China's Internet censors are capricious and impossible to predict — but this isn't because China's censors are incompetent, rather, they're tapping into one of the most powerful forms of conditioning, the uncertainty born of intermittent reinforcement.
Some examples of China's odd rule-changes: a viral video by comedian Papi Jiang has been expunged because it used the terms "wocao" ("fuck") and "xiaobiaozi" ("little whore"), though thousands of other videos that prominently feature the terms were left untouched. Apple's ebook and video platforms were also suddenly taken offline.
As C Custer writes at Tech in Asia, this caprice is by design: by not specifying a set of hard and fast rules, but rather the constant risk of being taken down for crossing some invisible line, China's censors inspire risk-aversion in people who rely on the net to be heard or earn their livings. It's what Singaporeans call "out of bounds," the unspecified realm of things you musn't, shouldn't or won't want to enter.
Imagine being near a steep cliff. During the day, when you can see clearly, you might walk right up to the edge to take in the view. But at night or during a thick fog, you're probably going to steer well clear of the cliff's edge to ensure that you don't accidentally misjudge where you are and tumble to your death.
China's vaguely-defined web content rules and inconsistent censorship enforcement work the same way as the fog near a cliff: since people can't see exactly where the edge is, they're more likely to stay far away from it, just in case. There's no toeing the line, because nobody knows exactly where the line is. So instead of pushing the envelope, many people choose to censor themselves.
The cleverest thing about China's internet censorship
[C Custer/Tech In Asia]
Why The Growing Unpredictability Of China's Censorship Is A Feature, Not A Bug
(Image: Cliff side road to Curral das Freiras, Thomas Hobbs, CC-BY-SA)