But the questions about limits on free speech in China that people ask me at public talks have convinced me that when even very well-informed Americans with no special concern with Chinese affairs consider the topic, what fills their minds is a mixture of solid pieces of information and notions that are, at best, only partly true. The subject is actually quite a bit more complicated—and more interesting—than many of them imagine.
For example, many know that Beijing uses a “Great Firewall” to try to keep the web free of things it dislikes. What fewer appreciate is how much energy the Chinese government puts into trying to flood the Internet with things it likes. People can earn small payments, on a post-by-post basis, for adding pro-government comments to sites. Bloggers mock this piece-rate system: those benefiting from it, they say, have joined the “Fifty-Cent Party” that props up the Communist Party.
For a discussion of how academics study such issues (which itself often raises ethical issues), see also Fakebook: U.S. Researchers Create Phony Social Network to Study Chinese Censorship.