When Barack Obama visited China in 2009, the American leader made it a point to publicly declare himself “a big supporter of noncensorship” and said criticism made him a better president.

“I think that the more freely information flows, the stronger the society becomes, because then citizens of countries around the world can hold their own governments accountable,” Obama said. “They can begin to think for themselves.”

Implicit in his remarks was the assumption that Chinese censors try to stamp out criticisms of the government and the Communist Party.

Well, a new study by Harvard University casts doubt on that supposition. The study, which investigated “the most extensive effort to selectively censor human expression ever implemented,” declares that the purpose of the Chinese censorship program “is not to suppress criticism of the state or the party.”

Censorship of social media in China, it turns out, is by no means a blunt instrument. Instead, it is finely tuned, with censors across the country allowing critical viewpoints of the government and of government officials.

“Posts with negative, even vitriolic, criticism of the state, its leaders, and its policies are not more likely to be censored,” the study, led by professor Gary King of Harvard’s department of government, concluded. “Negative posts do not accidentally slip through a leaky or imperfect system. The evidence indicates that the censors have no intention of stopping them.”

Even more surprisingly, the study concludes that the Chinese government is pretty evenhanded when it censors the Internet, deleting “views that are both supportive and critical of the state.”

The primary goal of censorship, it turns out, is to restrict “the spread of information that may lead to collective action,” even action that is not directed against the government or, indeed, is not overtly political. This makes sense. After all, the government’s top priority is political stability — the budget for internal security is greater than the defense budget — so every attempt would be made to nip a nascent protest in the bud.

The number of “mass incidents” in the country was estimated at 180,000 in 2010, and is unlikely to have dropped substantially since then.

However, most protests are aimed at local officials, and the central government clearly wants to keep them isolated so that protesters in different parts of the country do not link up via the Internet.

Put in this context, the government’s response to an online call last year for a Jasmine Revolution-type protest in over a dozen cities in China, which was widely seen as a gross overreaction to a nonexistent threat, becomes more understandable.

The Chinese emphasis on stability is such that even nonpolitical Internet postings may be deleted. One example is what happened in the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and the meltdown of the nuclear plant in Fukushima.

At that time, a rumor spread through Zhejiang province that salt would protect people from radiation exposure, and there was a run on salt. While the rumor had nothing to do with the Chinese government, it stepped in and deleted a vast number of Internet postings in an attempt to stop the rumors and the ensuing panic.

Allowing officials, especially local officials, to be subjected to criticism, even denunciation, on the Internet can also be positive from the Chinese government’s standpoint. For one thing, it allows victims of harsh local rule to vent their frustrations rather than letting pressure build up until there is an explosion of emotion.

Moreover, exposing the shortcomings of local officials is by no means a bad thing from Beijing’s viewpoint. It may well keep top officials better informed of the performance of those in the provinces. Allowing such postings is a good way for the government to learn about public opinion.

Not censoring postings critical of government policies, such as the one-child policy, can also help the governmentimprove policy implementation, or even consider changes, now that the policy has been in place for three decades and grave problems have emerged, including severe gender imbalance and an aging population.

The bottom line is that the Chinese government has learned to make use of the Internet to its advantage. It can tolerate criticism but any suggestion of collective action that may lead to mass protests is unacceptable.

The fall of governments in Eastern Europe two decades ago and the collapse of regimes in the Middle East more recently have taught Beijing a lesson it has taken to heart: zero tolerance policy toward any collective action, political or not.

Frank Ching is Hong Kong-based commentator and journalist. Email: Frank.ching@gmail.com Twitter: @FrankChing1

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