The Chinese state is full of contradictions, and its failures are many. But it appears to be succeeding now partly because of an astonishing fact: It is in many ways more flexible and adaptable to the Internet Age than the very democracies that invented the Internet. After the power of mass media very nearly felled the regime at Tiananmen Square, the regime moved rapidly to consolidate its comparative advantages in the new strategic environment.
Following Deng Xiaoping’s admonition to keep a low profile while gathering strength, the Chinese government quickly found ways to give people most of the benefits of mass media while limiting the potential threat to its dictatorship — through the very means of censorship, intelligence-gathering, and propaganda that the new media have made possible.
The Chinese government routinely shuts down websites that host content it doesn’t like, without explanation, leaving managers to wonder what the offending content may have been, and leading them to censor themselves both prospectively and retrospectively. Its cyber capabilities are second only to the United States if at all, and it is a rapacious gatherer of surveillance intelligence, both at home and abroad. And its propaganda strategy, from the “50 cent army” that gets paid pennies to flood social platforms with feel-good pablum to the sophisticated media operations of the regime itself, is to shape both news and commentary to suit itself. In all these things, Big Tech has bent over backwards to show that it can be an effective pillar of the one-party state.