bad guy“ (lanren) and a “bummer“ (weisuo ren) in this blog (“Wangshang bei ma liumang,“ 2006). Chen accidently discovered this content regarding his person while searching for citations of his articles by typing his name into a search engine; he found the relevant blog entries had already been online for more than two months (“Wangshang bei ma liumang,“ 2006). Following this discovery, Chen immediately called the blog service provider and asked the provider to delete the blog posting. The service provider, however, declined this request and explained that the provider did not have the right to delete the blog of a registered user. Further negotiations failed to produce a deletion, so Chen filed a civil lawsuit against the blog service provider. In court he demanded that the provider stop damaging his reputation and issue a public apology in an effort to re-establish it. Furthermore, he demanded 10,000 RMB be paid to him as compensation for the psychological damage caused and that the costs of litigation be borne by the opponent (Li, 2006). Although Chen suspected a certain student was responsible for the blog entries in question, he felt a certain sympathy for the emotional imbalance of this student, so instead of suing the author, he decided to hold the provider responsible for insufficient monitoring of contents. From his point of view, it was the provider’s responsibility to disseminate only lawful information, blog postings included („China Exclusive,“ 2006).

In spring 2006 Chen won the lawsuit. The defendant was obliged to publish an apology on his welcome page for ten days and to pay 1,000 RMB to Chen (Li, 2006). The court classified the terms used by the blogger to describe Chen as being of insulting nature according to the general notion and classified them “harmful content,” whose dissemination must be prevented by the internet service provider. Thus, the provider was found guilty of insufficiently fulfilling its lawful duty (Li, 2006). According to the court, blogs are a novel means of communication, which enables the user to exercise freedom to decide which content shall be published. However, this freedom is subjected to certain limitations. The lawful duties of the user on the internet can in no way be regarded as different from duties in real life (Li, 2006). According to Chinese media, this clarifying statement by the court wa s most satisfying for Chen, whose underlying motivation had been to improve discipline and order within the Chinese blogosphere. Chen emphasized that the blogosphere provided a space for free expression, limited, however, by the rights of third persons that must be respected. Personal dignity had priority over the right of free speech („China Exclusive,“ 2006).

Reactions: Self-discipline or external surveillance

The Chen case received extensive coverage by state-owned online newspapers, in which commentators took the ethical perspective rather than emphasizing other relevant judicial issues such as the question of responsibility. While taking the Chen case as a point of departure and addressing the blogosphere as a specific medium, these discourses on ethical issues were directed at the Chinese internet in general. As a netizen named Wang Yan on the forum of Xinhua News Agency puts it, following the rapid expansion of the internet and its penetration into more people’s lives, specific negative side-effects of this new medium have become evident. It was charged that useless and harmful information, factually false, vulgar, and pornographic contents accounted for more than 50 per cent of the information available on the net. Further, taking countermeasures was regarded as very difficult, since the majority of the people, internet users and non-users alike, did not know eithe r how to react adequately or were simply not taking any interest in addressing issues of morality and ethics related to the internet (Wang, 2006). Young people and students in particular were said to be confronted with an ethical crisis of an unprecedented degree. According to Yang Xia, Professor of Public Administration at Yunnan University, cited in an article posted in the IT section of online Renmin Ribao (Gan, 2006), this crisis became visible through the following phenomena: Disregard for linguistic standards and sloppy use of language within internet communication, omnipresence of pornography on the internet, the flooding of the World Wide Web with violence, and so on. At the same time, traditional social concepts of morality were challenged because widely shared values and the binding force of social determination lost ground vis-à-vis solely subjective egocentric beliefs. Youth was said to follow their own inter ests, to take decisions only with regard to their own individual convictions, while both challenging moral authorities and rejecting the universality of moral values. Moral relativism (daode xiangdui zhuyi) was spreading, transforming supposedly social human beings into egoists (Gan, 2006). 

Generally speaking, the ethical issues of the Chen case as discussed in online media outlets were not confined to individual slander. Rather the focus broadened to encompass harmful use of internet technology in more general terms. Blog statements that were the starting points for this debate were viewed as more than individual immorality in one particular case; they also were viewed as a manifestation of subtle social forces that were responsible for undermining shared moral values and ethical convictions of society as a whole. Almost all the commentators stressed the need for binding ethical boundaries, but none actually made any effort to clearly define these boundaries. At the same time that ethical principles were left in the opaqueness of an elusive social consensus, public discourse focused on how to enforce these general principles and methods for sanctioning deviant behavior. Published opinion oscillated between promoting self-regulation within the communities on the one hand, and calling for external control and enforcement on the other. The following extracts from news coverage and opinion pieces carried by the online versions of Xinhua News Agency, Renmin Ribao and the English language China Daily, which directly or indirectly referred to the case of Chen Tangfa, provide ample evidence of this phenomenon.

Since the sample for this qualitative exploration was restricted to online outlets of state media, we had initially expected a strong bias for external control and sanctioning of non-compliance. However, the opposite opinion — favoring reliance on self-regulatory capacities and refraining from infringements by external actors — was also represented within the state media. Advocates of this laissez faire approach, here exemplified by Hong Bo, editor in Chief of website as well as Professor Yang Fengchun, Deputy Director of the School of E-Government at Beijing University, both cited in articles posted in China Daily’s online version, highly value existing freedom of expression and minimal regulation and sanctioning within the Chinese blogosphere, which, under conditions of tighter censorship, would not have been able to achieve the rapid development that has been witnessed in China over the last couple of years (“Do bloggers need,” 2006). Blogging was, they argued, a phenomenon of modernity on the grassroots level of society that was only able to flourish because people eagerly made use of the sanction-free space provided to them by expressing themselves without having to fear potential consequences (Rong, 2006). Further supporters, presumably voicing their opinions as ordinary netizens, are cited in Renmin Ribao online, which posted within its media section a controversial debate on the need to administer blogs:

Blogs should not be controlled too much. The case of Chen Tangfa is rather singular. The development of blogs is still at its beginning. More surveillance could hinder further development of blogs. (“Ma ren,” 2006)

External control of any kind was described as limiting internet communication and hence rejected as a consequence. Commentators particularly opposed the idea that blog service providers should be the executing organs of state censorship. As commercial actors, they were regarded as poorly qualified to act as a regulatory body and unacceptable as a controlling and enforcement institution. These tasks were viewed as running counter to their roles as economic actors.  

A blog service provider simply provides the technological space available and really cannot be expected to take responsibility for the specific content. Moreover, blog service providers are exclusively commercial enterprises and not administrative bodies; hence it is not their duty to monitor specific contents. Chen Tangfa better had resorted to suing the student instead of the blog service provider, since it was the student who wrote the blog. (“Ma ren,” 2006)

The case of Chen was considered to be a private matter between two individuals. In this sense, individuals generally should act responsibly communicating in public and, in the case of infringement on the rights of third persons, be held responsible for their respective acts. Although such arguments seem to be linked to judicial rather than ethical issues, ethical questions took centre stage in the majority of comments calling for self-discipline and self-restriction of the bloggers themselves. Much attention is paid in this context to the embeddedness of online practices within social reality and order beyond the internet as well as the mutually transcending nature of both, exemplified by the following two citations from different articles on Xinhua News Agency’s online version.

Blogs are playing an increasingly relevant role, not only on the internet but also in real life. As a consequence, morality and order are essential for the blogosphere. (Yang, 2006)

Ethical principles that are valid for the offline world should also be fully accepted online.

Since the blogosphere is part of social life, laws and moral principles of our society today should also be accepted as binding. (“Wangluo zhen ren xiu,“ 2006)

Because the blogosphere is merely an extension or, as the following commentator, a person named Zhao Bingchen whose opinion was posted on the media world critics’ section (meijie piping) of Renmin Ribao’s online version, puts it, a mirror for social reality beyond the internet, the actors communicating in the blogosphere are at the same time also participating in continuous negotiating processes regarding public ethics and morality.

There is no exclusively virtual world. The so-called virtual world is only reflecting the real world. Blogs do not exist in the ’dead angle‘ of morality, since countless users directly influence the norms of the civilized net with their moral standards. Blogs in particular are able to mirror how civilized the net is because bloggers are consumers and producers of information at the same time. (Zhao 2006)

Thus, in terms of ethical-moral self-regulation, bloggers as both social actors and active producers of information should be expected to take more responsibility than others for transgressing ethical boundaries and misbehavior. Suggestions about how bloggers should fulfill the duty ascribed to them given these specific characteristics of the blogosphere were made in another article also posted anonymously in the above mentioned media critics’ section.

Morality is necessary in blog, because they in contrast to a private diary are characterized by their public nature as a medium. In a personal diary you are allowed to disregard morality because you are in your own world and can reflect about other people uninhibitedly. Blogs are public, which means that they are not only addressed to the author himself. As a result, you have to take responsibility for your words. This is especially true for statements about other persons. (“Boke de daodeguan,” 2006)

The need for protection of personal rights of third persons in weblogs, which are public by virtue, constitutes the core argument. Ethically correct behavior of bloggers hence is manifested by self-imposed restraint in regard to public statements concerning other persons. But in light of the fact that the relevance of an individual blog and the social position of its owner are measured by the degree of public interest as expressed by the average number of readers, a blogger might well be tempted to increase the popularity of his blog by satisfying the readers’ craving for sensationalism. Since the threshold for attracting attention tends to grow higher and higher in our world, bloggers might feel the need to use ever stronger stimuli, of which vulgar expressions and defamatory speech might be two potentially successful means.

A blog depends upon its click rate. But, one should by no means sell the personal secrets of other persons. With your own secrets it is up to you. (“Ma ren,” 2006)

On the one hand, the publishing of personal information of others seems to be a proven means. On the other hand, however, common ethical principles condemn this practice, since it constitutes an infringement on the privacy and personal rights of third persons.

Chen Tangfa’s student lacks moral self-discipline. Although he has behaved in an uncivilized manner merely in the virtual world, there is no fundamental difference from civilized behavior in the real world. To affront someone and expose that person’s real name is uncivilized and immoral. If you overstretch your ‘freedom’ of speech in the virtual world, the lack of moral self-discipline easily becomes visible. (Zhao 2006)

Following this argument by critic Zhao Bingchen, it seems at first glance that the case of Chen can be reduced to an ethical-moral defect of a single blogger. However, if one accepts the inherent logic of this comment, it is not the defamation of Chen Tangfa per se, but rather linking slanderous statements with the real life person Chen Tangfa by exposing his name to the internet public that is the real scandal. Not defamation of a person, but making this person identifiable constitutes the breach of ethical principles. Hence, the protection of personal rights is the primary benchmark for ethically correct behavior on the internet or the overstretching of the freedom of speech as the commentator quoted above preferred to frame it.

Self-discipline, self-restraint or self-censorship (zilü) seem to offer a solution to this set of problems. Their absence is considered the main cause for the crossing of ethical boundaries. According to this logic, increasing the self-discipline of bloggers – in the very sense of the Confucian self-cultivation (zixiu) – could be expected to yield a higher ethic in the blogosphere.

Blogs are a new technology providing everybody with an unprecedented opportunity for free expression. But leisurely blogging also has its price. Many unexpected difficulties have materialized: The dissemination of personal secrets, rumors from everywhere, obscenities and slander as common practice, getting strangled by irrelevant information etc. […] How can we facilitate a healthier development of blogs? Actually, that is pretty simple: If we do not want blogs to be regulated externally, we will have to take control ourselves. (Yang, 2006)

Advocates of individual ethical self-restraint also supported initiatives like the above-mentioned morality codex published by the major blog service provider in 2003 or the so-called Blog Pact presented to the public by 20 providers. Generally speaking, they count on the willingness and capability of individual bloggers dealing with sensitive issues such as the responsible production and dissemination of information and interaction with the public (Rong 2006). Other voices are more skeptical. They doubt the capacities of the blogosphere regarding social self-regulation based on individual self-discipline. Self-discipline and self-restraint quickly reach their limits, since „Chinese blogs have repeatedly touched the lowest level of ethics and morality“ (“Wangluo zhen ren xiu,“ 2006).

There is  a minimum level of social morality.[...] If you do not value freedom of blogging and do not adhere to social rules, external regulation can hardly be avoided (Yang, 2006).

Appeals to the ethical sensitivity of blog producers by suggesting common behavioral standards, for instance in blog pacts, are viewed as unfeasible by the critics of this kind of self-regulatory approach, for instance by critic Lu Tianming, a victim of violence in the net, cited by Huang Zhi, an author of Renmin Ribao’s online version.

Although the approach is not bad, the implementation, however, is very difficult to achieve […]. The general public does not take the pact seriously. Cursing shall be avoided in the future simply because of the mere existence of this pact? That is ridiculous […] .Many users lack self-discipline. Thus, how large can the pact’s effect be? […] The pact is just an appeal: discipline yourself. It is not able to transform into a binding standard and has no relevance for achieving morality on the net (Huang, 2006).

The lack of a clear definition of the term „adequate behavior“ called for in the pact is discussed as an example of the uselessness of self-imposed adherence to ethical boundaries in internet communication, which are subject to individual interpretation that may vary significantly between different users (Rong, 2006). Some commentators – also debating the need to administer blogs in Renmin Ribao’s online version – argued that only regulation and control by third parties (talü) were appropriate means for maintaining minimum behavioral standards: „We should rigorously regulate blogs; otherwise blogs will become a breeding ground for cheating rumors and personal attacks“ (“Ma ren,” 2006).  As prescribed by existing Chinese laws governing the dissemination of information via and elimination of harmful content from the internet, advocates of supervision and third party control like Zhao Bingchen demanded that this should primarily be the role of the blog service provider.

It falls within the responsibility of the blog service provider to supervise the blogs. In the case of Chen Tangfa the respective provider had refused to act in this capacity, but blogs cannot be the ’dead angle’ of law. It is the provider’s duty to increase supervision. (Zhao, 2006)

Moreover, specific laws and regulations as well as law enforcement by relevant state authorities are called for.

Since quite some time a culture of insulting behavior has materialized on the internet. Insults have become a popular way to express emotions. Regardless of this slander being intended or unintended, the blogosphere has become a space that produces conflicts. Behavior on the internet has to be restricted by legal and moral norms. If in our society today an internet user refuses to take responsibility for slander on the net, then he must be held responsible by the law. Regulating the further expansion of the blogosphere through legislation, obliging users to register their correct personal data, for instance, or introducing checking and licensing processes, has become top priority“ (“Ma ren,” 2006).

Such a system based on the obligatory registration of users’ individual data such as addresses and id-numbers actually had been favored by Chinese authorities for a couple of years and already exists. To set up a blog (or to actively participate in online forums of any kind) internet users are required to register personally. In the blog itself and other communication channels, however, real names are not required and using pseudonyms is the norm. The idea officially was to erect barriers against the dissemination of slander, pornography, and other so-called harmful information (“China eases off,” 2007). This procedure is widespread among providers of communication forums such as Bulletin Board Services or Internet Relay Chat on the Chinese internet, but is at the same time easy for users to circumvent (Giese, 2004, p. 26f). In the same way, relevant legislation from the early stages of internet dif fusion in China, which required every internet user to register with the local Public Security Bureau if accessing the web at home or with the operator of an internet café every time he visited such an establishment, is still in effect but has hardly ever been enforced (Giese, 2005, p. 31). All attempts to introduce and enforce such regulations have so far failed because of their general lack of acceptance within the population, the priority given to commercial interests by access providers, and the creativity of internet users to circumvent the extant systems. Neither Mu Zimei’s sex diary nor the Chen case could significantly change this general picture. One of the more recent surveys on behalf of the large Chinese internet content provider, which had been conducted after the widespread news coverage of the Chen case, shows that only about one quarter of users actually would support the systematic registration of user data (< a href="#nanfang2006">“Nanfang zhoumo,” 2006). On the contrary, after the Ministry for Information Industry in 2006 briefed the Chinese press about renewed plans implementing such a registration system for personal data of bloggers (Real Name Registration System), a heated debate emerged within the Chinese internet. Even an editorial of the China Youth Daily (Zhongguo Qingnian Bao) drastically opposed such a system and the permanent control resulting from it (Xiao, 2007). Consequently, the latest “Blog Service Pact for Self-discipline” of 2007 only “encourages” registration instead of demanding the bloggers to do so (“Boke fuwu,” 2007).

Advocates of identity control for bloggers justify their point of view by the hope that producers of slander and insults cannot hide behind their anonymity on the internet (“Do bloggers need,” 2006). Following the published debate in state media stimulated by the Chen case, however, it is interesting to note that the issue of sanctioning was untouched by commentators, not even by those who advocated external control mechanisms in contrast to self-regulatory regimes. A possible and very realistic interpretation of this absence of any discussion of possible measures of sanctioning may be the result of a general approach focusing on ethical aspects of behavior rather than on political dimensions. The topics discussed in the case presented here were considered non-political, leaving completely untouched any issue of sanctioning internet behavior out of political considerations. Ethical behavior or misbehavior, however, lies with in individual capacities. Crossing the line  of ethical limits therefore requires guidance rather than policing. Since the source of defamation in the case of Chen Tangfa was a student and students constituted the single largest group of internet users in China, a collective ethical crisis was diagnosed for this group. Their behavior as internet users therefore should be monitored, and they should receive guidance on how to retrieve guiding information from the web. Professor Yang Xia from Yunnan University commented that they should also be called to actively engage in ethical and moral control of online contents, such as deleting misinformation and disinformation. Moreover, a binding moral-ethical education system interlinking school, family and society should be established. Ethical education in class should be related to instructions on the use of the internet in order to facilitate and enhance ethically correct behavior on the internet (Gan, 200 6).

Internet ethics with Chinese characteristics

Two years after the case of Chen Tangfa had been taken to court, discourse on the larger issue continues. The ethical limits on individual and collective practices on the Chinese internet still occupy the internet industry, media and users, even more than the question of political repression, which is usually the focus of news coverage and discourses outside of China. Morally grounded self-discipline, which had played a central role in the Chen case, is now considered a prerequisite for establishing a so-called Positive Ethical Net Culture for the internet in general. Providers and users alike are asked to generally follow ethical principles when disseminating information on the internet. Some already have suggested that, for the purpose of creating a Civilized Net Culture, a Committee for Moral on the Web should be established consisting of leading representatives of IT-companies, individual IT-experts and internet users – hence a self-regulatory body formed by th e industry and the consumers. It is hoped that such a committee could be helpful in setting standards for acceptable online behavior and judging deviant behavior, which ideally would result in a general consciousness for shared moral and ethical norms. (“Zhaoli goujian,” 2007)

Although not authored by any committee of the kind proposed above, a first such attempt to create binding standards was made in mid-2007 in the publication of an article with the so-called Five Principles for Net Ethics with Chinese Characteristics on Xinhua News Agency’s online portal (“Zhaoli goujian,” 2007). The first of these principles provides that technologies shall be developed only to serve the general welfare and that any harm to individuals and society must be prevented. The second principle covers equality and common benefit by stipulating that every user and every member of the internet society shall have the same rights and duties regardless of professional, social and religious background. Closely related to the discussion of self-determined ethical practice on the internet, the third principle stipulates that every internet user is free to make decisions and take action as long as he does not negatively affect others and shows due respect for their rights and freedoms. At the same time, internet users must bear the moral responsibility for their own behavior. The fourth principle stipulates that everybody shall be duly informed about the use of personal data and that personal data shall only be made use of by third persons upon permission – particularly in reference to intellectual property. The fifth principle sets the lowest acceptable ethical-moral standard for online (“Zhaoli goujian,” 2007)

Responsible behavior and hence self-restraint is the legitimate price that must be paid for increased freedom of speech and information on the internet. However, self-discipline is regarded as intrinsically tied to laws, guidelines and external regulation. Existing laws and regulations should be actively used to set up binding standards for online behavior. External regulation should contribute to civilized behavior on the net and to the effective use of information resources. Information that is regarded as harmful to society should be eliminated, pornography being referred to most often in this context. Preventing potential damage to privacy and personal rights, however, is regarded as the highest priority and is expanded here to cover issues such as infringements on intellectual property rights, fraud and other criminal activities on the net. (“Zhaoli goujian,” 2007)

In this context, and although disliked by commentators, sanctions were never completely ruled out as last resort. On the contrary, if self-discipline is not sufficient to safeguard a healthy online environment, external control and also sanctioning should be the rule. An automated system of surveillance – like word filters in many popular bulletin board systems – should facilitate external monitoring. In this way unethical behavior could be discovered during the dissemination of information online and criticized on the spot.  On the other hand, strengthening of self-regulatory capacities by internet users themselves should be facilitated by educating society and minors in particular on moral issues. Public opinion and morality should be shaped in schools, making wide use of specific news and comments or expert discussions on current ethical problems on the internet. (“Zhaoli goujian,” 2007)

Viewing all contributions to this discussion, we found rather balanced and rational approaches. Self-regulation based on ethical principles and individual self-discipline reminiscent of Confucian principles of self-cultivation are clearly preferred over any kind of external regulating bodies, which were basically regarded as unnecessary, adequate education provided. Should this positive educational approach fail, stronger measures were necessary and also regarded as appropriate.


The discussion of ethical boundaries within state-sponsored Chinese online media, which had been initiated by the case of Chen Tangfa, has demonstrated that restricting the issue of freedom of expression on the Chinese internet to issues of censorship of political communication cannot do justice to the rapid development and accompanying social change in China and hence would neglect larger fields of social concern. Although no one would argue that any part of the Chinese internet is free of the influence of state power, it has already been shown by a number of researchers that competing interests of political and commercial actors both following their own inherent logics have resulted in a complex social reality that cannot be sufficiently described in the simplifying antagonistic terms of individual freedom versus state control. In the same way that commercial actors following their profit interests are participating in continuous negotiation with state authorities over the “terms of use” for the internet in China by introducing new services and technologies, users of these communication platforms also have their say through creatively applying and redefining technologies according to their desires and testing, probably also stretching, the limits of the possible. The limits of the possible, however, cannot only be defined by the struggle to enlarge the political maneuvering space for the individual vis-à-vis the state. And although critics might argue that in discussing the Chen Tangfa case the state media merely introduced the ethical dimension related to free speech to better manipulate the public in order to achieve a higher degree of acceptance for monitoring, censorship and state intervention, such an explanation would oversimplify the issue. Of course, we cannot completely rule out this interpretation but would contradict this view at least in part.  We are convinced that it is worthwhile to take the ethica l discourse seriously, since a number of facts seem not to fit into the picture of pure power politics: the individual and rather nonpolitical nature of the Chen case, the range of opinions within the state-sponsored media, the focus on and the absence of other aspects than infringements on personal rights, the lack of involvement by authorities supervising the internet, the reluctance to introduce and enforce real name registration systems that are not as easily circumvented as the existing ones to name only a few.

This said, we believe that the ethical perspective taken by official online media in commenting on the Chen case has, at least to a certain degree, reflected a widespread and rather new dimension of social concern regarding personal opportunities and the risks of internet usage within the PRC. From a larger perspective, the online statements by the student blogger regarding Chen Tangfa appear to be rather trivial and do not essentially differ from slanderous statements that are omnipresent on the Chinese internet as well as elsewhere in the virtual world of the World Wide Web.  Nonetheless, Chen’s decision to take the case to the courts stirred a media debate that revealed the explosiveness of a fundamental question about the internet in China and elsewhere, namely how to define the ethical limits of the freedom of speech. The discussion focused on aspects such as slander, defamation, and damage to reputations, all of which deal with legitimate protection of individual personal rights rather than political questions. Media discourse as well as judicial proceedings show that both the ethical limits and the (judicial) responsibility for the diffusion of dubious statements are not well defined but are situated in a grey area. In the Chen case, a court fully followed the plaintiff’s own perception in its judgment of the facts. However, since the objectionable statements were trivial, and similar cases are numerous on the Chinese internet, it is rather doubtful that every Chinese court would come to the same conclusions. There is, for instance, the so-called “cat case,” in which news and internet discussions about the alleged cruelty of a woman having ruthlessly killed a kitten with her high heels resulted in a public witch hunt organized by internet users and escalating into massive personal harassment both online and offline and even the loss of her job as a nurse (Arsène, 2008, p. 93 ). In this second case, nobody took any interest in protecting the personal rights of this woman, although cruelty against animals can be judged as very widespread and rather “normal” practice in China today. Quite a few of these kinds of so-called “civil campaigns” by Chinese netizens determined to dig out the identities of persons believed to deserve severe punishment for their alleged wrongdoings have gained public prominence during the last couple of years, although widespread reporting and public attention does not mean these kinds of spectacular cases actually outnumber the less spectacular ones of the Chen Tangfa kind. The civil campaigns clearly show that the Chinese public seems far from a universal concept of common personal rights possessed by all regardless of individual status or behavior: Whereas respectable Chen Tangfa was regarded as a victim and hence deserved understanding and support in safeguarding his personal rights, the sa me basic rights are denied to others, once they become targeted as wrongdoers or culprits (sometimes based on rumors and defamation rather than on sound evidence).

These contrasting cases clearly demonstrate that the ethical limits of free speech are subject to continuous social and political negotiations between large numbers of diverse social actors with conflicting views. In the face of ongoing rapid development of technological possibilities and social opportunities for expressing oneself on the Chinese internet, it is likely that Chinese society will be occupied with this negotiating process for quite some time in the foreseeable future. Chen’s case, which focused on the new phenomena of protecting individual personal rights and an individual standing up for his rights, provides a glimpse of what kind of controversies may be in store for Chinese society. Intellectual property rights of individual internet authors and plagiarism on the web are two related fields of conflict and social negotiation having already achieved much attention in China. Many Chinese internet authors are eager to cash in on their online publicatio ns in blogs, bulletin boards or other forums, but copy and paste is both widespread and also lacking a clear definition of “good practice.” Thus, heated debates and the call for regulation is not hard to predict. Given the  acceptance of active censorship based on moral grounds and ethical norms stated by Chinese users of different communication services (Uihlein, 2005; Arsène, 2008), related issues probably will occupy the majority of Chinese internet users and Chinese society in general more than political censorship and persecution. Hence, in taking a rather nonpolitical case that was not expected to attract much attention by political censors as a starting point, the article may stimulate in-depth research on questions that have so far not received attention within the research community. Since these issues are the subject of discourses beyond China, the time might be ripe for both collaborati ve and comparative research that may reveal similar issues and perhaps very different coping strategies, depending on prevailing social norms in different societies.

In light of the history of freedom of information restrictions imposed upon the internet by the Chinese state, the restraint demonstrated by Chinese authorities in Chen’s and similar cases might be surprising at first sight. Discursive space for negotiating attitudes, values, ethics, morality, etc., not directly linked to regime legitimacy, political stability and state power, is much less restricted than it might otherwise be expected, although from a theoretical perspective such discourses may well be viewed as political practices.  It is hard to imagine that the Chinese government would not be aware of the political nature and potential explosiveness of these “social issues,” which is the term regarded as appropriate by Chinese internet users themselves, since it contrasts with purely political questions that are better avoided (cf. Arsène, 2008). Having discussed the discourse within online state media, one can not help but think that the Chinese state itself has not yet found a unified approach towards some of these new social developments and thus is not currently able or willing to define binding guidelines or acceptable and enforceable ethical limits. Rather, the government seems to prefer to play a waiting game, appealing only to ethical and moral norms in general (as means of social and political control), while avoiding the need to position itself, but at the same time facilitating and closely observing this negotiation process, perhaps ready to intervene should public discourse develop in undesired directions, although even the definition of undesired may be undetermined.

In light of the general dislike among Chinese internet users for heavy-handed state interventions in the realm of freedom of expression, is Big Brother falling back? It almost seems the government has realized that the socio-economic developments it had initiated have hardly left it with any alternative to increased freedom of speech and diversity of opinions – as long as Party power is not directly challenged. Given the many examples from urban neighborhoods, rural villages, local poverty eradication and economic development projects, or voluntary health insurance within particular economic sectors and so on, one is tempted to conclude that favoring self-regulatory models within a pre-defined framework seems to be the rule rather than the exception. The online media comments presented in this exploratory study hence seem to reflect both a state policy of limited laissez-faire and a widely shared social preference for setting limits, rules and sanctions for accept able individual and collective behavior based on consensus rather than externally prescribed regulations. This preference in the given context of the Chinese internet, however, does not exclude active censorship and interventions from above should deviant behavior threaten the functioning of the social group, i.e. the community of users of specific internet services, or the internet in general.

Although there seems to be a broad consensus that binding ethical norms are crucial for the survival of any community or polity both online or offline, the state-sponsored online media abstained from any attempt to define ethical standards and limits both regarding the specific case of Chen Tangfa and more general considerations. This tempts us to conclude that rapid development of Chinese society in general and of the internet in particular has produced what had been referred to as an “ethical crisis” – a widely perceived ethical vacuum with norms and social institutions for their enforcement judged outdated and unsuitable by current internet users on the one hand, and a lack of new and accepted ethical standards and regulatory institutions for this new situation on the other hand. Not surprisingly, the Chinese government is confronted with this development exactly in the same way as the Chinese society as a whole and is not better equipped than the l atter to provide ready-made “recipes”.

At least one thing seems obvious from what has been said within discussions by state-sponsored online media about limiting public communication: Freedom of expression has become a highly valued public good and restrictions can be imposed only with utmost caution, if one is to avoid antagonizing relevant sectors of the population. Self-regulation hence is the most acceptable option for the internet, and policing and sanctioning by external actors, such as the state, is viewed as the last resort and only then an interim solution, even by representatives of state sponsored media. Nonetheless, the state is asked to play its role, not as patronizing custodian but as educator. In a situation where ethical-moral norms and limits are perceived as being in flux and hard to define, state institutions are called upon to set some parameters in order to keep society grounded. This attitude has become most obvious in the call for strengthening specialized education for youth and youn g adults, who are perceived as least consolidated in their ethical and moral development. An admittedly benevolent interpretation of the initiatives by the blog service providers aimed at so-called civilized interaction with producers and consumers of information having committed themselves to ethical principles and taking individual responsibility for their behavior seems to be nothing else but a society of politically mature citizens – a much favored ideal in the West. A less benevolent interpretation, however, may reach the conclusion that the Chinese Party state can feel quite comfortable with a general public basically accepting its role as the final moral authority to set the limits of the acceptable in almost every social field. Hence one might also conclude that an internet with Chinese characteristics fits well into the revival of pseudo-Confucian norms and governance principles that was initiated by the Chinese government not too long ago.


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1 All quotations from Chinese language sources were translated by the authors.

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