This phenomenon is not limited to China, nor to censorship. Regulatory changes and discretionary law enforcement have a similar effect here: make people feel vague dread when it comes to possible conflict with the political fashions du jour.
I feel like Apple’s app store guidelines operate along similar lines, though I am not sure that the effect is entirely intentional in their case. Sometimes they will decide to vigorously enforce a rule (no guns in screenshots! no confederate flags!); sometimes blatant violations (mostly of the copyright-infringement variety) survive for a long time with no repercussions.
I am reminded of an old story about children on a playground near a busy street. They are unconsciously aware of the danger, and tend to clump together in the middle where it’s safe. Then, a fence is installed and now the kids are free to play right up to the fence without fear.
But… why would the Chinese citizens even pretend there is a line that the censors are adhering to? If the Chinese censors wanted my blog post gone and the current official set of restrictions didn’t come even close to prohibiting my post, are we supposing the censors wouldn’t take my blog post down?
Rather than being like walking in a thick fog in the dark and so staying away from the edge of a cliff, the analogy seems more like: there’s a thick fog, and no matter where you stand, a bullet may come for you at any moment.
I’m reminded of speed limits in the US. And being arrested for resisting arrest. And Ferguson.
I think that’s what it feels like when an outsider tries to assess risk based on cultural norms she hasn’t fully internalized.
As long as tragedy seems (perceived vs real danger) to befall those closer to the edge more often, the premise holds.
These two things are not mutually incompatible. A censorship regime can be incompetent and still benefit from the psychology of intermittent reinforcement.
What if censors are carefully selected for their incompetence thereby assuring an arbitrary application of the rules. How incompetent can people be then?
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