18/06/2012 12:24 BST | Updated 18/08/2012 06:12 BST

Harvard Researchers Say: 'Chinese People are Individually Free but Collectively in Chains'

When graphic photos emerged last week of a woman lying next to her bloody aborted baby, the event alone was sadly not unique in the history of China's one child policy. The scale of the online public debate that ensued was though. Nationwide chatter reached such proportions that Chinese officials subsequently apologized and three were suspended. It begged the question: why is it that some issues are taboo on China's Internet, while others that seem to reflect abysmally on government policy can circulate freely?

According to a study conducted by Gary King, Jennifer Pan, Margaret Roberts at Harvard University, published on 16 June, the answer lies in the outcome. Contrary to popular belief, scathing criticism of the regime and its leaders is tolerated if the criticism is unlikely to lead to collective action. The study, entitled "How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression," states:

...government policies sometimes look as bad, and leaders can be as embarrassed, as is often the case with elected politicians in democratic countries, but, as they seem to recognize, looking bad does not threaten their hold on power so long as they manage to eliminate discussions with collective action potential...
In short, online activity that could escalate beyond control is a big no-no, but individual criticism and comments on small scale protests are fine, since they're unlikely to disturb China's "harmonious society." In one example, a blogger describes the city government as being "without justice" and one that "trades dignity for power," amongst other negative slur. Pretty scathing, but with no hint of collective intent it remained uncensored. Another post allowed to run, which is particularly interesting given last week's abortion scandal, reads:

The [government] could promote voluntary birth control, not coercive birth control that deprives people of descendants. People have already been made to suffer for 30 years. This cannot become path dependent, prolonging an ill-devised temporary, emergency measure. . . . Without any exaggeration, the one child policy is the brutal policy that farmers hated the most. This "necessary evil" is rare in human history, attracting widespread condemnation around the world. It is not something we should be proud of.
These posts are commonplace, a conclusion drawn from wading through millions of them on 1,382 Chinese websites for six months last year. Their existence is not the result of sloppy workmanship on the part of the censors: a huge team labor 24/7 to ensure no potentially explosive material goes unnoticed and approximately 13 percent of all social media posts are censored. Instead, they reflect larger calculations by the government. Big brother is still watching, but big brother has bigger fish to fry. And these fish can even be their own fans. A post accusing dissident Ran Jianxin of corruption followed the party line. Since the dissident's death in police custody triggered protests in Lichuan, the post was removed.

Chinese netizens now even have an answer to why their seemingly innocent, non-political posts are sometimes deleted. Following the Japanese earthquake and the subsequent meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear plant, a rumour spread through Zhejiang Province that iodine salt would counteract radiation exposure. To offset a hectic dash to buy the salt, all online content was removed.

This is a fascinating exposé in a country reputed to repress freedom of speech at all times. Apparently only two topics -- pornography and criticism of the censors themselves -- are always blocked. Others are "free rein" it seems, so long as they don't pave the way to Tiananmen.