Driven by official paranoia surrounding the Tiananmen Square massacre’s 30th anniversary, continuing antigovernmental unrest in Hong Kong, and an ongoing trade war with the United States, China’s intelligence restrictions have hit excellent heights over the past year. Tens of thousands of individual users and institutional service distributors have been hit by the size of content removals, page closures, and social media account deletions. Platforms focused on apolitical subjects, including apps for entertainment, dating, and celebrity gossip, faced fresh constraints, particularly on their features of real-time communication. Data on issues such as economic news that have historically been given freer rein has been censored more routinely and indefinitely.
The risk of arrest or incarceration of Chinese people for viewing or exchanging information online has risen dramatically in recent years. In the past year alone, many new groups of people have been punished for their online activities with legal and extralegal reprisals. Numerous users on Twitter have been abused, arrested, interviewed by police, and forced to erase their previous tweets. Related reprisals were encountered by some consumers and sellers of VPNs, but on a smaller scale.
In December 2015, for the country’s second World Internet Meeting, thousands of tech founders and experts, along with a few foreign heads of state, gathered in Wuzhen, in southern China. While laying the vision for the future of the internet in China at the opening ceremony, Chinese President Xi Jinping said, “We should respect individual countries’ right to independently choose their own cyber-development path,” warning against international intervention “in the internal affairs of other countries.”
No one was shocked by what they had learned. Xi had already developed that the Chinese internet, with its content tightly controlled and managed by the Communist Party, would be a world unto itself. More and more efforts have been dedicated to monitoring content online in recent years by the Chinese leadership. Government policies have led to a dramatic decline in the number of posts on the Sina Weibo Chinese blogging website (similar to Twitter) and silenced many of the China’s most powerful voices in favor of change and Internet opening.
Not all has it been like this. The Internet has started to afford the Chinese people an unparalleled degree of openness and ability to connect in the years before Xi became president in 2012. Tens of millions of supporters were led by prominent bloggers, some of whom promoted bold social and political changes. Virtual private networks (VPNs) have been used by Chinese people to access blocked websites. By interactive petitions and coordinating physical demonstrations, residents banded together online to keep officials responsible for their actions.
In 2010, a poll of 300 Chinese officials showed that 70% were concerned about whether errors or information about their private lives could be leaked online. Of the nearly 6,000 Chinese people also surveyed, 88 percent assumed that experiencing this tension was beneficial for officials.
Impact on User Communication:
Self-censorship has become more widespread in reaction to the escalation of real-world reprisals and legal sanctions for online commentary. A especially strong deterrent is the possibility of losing one’s personal WeChat account, as the multifaceted program, used for anything from banking to ordering food, is now considered central to China’s daily life.
The online mobilization room has also narrowed. In the online domain, the consequences of the multi-year crackdown by the Chinese government on civil society and non-governmental organizations are evident, as previously vocal activists have gone quiet after arrests or closure of their social media pages.
During the year, many channels that already offered alternate methods of contact on regularly censored subjects, such as video uploading, live streaming, and blockchain apps, encountered new limitations, suggesting that the authorities were determined to overcome framework holes. For example, to implement real-name registration and censor their content, blockchain systems were required, and artificial intelligence was applied to screen images for prohibited materials.
The damage to its reputation suffered by the Chinese leadership is more difficult to quantify. To parody China’s censorship scheme, web users criticizing the Great Firewall have used puns. Playing off the fact that in Chinese (qiangguo) the phrases “strong nation” and “wall nation” share a phonetic pronunciation, some started to use the term “wall nation” to refer to China. It has also been widely ridiculed by those accountable for trying to regulate content.
Foreigners visiting China do not presume to be spared from the ever expanding system of surveillance and censorship by the government. Latest Freedom House study on police use of sophisticated databases to monitor “key people” around China showed that one of the targeted groups is foreigners. For “spreading rumors” about the Tiananmen Square massacre, at least one international journalist reporting from China said he was blocked from his WeChat account. Before service could be returned, he had to confess to the crime and have a face scan. International tourists to the country may also be adversely impacted by current limitations on VPNs and the introduction of the facial scan provision for SIM card registration.
Meanwhile, the growing repression of economic news, U.S. government restrictions on Chinese technology companies related to human rights violations in Xinjiang, and the prominent role of social media platforms like Tencent in helping to track and penalize users for engaging in legitimate political, religious, or simply satirical content, must be grappled with by foreign
businesses and investors. In China, international businesses such as Apple, Microsoft, and LinkedIn have already complied with government censorship, and they may even be required to play a role in user arrests. The Chinese government and related private corporations are impacting internet freedom in other countries around the world even though it raises internet restrictions at home.
For the international community, Beijing’s cyber-policy is a symbol of the threat posed to the western world order by a more dominant China, which prioritizes ideals such as freedom of expression. It also illustrates the contradiction implicit in China’s attempts to promote itself as a leader of globalization, while at the same time promoting an internet sovereignty paradigm and closing its cyber-world to overseas intelligence and investment.