Internet censorship in China is extreme due to a wide variety of laws and administrative regulations. More than sixty Internet regulations have been created by the government of China, which have been implemented by provincial branches of state-owned ISPs, companies, and organizations. The apparatus of China's Internet control is considered more extensive and more advanced than in any other country in the world. The governmental authorities not only block website content but also monitor the Internet access of individuals; such measures have attracted the derisive nickname "The Great Firewall of China."
Amnesty International notes that China "has the largest recorded number of imprisoned journalists and cyber-dissidents in the world" and Paris-based Reporters Without Borders stated in 2010 and 2012 that "China is the world's biggest prison for netizens." The offences of which they are accused include communicating with groups abroad, signing online petitions, and calling for reform and an end to corruption. The escalation of the government's effort to neutralize critical online opinion and organizing comes after a series of large, anti-pollution, anti-corruption protests, and ethnic riots, many of which were organized or publicized using instant messaging services, chat rooms, and text messages. The size of the Chinese Internet police force was reported by the state government to be 2 million in 2013.
Carrie Gracie wrote that local Chinese businesses such as Baidu, Tencent, and Alibaba, some of the world's largest internet enterprises, benefited from the way China has blocked international rivals from the market, encouraging domestic competition.
Since May 2015, Chinese Wikipedia has been blocked in China. This was done after Wikipedia started to use HTTPS encryption which made selective censorship impossible or more difficult.
The political and ideological background of the Internet censorship is considered to be one of Deng Xiaoping's favorite sayings in the early 1980s: "If you open a window for fresh air for longer than 10 hours, you have to expect some flies to blow in." The saying is related to a period of the economic reform of China that became known as the "socialist market economy". Superseding the political ideologies of the Cultural Revolution, the reform led China towards a market economy and opened up the market for foreign investors. Nonetheless the Communist Party of China has wished to protect its values and political ideas from "swatting flies" of other ideologies, with a particular emphasis on suppressing movements that could potentially threaten the power of the CPC and the stability of the Chinese state.
The Internet arrived in the country in 1994 as an inevitable consequence of, and supporting tool for, the "socialist market economy". Since then, and with gradual increasing availability, the Internet has become a common communication platform and an important tool for sharing information. In 1998 the Communist Party of China feared the China Democracy Party (CDP), organized in contravention of the “Four Cardinal Principles”, would breed a powerful new network that the party elites might not be able to control. The CDP was immediately banned followed by arrests and imprisonment. That same year the "Golden Shield Project" was started. The first part of the project lasted eight years and was completed in 2006. The second part began in 2006 and ended in 2008.
On 6 December 2002, 300 people in charge of the Golden Shield project from 31 provinces and cities throughout China participated in a four-day inaugural "Comprehensive Exhibition on Chinese Information System". At the exhibition, many western high-tech products including Internet security, video monitoring and human face recognition were purchased. According to Amnesty International, around 30,000–50,000 internet police are employed to enforce Chinese internet laws.
The government of China defends its right to censor the internet by claiming that the country has the right to govern the internet according to its own rules inside its borders. The white paper, released in June 2010, called the internet "a crystallization of human wisdom". But in the document the government lays out some of the reasons why its citizens cannot get access to all of that wisdom. Another section of the same white paper reaffirms the government's determination to govern the internet within its borders according to its own rules. "Within Chinese territory the internet is under the jurisdiction of Chinese sovereignty. The internet sovereignty of China should be respected and protected," it says. It adds that foreign individuals and firms can use the internet in China, but they must abide by the country's laws.
The central government of China started its Internet censorship with three regulations. The first regulation was called the Temporary Regulation for the Management of Computer Information Network International Connection. The regulation was passed in the 42nd Standing Convention of the State Council on 23 January 1996. It was formally announced on 1 February 1996, and updated again on 20 May 1997. The content of the first regulation states that Internet service providers be licensed and that Internet traffic go through ChinaNet, GBNet, CERNET or CSTNET. The second regulation was the Ordinance for Security Protection of Computer Information Systems. It was issued on 18 February 1994 by the State Council to give the responsibility of Internet security protection to the Ministry of Public Security.
The Ordinance regulation further led to the Security Management Procedures in Internet Accessing issued by the Ministry of Public Security in December 1997. The regulation defines "harmful information" and "harmful activities" regarding internet usage. Section Five of the Computer Information Network and Internet Security, Protection, and Management Regulations approved by the State Council on 11 December 1997 states the following:
No unit or individual may use the Internet to create, replicate, retrieve, or transmit the following kinds of information:
- Inciting to resist or breaking the Constitution or laws or the implementation of administrative regulations;
- Inciting to overthrow the government or the socialist system;
- Inciting division of the country, harming national unification;
- Inciting hatred or discrimination among nationalities or harming the unity of the nationalities;
- Making falsehoods or distorting the truth, spreading rumors, destroying the order of society;
- Promoting feudal superstitions, sexually suggestive material, gambling, violence, murder;
- Terrorism or inciting others to criminal activity; openly insulting other people or distorting the truth to slander people;
- Injuring the reputation of state organizations;
- Other activities against the Constitution, laws or administrative regulations.
In September 2000, State Council Order No. 292 created the first content restrictions for Internet content providers. China-based Web sites cannot link to overseas news Web sites or distribute news from overseas media without separate approval. Only "licensed print publishers" have the authority to deliver news online. Non-licensed Web sites that wish to broadcast news may only publish information already released publicly by other news media. These sites must obtain approval from state information offices and from the State Council Information Agency. Article 11 of this order mentions that "content providers are responsible for ensuring the legality of any information disseminated through their services". Article 14 gives government officials full access to any kind of sensitive information they wish from providers of internet services.
In December 1997, Public Security minister Zhu Entao released new regulations to be enforced by the ministry that inflict fines for "defaming government agencies," "splitting the nation," and leaking "state secrets." Violators could face a fine up to CNY15,000 (USD1800). Banning appears mostly uncoordinated and ad hoc, with some sites blocked, yet similar sites allowed or even blocked in one city and allowed in another. The blocks have often been lifted for special occasions. For example, The New York Times was unblocked when reporters in a private interview with CPC general secretary Jiang Zemin specifically asked about the block and he replied that he would look into the matter. During the APEC summit in Shanghai during 2001, normally blocked media sources such as CNN, NBC, and the Washington Post became accessible. Since 2001, the content controls have been further relaxed on a permanent basis, and all three of the sites previously mentioned are now accessible from mainland China. However, access to the New York Times was re-blocked in December 2008 immediately after the Times printed an exposé of the finances of the Chinese premiere, and is currently blocked.
In the middle of 2005, China purchased over 200 routers from an American company, Cisco Systems, which allowed the Chinese government a more advanced technological censoring ability. In February 2006, Google made a significant concession to the Great Firewall of China, in exchange for equipment installation on Chinese soil, by blocking websites which the Chinese government deemed illegal. They reversed this policy in 2010, after they discovered a mole had been passing information to the government and inserting back doors into their software. "Censorship" was the official excuse, but censorship played no part in their decisions prior to that incident.
The internet services were cut off in Xinjiang from July 2009 to May 2010 up to 312 days. Netizens only could visit the local websites besides a few national government websites.
In May 2011, the State Council Information Office announced transfer of its offices which regulated the Internet to a new subordinate agency, the State Internet Information Office which would be responsible for regulating the Internet in China. The relationship of the new agency to other agencies in China which regulate the Internet was unclear from the announcement.
Internet censorship in China has been called "a panopticon that encourages self-censorship through the perception that users are being watched". The enforcement (or threat of enforcement) of censorship creates a chilling effect where individuals and businesses willingly censor their own communications to avoid legal and economic repercussions. ISPs and other service providers are legally liable for customers' conduct. The service providers have assumed an editorial role with regard to customer content, thus becoming publishers and legally responsible for libel and other torts committed by customers. Some hotels in China advise Internet users to obey local Chinese Internet access rules by leaving a list of Internet rules and guidelines near the computers. These rules, among other things, forbid linking to politically unacceptable messages, and inform Internet users that if they do, they will have to face legal consequences.
On 16 March 2002, the Internet Society of China, a self-governing Chinese Internet industry body, launched the Public Pledge on Self-Discipline for the Chinese Internet Industry, an agreement between the Chinese Internet industry regulator and companies that operate sites in China. In signing the agreement, web companies pledge to identify and prevent the transmission of information that Chinese authorities deem objectionable, including information that "breaks laws or spreads superstition or obscenity", or that "may jeopardize state security and disrupt social stability". As of 2006, the pledge had been signed by more than 3,000 entities operating websites in China.
Use of service providers
Although the government does not have the physical resources to monitor all Internet chat rooms and forums, the threat of being shut down has caused Internet content providers to employ internal staff, colloquially known as "big mamas", who stop and remove forum comments which may be politically sensitive. In Shenzhen, these duties are partly taken over by a pair of police-created cartoon characters, Jingjing and Chacha, who help extend the online "police presence" of the Shenzhen authorities. These cartoons spread across the nation in 2007 reminding Internet users that they are being watched and should avoid posting "sensitive" or "harmful" material on the Internet.
However, Internet content providers have adopted some counter-strategies. One is to post politically sensitive stories and remove them only when the government complains. In the hours or days in which the story is available online, people read it, and by the time the story is taken down, the information is already public. One notable case in which this occurred was in response to a school explosion in 2001, when local officials tried to suppress the fact the explosion resulted from children illegally producing fireworks.
On 11 July 2003, the Chinese government started granting licenses to businesses to open Internet cafe chains. Business analysts and foreign Internet operators regard the licenses as intended to clamp down on information deemed harmful to the Chinese government. In July 2007, the city of Xiamen announced it would ban anonymous online postings after text messages and online communications were used to rally protests against a proposed chemical plant in the city. Internet users will be required to provide proof of identity when posting messages on the more than 100,000 Web sites registered in Xiamen. The Chinese government issued new rules on December 28, 2012 requiring Internet users to provide their real names to service providers, while assigning Internet companies greater responsibility for deleting forbidden postings and reporting them to the authorities. The new regulations, issued by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, allow Internet users to continue to adopt pseudonyms for their online postings, but only if they first provide their real names to service providers, a measure that could chill some of the vibrant discourse on the country’s Twitter-like microblogs. The authorities periodically detain and even jail Internet users for politically sensitive comments, such as calls for a multiparty democracy or accusations of impropriety by local officials.
Fines and short arrests are becoming an optional punishment to whoever spreads undesirable information through the different Internet formats, as this is seen as a risk to social stability.
In 2001, Wang Xiaoning and other Chinese activists were arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison for using a Yahoo email account to post anonymous writing to an Internet mailing list. On 23 July 2008, the family of Liu Shaokun was notified that he had been sentenced to one year re-education through labor for "inciting a disturbance". As a teacher in Sichuan province, he had taken photographs of collapsed schools and posted these photos online. On 18 July 2008, Huang Qi was formally arrested on suspicion of illegally possessing state secrets. Huang had spoken with the foreign press and posted information on his website about the plight of parents who had lost children in collapsed schools. Shi Tao, a Chinese journalist, used his Yahoo! email account to send a message to a U.S.-based pro-democracy website. In his email, he summarized a government order directing media organizations in China to downplay the upcoming 15th anniversary of the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy activists. Police arrested him in November 2004, charging him with "illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities". In April 2005, he was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment and two years' subsequent deprivation of his political rights.
In mid-2013 police across China announced the arrests of hundreds of people accused of spreading false rumors online. Chinese authorities have said the crackdown is directed at abuses such as fraud, fakery, and slander. But the accusations against many of the arrested microbloggers have a political edge with many of the rumors called outrageously false by the government dealing with the sins of officials: corruption, venality, and sexual escapades. The suspicion is that the crackdown is intended to break up online networks of like-minded people whose ideas could challenge the Communist Party. Some of China's most popular microbloggers have been arrested. In September 2013 China’s highest court and prosecution office issued guidelines that define and outline penalties for publishing online rumors and slander. The rules give some protection to citizens who accuse officials of corruption, but they say that a slanderous message forwarded more than 500 times or read more than 5,000 times could result in up to three years in prison.
Main article: Great Firewall of China
The system blocks content by preventing IP addresses from being routed through. It consists of standard firewalls and proxy servers at the Internet gateways. The system also selectively engages in DNS poisoning when particular sites are requested. The government does not appear to be systematically examining Internet content, as this seems to be technically impractical. Researchers at the University of California, Davis, and at the University of New Mexico said that the censorship system is not a true firewall since banned material is sometimes able to pass through several routers or through the entire system without being blocked. Details for some commonly used technical methods for censoring are:
|IP blocking||The access to a certain IP address is denied. If the target Web site is hosted in a shared hosting server, all Web sites on the same server will be blocked. This affects all IP protocols (mostly TCP) such as HTTP, FTP or POP. A typical circumvention method is to find proxies that have access to the target Web sites, but proxies may be jammed or blocked. Some large Web sites allocated additional IP addresses (for instance, an IPv6 address) to circumvent the block, but later the block may be extended to cover the new addresses.|
|DNS filtering and redirection||The DNS doesn't resolve domain names or returns incorrect IP addresses. This affects all IP protocols such as HTTP, FTP or POP. A typical circumvention method is to find a domain name server that resolves domain names correctly, but domain name servers are subject to blockage as well, especially IP blocking. Another workaround is to bypass DNS if the IP address is obtainable from other sources and is not blocked. Examples are modifying the Hosts file or typing the IP address instead of the domain name in a Web browser.|
|URL filtering||Scan the requested Uniform Resource Locator (URL) string for target keywords regardless of the domain name specified in the URL. This affects the Hypertext Transfer Protocol. Typical circumvention methods are to use escaped characters in the URL, or to use encrypted protocols such as VPN and SSL.|
|Packet filtering||Terminate TCP packet transmissions when a certain number of controversial keywords are detected. This can be effective with many TCP protocols such as HTTP, FTP or POP, but web search engine pages are more likely to be censored. Typical circumvention methods are to use encryption means, such as VPN and SSL, to protect the HTML content, or reducing the TCP/IPstack's MTU, thus reducing the amount of text contained in a given packet.|
|Man-in-the-middle attack||GFW can use a root certificate from CNNIC, which is found in most operating systems and browsers, to make a MITM attack. On 26 Jan 2013, the GitHub SSL certificate was replaced with a self-signed certificate in China by, generally believed, the GFW.This type of attack can be circumvented by websites implementing HSTS.|
|TCP connection reset||If a previous TCP connection is blocked by the filter, future connection attempts from both sides will also be blocked for up to 30 minutes. Depending on the location of the block, other users or Web sites may be also blocked if the communications are routed to the location of the block. A circumvention method is to ignore the reset packet sent by the firewall.|
|VPN blocking||Beginning in 2011, users reported disruptions of Virtual Private Network (VPN) services. In late 2012, the Great Firewall was able to "learn, discover and block" the encrypted communications methods used by a number of different VPN systems. China Unicom, one of the biggest telecoms providers in the country was terminating connections where a VPN is detected, according to one company with a number of users in China. In July 2017, The New York Times reported that the Chinese government ordered Apple to remove all VPN apps from the Chinese iOS App Store.|
Other reported methods have included:
The Golden Shield Project is owned by the Ministry of Public Security of the People's Republic of China (MPS). It started in 1998, began processing in November 2003, and the first part of the project passed the national inspection on 16 November 2006 in Beijing. According to MPS, its purpose is to construct a communication network and computer information system for police to improve their capability and efficiency. By 2002 the preliminary work of the Golden Shield Project had cost US$800 million (equivalent to RMB 5,000 million or €620 million). Greg Walton, a freelance researcher, said that the aim of the Golden Shield is to establish a "gigantic online database" that would include "speech and face recognition, closed-circuit television... [and] credit records" as well as traditional Internet use records.
A notice issued by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology on 19 May stated that, as of 1 July 2009, manufacturers must ship machines to be sold in mainland China with the Green Dam Youth Escort software. On 14 August 2009, Li Yizhong, minister of industry and information technology, announced that computer manufacturers and retailers were no longer obliged to ship the software with new computers for home or business use, but that schools, Internet cafes and other public use computers would still be required to run the software.
A senior official of the Internet Affairs Bureau of the State Council Information Office said the software's only purpose was "to filter pornography on the Internet". The general manager of Jinhui, which developed Green Dam, said: "Our software is simply not capable of spying on Internet users, it is only a filter." Human rights advocates in China have criticized the software for being "a thinly concealed attempt by the government to expand censorship". Online polls conducted on Sina, Netease, Tencent, Sohu, and Southern Metropolis Daily revealed over 70% rejection of the software by netizens. However, Xinhua commented that "support [for Green Dam] largely stems from end users, opposing opinions primarily come from a minority of media outlets and businesses".
Targets of censorship
See also: Websites blocked in China
According to a Harvard study, at least 18,000 websites are blocked from within mainland China, including 12 out of the Top 100 Global Websites. The Chinese-sponsored news agency, Xinhua, stated that censorship targets only "superstitious, pornographic, violence-related, gambling, and other harmful information.". This appears questionable, as the e-mail provider gmail.com is blocked, and it cannot be said to fall into any of these categories. On the other hand, websites centered on the following political topics are often censored: Falun Gong,police brutality, Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, freedom of speech, democracy,Taiwan independence,Tibetan independence movement, and the Tuidang movement. Foreign media websites such as Yahoo! Hong Kong and the Voice of America are occasionally blocked while as of 2014 the New York Times, the BBC, and Bloomberg News are indefinitely blocked.
Testing performed by Freedom House in 2011 confirmed that material written by or about activist bloggers is removed from the Chinese internet in a practice that has been termed "cyber-disappearance".
A 2012 study of social media sites by other Harvard researchers found that 13% of Internet posts were blocked. The blocking focused mainly on any form of collective action (anything from false rumors driving riots to protest organizers to large parties for fun), pornography, and criticism of the censors. However, significant criticisms of the government were not blocked when made separately from calls for collective action. Other study has showed comments on social media that criticisms of the state, its leaders, and their policies are usually published, but posts with collective action potential will likely to be censored more whether they are against the state or not.
A lot of larger Japanese websites were blocked during the afternoon of 15 June 2012 (UTC+08:00) to the morning of 17 June 2012 (UTC+08:00), such as Google Japan, Yahoo! Japan, Amazon Japan, Excite, Yomiuri News, Sponichi News and Nikkei BP Japan.
Chinese censors have been relatively reluctant to block websites where there might be significant economic consequences. For example, a block of GitHub was reversed after widespread complaints from the Chinese software developer community. In November 2013 after the Chinese services of Reuters and the Wall Street Journal were blocked, greatfire.org mirrored the Reuters website to an Amazon.com domain in such a way that it could not be shut down without shutting off domestic access to all of Amazon's cloud storage service.
For one month beginning 17 November 2014, ProPublica tested whether the homepages of 18 international news organizations were accessible to browsers inside China, and found the most consistently blocked were Bloomberg, New York Times, South China Morning Post, Wall Street Journal, Facebook, and Twitter. Internet censorship and surveillance has tightly implemented in China that block social websites like Gmail, Google, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and others. The excessive censorship practices of the Great Firewall of China have now engulfed the VPN service providers as well.
See also: List of blacklisted keywords in China
One part of the block is to filter the search results of certain terms on Chinese search engines. These Chinese search engines include both international ones (for example, yahoo.com.cn, Bing, and (formerly) Google China) as well as domestic ones (for example, Soso, 360 Search and Baidu). Attempting to search for censored keywords in these Chinese search engines will yield few or no results. Previously, google.cn displayed the following at the bottom of the page: "According to the local laws, regulations and policies, part of the searching result is not shown." As was the case when searching for information about the 2011 uprising in Egypt.[clarification needed] When Google did business in the country, it set up computer systems inside China that try to access Web sites outside the country. If a site was inaccessible, then it was added to Google China's blacklist.
In addition, a connection containing intensive censored terms may also be closed by The Great Firewall, and cannot be reestablished for several minutes. This affects all network connections including HTTP and POP, but the reset is more likely to occur during searching. Before the search engines censored themselves, many search engines had been blocked, namely Google and AltaVista. Technorati, a search engine for blogs, has been blocked. Different search engines implement the mandated censorship in different ways. For example, the search engine Bing is reported to censor search results from searches conducted in simplified Chinese characters (used in China), but not in traditional Chinese characters (used in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau).
Several Bulletin Board Systems in universities were closed down or restricted public access since 2004, including the SMTH BBS and the YTHT BBS.
In September 2007, some data centers were shut down indiscriminately for providing interactive features such as blogs and forums. CBS reports an estimate that half the interactive sites hosted in China were blocked.
Coinciding with the twentieth anniversary of the government suppression of the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, the government ordered Internet portals, forums and discussion groups to shut down their servers for maintenance between 3 and 6 June 2009. The day before the mass shut-down, Chinese users of Twitter, Hotmail and Flickr, among others, reported a widespread inability to access these services.
Social media websites
The censorship of individual social media posts in China are usually occurs in two circumstance:
1. Corporates/government hire censors who reading individual social media posts and manually take down posts that’s against the policy. (Although the government and media often use microblogging service Sina Weibo to spread ideas and monitor corruption, it is also supervised and self-censored by 700 Sina censors. )
2. Posts that will be primarily auto-blocked based on keyword filters, and decide which ones to publish later.
In the second half of 2009, the social networking sites Facebook and Twitter were blocked, presumably because of containing social or political commentary (similar to LiveJournal in the above list). An example is the commentary on the July 2009 Ürümqi riots. Another reason suggested for the block is that activists can utilize them to organize themselves.
In 2010, Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo became a forbidden topic in Chinese media due to his winning the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. Keywords and images relating to the activist and his life were again blocked in July 2017, shortly after his death.
After the 2011 Wenzhou train collision, the government started emphasizing the danger in spreading 'false rumors' (yaoyan), making the permissive usage of Weibo and social networks a public debate.
In 2012, First Monday published an article on "political content censorship in social media, i.e., the active deletion of messages published by individuals." This academic study, which received extensive media coverage, accumulated a dataset of 56 million messages sent on Sina Weibo from June through September 2011, and statistically analyzed them three months later, finding 212,583 deletions out of 1.3 million sampled, more than 16 percent. The study revealed that censors quickly deleted words with politically controversial meanings (e.g., qingci 请辞 "asking someone to resign" referring to calls for Railway Minister Sheng Guangzu to resign after the Wenzhou train collision on 23 July 2011), and also that the rate of message deletion was regionally anomalous (compare censorship rates of 53% in Tibet and 52% in Qinghai with 12% in Beijing and 11.4% in Shanghai). In another study conducted by a research team led by political scientist Gary King, objectionable posts created by King's team on a social networking site were almost universally removed within 24 hours of their posting.
The comment areas of popular posts mentioned Vladimir Putin on Sina Weibo were closed during the 2017 G20 Hamburg summit in Germany. It is a rare example that a foreigner leader is granted the safety from popular judgment in Chinese internet, which usually only granted to the Chinese leaders.
Specific examples of internet censorship
Tiananmen Square protest of 1989
See also: Tiananmen Square protests of 1989
The Chinese government censors internet materials related to the Tiananmen Square protest of 1989. According to the government’s white paper in 2010 on the subject of internet in China, the government protects “the safe flow of internet information and actively guides people to manage websites in accordance with the law and use the internet in a wholesome and correct way.” The government, therefore, prevents people on the internet from “divulging state secrets, subverting state power and jeopardizing national unification; damaging state honor” and “disrupting social order and stability." Law-abiding Chinese websites such as Sina Weibo censors words related to the protest in its search engine. Weibo is one of the largest Chinese microblogging services. As of October 2012, Weibo’s censored words include “Tank Man.” The government also censors words that have similar pronunciation to “June 4,” the date that the government’s violent crackdown occurred. “陆肆” (pinyin: lu si), for example, is similar in pronunciation to “June 4” (pinyin: liu si). The government forbids remembrances of the protest. Weibo’s search engine, for example, censors Hong Kong lyricist Thomas Chow’s song called 自由花 or “The Flower of Freedom.” This is because attendees of the Vindicate 4 June and Relay the Torch rally at Hong Kong’s Victoria Park sing this song every year to commemorate the victims of the protest.
The government’s internet censorship of the protest was especially strict during the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 in 2009. According to a Reporters Without Borders’ article, searching photos related to the protest such as “June 4” on Baidu, the most popular Chinese search engine, would return blank results and a message stating that the “search does not comply with laws, regulations and policies.”  Moreover, a large number of netizens from China claimed that they were unable to access numerous Western web services such as Twitter, Hotmail, and Flickr in the days leading up to and during the anniversary. Netizens in China claimed that many Chinese web services were temporarily blocked days before and during the anniversary.
The first few weeks of 2015 have seen a renewed push to control the Internet in China. Virtual private networks, typically used to get around China’s “Great Firewall,” have been under “more sophisticated” attacks than ever before. China is (yet again) pushing to require real-name registration of social media accounts, even while deleting a number of accounts “that were disseminating distorted views of history.”
China is well aware that its crackdown has opened it up to criticism from foreign media outlets and free speech advocates. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei took time in his press conference today to address those critiques. “China’s Internet has facilitated Chinese citizens and offered them a direct channel to exercise the right to know, the right to participate, the right to express, and the right to supervise,” Hong insisted. He also repeated China’s argument “all countries have the right to administer the cyber space in accordance with the law and the cyber sovereignty of all countries should be respected and maintained.”
An op-ed in Xinhuaalso responded to recent Western criticisms of China’s internet censorship (Beijing prefers the term “regulation”). To view China’s regulation of the internet as restricting the freedom of speech is a “misunderstanding based on long-term prejudice,” Xinhua argues.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
In particular, the Xinhua piece was responding to foreign media reports on recent bans of certain social media accounts. Xinhua dismissed accusations that Beijing was simply deleting accounts that threatened its rule. “The truth is that those accounts had a negative impact [sic] on society,” the piece argued. Deleted accounts either posed as authoritative government outlets (such as the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection) or “were related to terrorism, violence and pornography.” Such accounts “deserve no protection of freedom of speech,” Xinhua declared.
At heart, we have a fundamental difference in the interpretation of what “freedom of speech” should mean. In Western societies, speech is assumed to be protected unless the government can show a compelling reason why it should not be. A famous U.S. Supreme Court decision (Schenck v. United States), for example, ruled that free speech could be limited if it presented a “clear and present danger” while a subsequent ruling in 1969 stipulated that merely advocating for violence in a general sense does not reach that threshold.
In China, the barriers for restricting free speech are considerably lower. China’s draft terrorism law, for example, outlaws not only terrorist actions but speech and even thought that is aimed at subverting state power, inciting ethnic hatred, or splitting the state. In a more general sense, China believes free speech can be restricted, as the Xinhua piece points out, not only for violating laws and regulations, but for going against “widely accepted moral principles and values.”
That approach to free speech – that it is subordinate to upholding “moral principles” – was on full display in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders earlier this year. While the Western world drew together to defend free speech under the phrase “I Am Charlie,” Chinese media suggested instead that the satirical magazine should never have been allowed to publish the offensive material in the first place. Because the world is a diverse place, Xinhua argued then, “freedom of the press should be limited” in the name of demonstrating “mutual respect.”
It’s worth pointing out that China was not alone in responding in this way; former Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said in a series of tweets that the Charlie Hebdo attacks laid bare a “clash of values” between Muslim sensitivities and Western insistence on free speech. Yudhoyono suggested that the West should be the one to compromise – “leaders in the West are responsible so the freedom isn’t abused to defame Islam,” he said.
However, it’s one thing to censor free speech in the interest of protecting minorities (such as Europe’s restrictions on anti-Semitism). What the West mainly objects to is the political nature of China’s regulation of the Internet. Were China’s internet regulations as simple as deleting accounts that assume fake government identities or spread hate speech and terrorist materials, as the Xinhua article implies, they would receive little attention. However, China also routinely shuts down accounts for going too far in criticizing the government – or, more accurately, for attempting to mobilize the public on anything from environmental issues to demanding asset disclosures from Chinese officials.
China’s tightening grip on the Internet is causing more worry as it comes along with a push to crack down on other avenues of expression, including the teaching that goes on at China’s universities. The idea that a country can prohibit professors from criticizing the government and its leaders, as China’s education minister recently suggested, is anathema to free speech advocates. In defending “widely accepted moral principles and values,” China’s government all too often simply winds up defending itself.
It’s one thing to protect against offensive speech; it’s another to crack down on speech that champions alternative world views and, yes, political systems. China is guilty of the latter, no matter how hard it argues that it is only engaging in the former.