The Chinese government has long kept tight reins on both traditional and new media to avoid potential subversion of its authority. Its tactics often entail strict media controls using monitoring systems and firewalls, shuttering publications or websites, and jailing dissident journalists, bloggers, and activists. Google’s battle with the Chinese government over internet censorship and the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s awarding of the 2010 Peace Prize to jailed Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo have also increased international attention to censorship issues. At the same time, the country’s burgeoning economy relies on the web for growth, and experts say the growing need for internet freedom is testing the regime’s control.
Official Media Policy
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China’s constitution affords its citizens freedom of speech and press, but the opacity of Chinese media regulations allows authorities to crack down on news stories by claiming that they expose state secrets and endanger the country. The definition of state secrets in China remains vague, facilitating censorship of any information that authorities deem harmful [PDF] to their political or economic interests. CFR Senior Fellow Elizabeth C. Economy says the Chinese government is in a state of “schizophrenia” about media policy as it “goes back and forth, testing the line, knowing they need press freedom and the information it provides, but worried about opening the door to the type of freedoms that could lead to the regime’s downfall.”
Censorship and Freedom of Expression
The government issued in May 2010 its first white paper on the internet that focused on the concept of “internet sovereignty,” requiring all internet users in China, including foreign organizations and individuals, to abide by Chinese laws and regulations. Chinese internet companies are now required to sign the “Public Pledge on Self-Regulation and Professional Ethics for China Internet Industry,” which entails even stricter rules than those in the white paper, according to Jason Q. Ng, a specialist on Chinese media censorship and author of Blocked on Weibo. Since Chinese President Xi Jinping came to power, censorship of all forms of media has tightened. In February 2016, Xi announced new media policy for party and state news outlines: “All the work by the party’s media must reflect the party’s will, safeguard the party’s authority, and safeguard the party’s unity,” emphasizing that state media must align themselves with the “thought, politics, and actions” of the party leadership. A China Daily essay emphasized Xi’s policy, noting that “the nation’s media outlets are essential to political stability.”
How Free Is Chinese Media?
In 2016, Freedom House ranked China last for the second consecutive year out of sixty-five countries that represent 88 percent of the world’s internet users. The France-based watchdog group Reporters Without Borders ranked China 176 out of 180 countries in its 2016 worldwide index of press freedom. Experts say Chinese media outlets usually employ their own monitors to ensure political acceptability of their content. Censorship guidelines are circulated weekly from the Communist Party’s propaganda department and the government’s Bureau of Internet Affairs to prominent editors and media providers.
Certain websites that the government deems potentially dangerous—like Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and some Google services—are fully blocked or temporarily “blacked out” during periods of controversy, such as the June 4 anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre or Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement protests in the fall of 2014. Specific material considered a threat to political stability is also banned, including controversial photos and video, as well as search terms. The government is particularly keen on blocking reports of issues that could incite social unrest, like official corruption, the economy, health and environmental scandals, certain religious groups, and ethnic strife. The websites of Bloomberg news service, the New York Times, and other major international publicationshave periodically been blacked out, their journalists harassed and threatened, and visa applications denied. In 2012, Bloomberg and the New York Times both ran reports on the private wealth of then Party Secretary Xi Jinping and Premier Wen Jiabao. Restrictions have been also placed on micro-blogging services, often in response to sensitive subjects like corruption, including 2012 rumors of an attempted coup in Beijing involving the disgraced former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai. Censors are also swift to block any mention of violent incidents related to Tibet or China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region, home to the mostly Muslim Uighur minority group, and the Falun Gong spiritual movement.
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The Censorship Groups
More than a dozen government bodies review and enforce laws related to information flow within, into, and out of China. The most powerful monitoring body is the Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Department (CPD), which coordinates with General Administration of Press and Publication and State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television to ensure content promotes party doctrine. Ng says that the various ministries once functioned as smaller fiefdoms of control, but have recently been more consolidated under the State Council Information Office, which has taken the lead on internet monitoring.
The Chinese government employs large numbers of people to monitor and censor China’s media. Experts refer to an October 2013 report in a state-run paper, the Beijing News, which said more than two million workers are responsible for reviewing internet posts using keyword searches and compiling reports for “decision makers.” These so-called “public opinion analysts” are hired both by the state and private companies to constantly monitor China’s internet. Additionally, the CPD gives media outlets editorial guidelines as well as directives restricting coverage of politically sensitive topics. In one high-profile incident involving the liberal Guangdong magazine Southern Weekly, government censors rewrote the paper’s New Year’s message from a call for reform to a tribute to the Communist Party. The move triggered mass demonstrations by the staff and general public, who demanded the resignation of the local propaganda bureau chief. While staff and censors reached a compromise that theoretically intended to relax some controls, much of the censorship remained in place.
Censorship and Freedom of Expression
The Chinese government deploys myriad ways of censoring the internet. The Golden Shield Project, colloquially known as the Great Firewall, is the center of the government’s online censorship and surveillance effort. Its methods include bandwidth throttling, keyword filtering, and blocking access to certain websites. According to Reporters Without Borders, the firewall makes large-scale use of Deep Packet Inspection technology to block access based on keyword detection. As Ng points out, the government also employs a diverse range of methods to induce journalists to censor themselves, including dismissals and demotions, libel lawsuits, fines, arrests, and forced televised confessions.
As of February 2017, thirty-eight journalists were imprisoned in China, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a U.S.-based watchdog on press freedom issues. In 2009, Chinese rights activist Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to eleven years in prison for advocating democratic reforms and freedom of speech in Charter 08, a 2008 statement signed by more than two thousand prominent Chinese citizens that called for political and human rights reforms and an end to one-party rule. When Liu won the Nobel Peace Prize, censors blocked the news in China. A year later, journalist Tan Zuoren was sentenced to five years in prison for drawing attention to government corruption and poor construction of school buildings that collapsed and killed thousands of children during the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province. Early 2014 saw the government detain Gao Yu, a columnist who was jailed on accusations of leaking a Party communiqué titled Document 9.
The State Internet Information Office tightened content restrictions in 2013 and appointed a new director of a powerful internet committee led by President Xi Jinping, who assumed power in late 2012. A July 2014 directive on journalist press passes bars reporters from releasing information from interviews or press conferences on social media without permission of their employer media organizations. And in early 2015, the government cracked down on virtual private networks (VPNs), making it more difficult to access U.S. sites like Google and Facebook. “By blocking these tools, the authorities are leaving people with fewer options and are forcing most to give up on circumvention and switch to domestic services,” writes Charlie Smith [pseudonym], a cofounder of FreeWeibo.com and activist website GreatFire.org. “If they can convince more internet users to use Chinese services—which they can readily censor and easily snoop on—then they have taken one further step towards cyber sovereignty.” The restrictions mount on a regular basis, adds the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos. “To the degree that China’s connection to the outside world matters, the digital links are deteriorating,” he wrote in an April 2015 article. “How many countries in 2015 have an internet connection to the world that is worse than it was a year ago?”
China requires foreign correspondents to obtain permission before reporting in the country and has used this as an administrative roadblock to prevent journalists from reporting on potentially sensitive topics like corruption and, increasingly, economic and financial developments. Under Xi, the ability of foreign journalists and international news outlets to travel and access to sources have shrunk. “The hostile environment against foreign journalists is being fueled by efforts to publicly mark Western media outlets as not only biased, but part of a coordinated international effort to damage China’s reputation” [PDF], according to PEN America’s 2016 report on the constraints of foreign journalists reporting from China. Eighty percent of respondents in a 2014 survey conducted by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China said their work conditions had worsened or stayed the same compared to 2013. International journalists regularly face government intimidation, surveillance, and restrictions on their reporting, writes freelance China correspondent Paul Mooney, who was denied a visa in 2013.
Austin Ramzy, a China reporter for the New York Times, relocated to Taiwan in early 2014 after failing to receive his accreditation and visa. New York Times reporter Chris Buckley was reported to have been expelled in early January 2013—an incident China’s foreign ministry said was a visa application suspension due to improper credentials. China observers were also notably shaken by the 2013 suspension of Bloomberg’s former China correspondent, Michael Forsythe, after Bloomberg journalists accused the news agency of withholding investigative articles for fear of reprisal from Chinese authorities.
The treatment of foreign reporters has become a diplomatic issue. In response to the Arab Spring protests in early 2011, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged to continue U.S. efforts to weaken censorship [PDF] in countries with repressive governments like China and Iran. In response, Beijing warned Washington to not meddle in the internal affairs of other countries. On a December 2013 trip to Beijing, then Vice President Joe Biden pressed China publicly and privately about press freedom, directly raising the issue in talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping and meetings with U.S. journalists working in China.
U.S. Technology in China
In more recent years, China has made it exceedingly difficult for foreign technology firms to compete within the country. The websites of U.S. social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are blocked. Google, after a protracted battle with Chinese authorities over the banning of search terms, quietly gave up its fight in early 2013 by turning off a notification that alerted Chinese users of potential censorship. In late 2014, China banned Google’s email service Gmail, a move that triggered a concerned response from the U.S. State Department.
In January 2015, China issued new cybersecurity regulations that would force technology firms to submit source code, undergo rigorous inspections, and adopt Chinese encryption algorithms. The move triggered an outcry from European and U.S. companies, who lobbied governmental authorities for urgent aid in reversing the implementation of new regulations. CFR Senior Fellow Adam Segal writes that “the fact that the regulations come from the central leading group, and that they seem to reflect an ideologically driven effort to control cyberspace at all levels, make it less likely that Beijing will back down.”
Circumventing the Censors
Despite the systematic control of news, the Chinese public has found numerous ways to circumvent censors. Ultrasurf, Psiphon, and Freegate are popular software programs that allow Chinese users to set up proxy servers to avoid controls. While VPNs are also popular, the government crackdown on the systems have led users to devise other methods, including the insertion of new IP addresses into host files, Tor—a free software program for anonymity—or SSH tunnels, which route all internet traffic through a remote server. According to Congress, between 1 and 8 percent [PDF] of Chinese internet users use proxy servers and VPNs to get around firewalls.
Microblogging sites like Weibo have also become primary spaces for Chinese netizens to voice opinion or discuss taboo subjects. “Over the years, in a series of cat-and-mouse games, Chinese internet users have developed an extensive series of puns—both visual and homophonous—slang, acronyms, memes, and images to skirt restrictions and censors,” writes Ng.
Google’s chairman, Eric Schmidt, said in early 2014 that encryption could help the company penetrate China. But such steps experienced a setback in March 2014 when authorities cracked down on social networking app WeChat (known as Weixin in China), deleting prominent, politically liberal accounts. Soon thereafter, the government announced new regulations on “instant messaging tools” aimed at mobile chat applications such as WeChat, which has more than 750 million users and was increasingly seen as replacing Weibo as a platform for popular dissent that could skirt censors. CFR’s Economy says that the internet has increasingly become a means for Chinese citizens to ensure official accountability and rule of law, noting the growing importance of social network sites as a political force inside China despite government restrictions.
China had roughly 731 million internet users in 2017. Although there have been vocal calls for total press freedom in China, some experts point to a more nuanced discussion of the ways in which the internet is revolutionizing the Chinese media landscape and a society that is demanding more information. “Some people in China don’t look at freedom of speech as an abstract ideal, but more as a means to an end,” writes author Emily Parker. Rather, the fight for free expression fits into a larger context of burgeoning citizen attention to other, more pertinent social campaigns like environmental degradation, social inequality, and corruption—issues for which they use the internet and media as a means of disseminating information, says Ng.
Daily News Brief
A roundup of global news developments by CFR.org editors, including analysis from CFR scholars.
Since driving out the Kuomintang and establishing the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has held a firm grip on China. The CCP has shown the highest political stability among the major Communist parties around the world (Chao 40). How has the CCP sustained their power despite globalization and technological development? In the past decade, the CCP has exercised dominance through vigilant censorship to control the Internet and the increased interactions among Chinese citizens. Although Internet censorship maintains the Party’s ultimate authority, it creates domestic and international consequences that tarnish the Party’s image.
Censorship is the inspection and control of works that threaten the reputation and authority of those in power. It is a “vehicle of authoritarian state power” that suppresses dissident opinions and abolishes transparency to further the censors’ agendas (Xie 5). It undermines the openness, accountability, credibility, and relevance of information that the public receives (Xie 33). Chinese writer, translator, and inventor Lin Yutang (1895-1976) claims censorship underscores the supremacy of the government; the government believes “it is able to carry on the national responsibilities without interference from the press or the people” (Lin 168). By causing the press or the people to have limited access to knowledge and political participation, censorship encourages people to maintain “calm” (澄静) during a national crisis (Lin 168). Censorship allows people to maintain “calm” because they do not have access to potentially disruptive knowledge and the means to instigate protest. China has a history of censorship since its dynastic period. The first emperor of the Qin dynasty burned books that the government disapproved of, and the emperors of the Qing dynasty held literary inquisitions and persecuted authors (Lin 167). Although China has a history of censorship, the CCP’s implementation of censorship has changed with the proliferation of technology and the development of the Internet.
The Impacts of Technological Developments on the Media and the CCP’s Control of the Media
Technological developments, specifically the Internet, changed the masses’ interactions with past forms of media. Since the Internet opened for the public in 1995, Chinese citizens became less reliant on past forms of media, such as print journalism, and became more exposed to modern forms of media, such as online blogs. According to the China Renmin University Media Management Research Institute, the revenue for the newspaper industry decreased since 2005 (Zhao 144). The total revenue of some newspapers decreased by over 40 percent, whereas Weibo—the nation’s largest online public platform for discussion and publication—gained over 536 million users (Zhao 144). Instead of finding news from print newspapers, many citizens rely on the Internet. China houses the world’s largest population of netizens—citizens on the Internet—with 591 million as of 2013 (Xie 1). Internet use increased over 1625 percent in the past decade (Dann and Haddow 220). These users use smart phones, check blogs, and stream videos. A nationwide survey discovered that 36 percent of industrial workers spent over five hours online on their mobile phones each day (Yan 382). These staggering figures highlight the immense impact that technological developments have had on Chinese citizens.
By changing the way in which citizens interact with each other and receive information, technological developments forced the CCP to change its tactics in controlling the media. Past forms of media, such as broadcast and print media, were strictly regulated as crucial components of the political system. Broadcast and print media extended the CCP’s political control and remained subordinate to the CCP’s leadership and the party’s principles (Zhao 148). Prior to economic reforms in 1978, broadcast and print media functioned as the party’s ideological mouthpiece in the “party-organ model” (Zhao 148). The “party-organ model” designated the party as “the proprietor, the regulator, financier, and practitioner of the media” (Zhao 148). As the economy liberalized, the media changed and participated in the “market-based party organ model” (Zhao 148). In the “market-based party organ model,” the CCP wanted the media to not only serve as their cheerleader, but also serve as a mode of social transformation and economic expansion (Zhao 148).
In the “market-based party organ model,” modern forms of media, such as online blogs, discussion boards, and news sites, are subject to the CCP’s goals. To facilitate party propaganda, social transformation, and economic expansion on the Internet, the CCP created a façade of transparency. In March 2010, Premier Wen Jiabao presented TheReport of the Work of the Government (2009) for the State Council. He claimed:
The CCP will promote transparency of administrative affairs, improve regulations for transparent governance and administrative review, create conditions for the people to criticize and oversee the government, let the news media fully play their oversight role, and exercise power openly. (Xie 2)
President Xi Jinping also restated the significance of “maintaining honest and clean by keeping transparency” at a Central Political Legal Commission meeting in January 2014 (Xie 3). Wen and Xi’s declarations of transparency are mere rhetoric. Despite their assertions, the CCP employs censorship to block sensitive key words, ban public discussion of certain topics, and prohibit access to foreign websites. Although many Western correspondents assumed that the CCP’s authority would change with the development of the Internet, Rebecca MacKinnon, a Beijing-based journalist for CNN from 1992 to 2001, realized the regime implemented numerous censorship methods and adopted this technology to its advantage (MacKinnon xii).
The CCP’s Censorship Strategies
The CCP implemented a plethora of strategies to censor prohibited information on the Internet. Prohibited information includes any threatening information, from information that would incite “subversion of state power and overthrow of the socialist system,” to information that included “obscene and pornographic content” or would “publicly insult others” (Yan 388).
The CCP passed numerous regulations to tighten censorship. The government requires news websites—websites that publish political content—to obtain licenses, ensuring that news websites are in line with party policies (Zhao 148). This requirement parallels the regulations on past forms of media, including broadcast and print media (Zhao 148). In 2005, an enactment banned domestic media outlets from working with overseas entities and publishing online news (Yan 391). Online news platforms were required to sign contracts with licensed news website and specify their sources before they could print news (Yan 391). In addition, online news journalists had to receive accreditation from the General Administration of Press and Publication, a government entity that licenses print journalists (Yan 391). This banned citizen journalism, since only accredited and government-approved journalists could officially publish information.
The CCP has also regulated online video publications. The State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT) declared the “Management Methods on Audio and Video Broadcasting Over Information Networks Including the Internet,” which stated that websites desiring to publish online videos must obtain a video-broadcasting license before they share videos on the Internet (Zhao 146). These regulations reinforce the CCP’s authority, allowing the party to filter the publication of news and videos, and limit citizens’ access to online information. Bill Clinton compared China’s crackdown on the Internet like “trying to nail Jell-O on the wall” (Yan 389). To make this “Jell-O” stay on the wall, the CCP has issued numerous legislations to control the Internet (Yan 389).
In addition to passing strict regulations, the CCP hired people, created organizations, and developed technologies to censor the Internet. Government agents act as “Internet police,” and filter the websites that Chinese citizens can access. They are equipped with “deep packet inspection” technologies that can check private online communication methods, such as e-mails, for sensitive keywords (Yan 394). They contribute to major agencies, such as the Ministry of Public Security. The Ministry of Public Security sponsored numerous firewall projects, including the Golden Shield Project (1998) and the Green Dam Project (2009), to monitor online content (Xie 3). The Green Dam Project required all computers sold in the country to pre-install filtering software to prevent minors from accessing “unhealthy” information, such as pornography (Yan 394). If the system detects access to an illicit website, the screen blacks out every three minutes. The Ministry of Public Security is also involved extensively in monitoring and filtering Chinese Internet “gateways” because the global Internet connects to the Chinese Internet only through eight “gateways” (Yan 387). Internet routers, which link data between different networks, are also programmed to block sensitive keywords and websites (MacKinnon 35). If a website such as Wikipedia is blocked, Internet users will see the following notice: “this page cannot be found.”
Although the Internet is a space that fosters anonymity, the CCP’s legal and technological censorship strategies limit this privacy. Individuals who want to create a website and a domain name must register with the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) and provide their names, information, and photograph (Yan 395). Similarly, the Measures on Management of Internet Information Services require Internet users to fill out a registration form with their real names to apply for Internet Service Provider (ISP) services. The government also requires individuals to register their real names to purchase SIM cards in 2010. If customers are sending “unhealthy” content, telecommunication companies are required to suspend their services (Yan 395). Online platforms, such as Weibo, are also required to suspend netizens’ blogs if they threaten the authorities (Yan 399). In 2013, Weibo suspended around 200,000 accounts. Many netizens claimed these accounts froze because of their content (Yan 399). The CCP’s censorship strategies target individuals and remove individual anonymity—and security—on the Internet.
The CCP’s Cooperation with Domestic and International Businesses
The government faces challenges in tightening Internet censorship. Unlike media platforms in the past, “freedom and openness are imbedded within Internet culture” (Zhao 147). Internet censorship is difficult to maintain because the Internet expands exponentially and globally. For example, the CCP cannot penalize a website for its restricted content if it is from another country, since different countries have different legislations (Zhao 147). To overcome these obstacles and manage their censorship, the party cooperates with domestic and international businesses.
The CCP is able to censor the Internet by cooperating with domestic corporations. The CCP rewards domestic corporations for strengthening their censorship. For instance, the government affiliated Internet Society of China awarded Robin Li, the CEO of Baidu, the “China Interest Self-Discipline Award.” This award recognized him for creating “harmonious and healthy Internet development” (MacKinnon 35). In this case, “healthy” meant pornography-free, and “harmonious” meant submissive. Domestic corporations, which assisted the Party in eliminating information that could provoke political or social disharmony, are rewarded. If domestic corporations failed to cooperate, they would pay stiff fines, lose their businesses, and face greater repercussions (MacKinnon 36). Domestic corporations censor their content to shield themselves of these potential punishments.
The CCP also cooperates with international businesses to maintain Internet censorship. American multinational corporation Cisco developed technologies (a router device, an integrator, and a “fire-wall box”) for the CCP’s telecom monopoly (Gutmann 130). These technologies support the government’s censorship goals (Gutmann 130). These technologies are a significant component of the Party’s censorship technologies, as 80 percent of China’s firewalls incorporate these routers.
International corporations that operate in China also censor their content to maintain their businesses. Google helped censor online information before it changed its services. Google’s comprehensive searches could not be viewed in China; Google omitted references to sensitive keywords, such as “Tiananmen Square” and “Falun Gong” (Dann and Haddow 219). Google wanted to establish a censored version of Google because it lost over 30 percent of its market share and was losing to its domestic competitor, Baidu (Dann and Haddow 226). To prevent Googlen.cn from disappearing in China completely, they provided a limited landing page with only access to music, translation, and shopping. The CCP sporadically blocked Google.com.hk, which maintained its search services (Yan 400). However, Google gradually removed its operation in China. Like Google before it removed its services, Apple censors its content to maintain their presence in the Chinese market. Apple’s iPhone applications are limited in mainland China. Applications related to the Dalai Lama are not available (MacKinnon 115).
The United States’ Congressional Committee questioned these foreign corporations, including Microsoft and Yahoo, about their business ventures in China. Microsoft confirmed that they self-censored their services, while Yahoo admitted that they gave the CCP information to jail several critics. Yahoo assisted the CCP in imprisoning Li Zhi by identifying him as the individual who criticized officials for corruption in online discussion groups (Dann and Haddow 219). In response to this controversy, Michael Callahan, the Senior Vice President and General Counsel of Yahoo, claimed that Yahoo “had no idea of the nature of the investigation” (Dann and Haddow 229).
International businesses make the CCP’s Internet censorship possible by developing necessary technologies and self-censoring their services. According to Rebecca MacKinnon, international financiers and corporations have helped legitimize “networked authoritarianism,” in which corporate networks become opaque extensions of government power (MacKinnon xxii). International financiers, such as Silicon Valley investors, fund Chinese language networks such as RenRen, Kaixinwang, and QQ. Many of these corporations are also listed in the United States stock exchange. These corporations benefit from international assistance, but remain censored in China. These corporations are “stewards and handmaidens, the tools and enforcers, of China’s inner layer of Internet censorship” (MacKinnon 36). Although these corporations are potentially responsible in “aiding a regime that violates rights,” these corporations claim that their main responsibility is to “maximize profit and investor returns”—not to assure human rights (Dann and Haddow 230, MacKinnon xxiii). International corporations desire money and justify their businesses because China is a critical market (Gutmann 144). International corporations reaffirm the CCP’s ultimate authority by helping it censor the Internet because the Internet is a space that increases domestic awareness, knowledge, and discussions that may weaken the CCP.
Domestic Awareness, Knowledge, and Discussions on the Internet
The Internet allows the masses to be more aware of events, news, and politics immediately. In the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ 2005 Internet survey, 62.8 percent of respondents “agreed” that they have better knowledge of politics with the Internet, and 54.2 percent of respondents “agreed” that they have more opportunities to criticize the government with the Internet (MacKinnon 44). Chinese netizens believe the Internet has a significant impact on their knowledge of current affairs and political realities.
Netizens are more aware of power struggles within the CCP. In February 2012, Weibo tweets discussed Wang Lijun, Chongqing’s police chief and deputy mayor, and spread news about tanks and guns in Beijing a few weeks later (Yan 398). Although the CCP did not provide an official confirmation or explanation, blogs such as Weibo circulated rumors of a coup. In response, the government suspended user comments for three days in April, deleted over 201,000 related tweets, shut down forty-two websites, and arrested six men for spreading rumors (Yan 398). In September 2012, different rumors spread on the Internet when Xi Jinping did not attend scheduled functions (Yan 398). The Internet fuels many netizens’ desires to understand and better their country, allowing netizens’ to be more aware of the government’s flaws.
By increasing the masses’ access to knowledge, the Internet creates avenues for domestic criticism of the government. Although individuals could not publish news articles without journalistic accreditation, netizens are able to blog, share, network, and tweet on the Internet. The Public Opinion Monitoring Department found that online forums are an independent and significant news source (Yan 383). 23 of the 77 most hotly debated controversies in 2009 originated in blog posts (Yan 383). Incidents in 2008, such as the Tibet riots, the Sichuan earthquakes, and the melamine milk scandal, flooded blogs. During the Sichuan earthquake, netizens updated news, organized relief efforts, and questioned the government’s responsibility when low-quality school buildings collapsed. During the Wenzhou high speed train collision in 2011, netizens criticized the poorly executed rescue operations, expressed discontent at the poor safety measures, and exposed politicians’ attempts to bury the story by sharing their accounts on Weibo (Yan 386).
Other incidents, such as the case of Deng Yujiao, drew immense controversy and exposed the CCP’s corruption. Deng, a 21-year-old waitress of a restaurant and spa, fatally stabbed a local official who attempted to rape her. The police detained her and sent her to a mental hospital. Netizens supported Deng after footage of her belted to the hospital bed, screaming for help, circulated across the Internet. Netizens perceived her as the underdog—a heroine against the officials’ corruption and immorality (Yan 384). This case not only gained over 25,000 postings in five online platforms, but also encouraged print journalists to venture to Badong and investigate the case (Yan 384). The Publicity Department of the CCP Central Committee (the Central Propaganda Department) required official media outlets to publish sanctioned reports and recalled reporters from Badong (Yan 384). Despite the party’s censorship, this case underscores the collaboration between new forms of media, such as the Internet, and past forms of media, such as print journalism. Despite the party’s censorship, netizens organized tours to Deng’s trial in Badong through a microblog, arranged hundreds of people outside the courtroom, and broadcast live updates through their phones (Yan 384). The court convicted Deng but she was able to walk free. Although the official explanation of her release is her minor mental illness, the netizens’ support had a substantial influence on the court’s decision.
Other cases, such as that of Tang Hui, similarly showcase the netizens’ power in exposing corrupt officials. In August 2012, the police detained and sent Tang to a labor camp without a court trial because Tang protested against the police. Tang discovered the police falsified evidence to alleviate the sentences of men who raped and kidnapped her 11-year-old daughter. Weibo users posted over 700,000 comments about Tang’s case and created a tweet campaign to save her (Yan 385). After this criticism, the police released Tang in several days and gave her compensation (Yan 385). This victory revealed the “growing political muscle” of China’s netizens (Yan 385).
In addition to cases exposing politicians’ corruption, netizens utilize the Internet to underscore social concerns. Yang Guobin notes that human-rights activists all share one thing in common: their savvy use of the Internet (Yang 201). Activists, such as Liu Xiaobo and Hu Jia, use the Internet to further their causes. In his essay, “Me and the Internet,” Liu writes:
The computer made my writing convenient, the Internet made it convenient for me to obtain information and liaison with the outside world, and what is more, it gave me great convenience to send my articles overseas. The Internet is like a super-engine. My writing has erupted like an oil well. (Yang 201)
As illustrated in Liu’s reflection, the Internet became an active forum for discussions about human rights. Netizens took a stand against forced abortion when a furious relative captured and uploaded a photo on Weibo of a bloody baby next to its mother after she underwent a forced abortion (Yan 385). Environmental issues, such as increased pollution, also caused commotion on the Internet. For instance, Chai Jing’s online documentary, Under the Dome, tackled global warming but faced censorship. The documentary attracted 150 million viewers in the first several days, but the CCP’s censors blocked the online video within three weeks (Mufson). Chinese citizens are not passive spectators of party-controlled old media, but are public activists who expose and discuss the nation’s political and social problems through the Internet. The increased publicity of news and the communication of citizens through the Internet fuel the citizens’ desire for reform.
The Internet not only creates a space to disseminate ideas and expose the government, but also creates an opportunity to organize mass movements. The Internet is a convenient space to organize protests because “no physical effort is required” and there is less risk (Lu 16). Many protestors use the Internet to assemble and organize supporters (Lu 16). Online protests could also take form in discussion boards and reinforce physical protests, as in Xinjiang (Lu 17). For example, followers of Falun Gong organized and formed a meditation session around Zhongnanhai, the CCP’s headquarters, through e-mail. They formed the largest demonstration in Beijing since the democracy movement of 1989 through the Internet (Yan 389).
To maintain their access to knowledge and discussion, some Chinese netizens attempt to bypass censorship software and filters. Some Chinese netizens utilize irony and satire to defeat the filters. Some netizens comment: “socialism is good,” or “I have been represented by my local official,” to highlight the system’s flaws or the politicians’ corruption (Ng xxi). Software filters may not recognize subtle satire, but human monitors can. Human monitors can delete accounts—such as that of dissident artist Ai Weiwei—or remove single posts (Ng xxi). To further counter these software and human filters, some netizens use proxies or anticensorship software tools. Anticensorship proxies such as Astrill have developed businesses in China. China’s online marketplace, Taobao, also lists such products. Around one percent of netizens use these tools to bypass the “Great Firewall” (MacKinnon 35). One percent is a relatively small number of netizens, which cannot transform the general public opinion, but the availability of such anti-censorship software in the Chinese market underscores the Chinese citizens’ awareness of the CCP’s flaws and its censorship.
Domestic Threat to the CCP’s Authority on the Internet
Because it allows citizens to be more aware of current realities and mobilize, the Internet is a threat to political and historical figures. The Party censors Internet spoofs if the spoofs discuss political and historical characters. For example, Internet video “Sparkling Red Star: Pan Dongzi Competing in Singing Contest,” mocked a patriotic 1974 film, “Sparkling Red Star.” “Sparking Red Star: Pan Dongzi” spoofs the protagonist and his family; the protagonist’s father transforms from a peasant in the original movie to a real estate tycoon in the spoof (Zhao 146). According to Xinhua News Agency in 2006, such satire and mockery of the nation’s revolutionary history is unacceptable (Zhao 146). The Internet allows netizens to produce and distribute such spoofs that threaten the roots of the CCP’s regime.
The Internet also prompts political reaction because it threatens the authority of exposed and corrupt politicians. Chinese officials are “reactive rather than proactive” to counteract the speed in which netizens disseminate information (Zhao 147). Netizens spread jeopardizing documents, such as restaurant receipts and travel itineraries, which reveal the exorbitant cost and leisure activities of corrupt officials. For example, officials who travel abroad may spend the majority of their time in luxury resorts. Those officials whose itineraries were exposed online were forced to compensate for these reported expenses (Lu 17). The government responds faster to officials exposed online (Lu 17). Online exposure is the most efficient method of reporting corrupt or illegal activities of local officials (Lu 17). The National Corruption Prevention Bureau claims their staff scours for corruption cases online daily because online campaigns are twice as efficient as reporting cases directly to prosecutors or the Party’s Discipline Inspection Committee (Lu 17). Although online discussion boards are effective outlets to expose corrupt officials, they reveal the dissatisfaction of Chinese netizens. If Chinese netizens were constantly reporting the corruption of local officials’ online, it would weaken the CCP’s legitimacy. As a result, the CCP clamps down on netizens with increased censorship.
The CCP’s Continued and Increased Internet Censorship Strategies
The CCP responds to the above domestic threats with continued and increased Internet censorship strategies. The CCP threatens vocal netizens with imprisonment and intimidation. The Party threatens them with harassment, jail sentences, and detention in labor camps (Yan 399). Tan Zuoren, Hu Jia, and Liu Xiaobo are amongst the prominent critics convicted of sedition and sentenced to prison (Yan 399). Chinese netizens are also sent to labor camps without court trial for their online posts. After the fall of Mayor Bo Xilai, authorities revealed that Chongqing officials “regularly” sent netizens to labor camps for their online discussions (Yan 400).
The Party not only intimidated and imprisoned outspoken netizens, but also completely shut down the Internet. The Party shut down the Internet in Xinjiang from July 2009 to May 2010 after an ethnically Han worker falsely alleged that six Uyghur men raped a woman. This incident triggered protests that caused at least two Uyghur deaths (Ng xii).
The Party does more than flip the “killswitch” as in Xinjiang (Ng xxii). Even if the Internet is available in periods of relative peace, the Party requires Internet companies to filter sensitive keywords. Chinese websites are legally required to sign the “Public Pledge on Self-Discipline for China Internet Industry,” remove offensive material, and block certain terms (Ng 42). A series of leaked CCP censorship guidelines revealed media guidelines of the CCP’s Propaganda Department and the Bureau of Internet Affairs. These guidelines included rules, such as: “do not feature or sensationalize news about petitioners,” or “do not report on the news of the Inner Mongolian female prosecutor who drove a luxury vehicle and who was reinstated after resigning” (“What Chinese Censors Don’t Want You to Know”). Chinese websites must comply with weekly updates about topics that must be censored (Ng 42).
These rules also apply to web platforms like Weibo. Jason Q. Ng designed a computer script that tested the filtration of 700,000 Wikipedia titles on Weibo. In Blocked on Weibo: What Gets Suppressed on China’s Version of Twitter (and Why), Ng lists banned and sensitive words (敏感词库), which ranges from “六四,” short for June 4, 1989 of Tiananmen Square, to “毛腊肉,” which refers to Mao Zedong’s body as a slab of meat (Ng 186). If the search term is blocked, users will receive the following message: “根据相关法律法规和政策，［the blocked keyword］搜索结果未予显示” (According to relevant laws, regulations and policies, search results for [the blocked keyword] cannot be displayed” (Ng xiv). As a result, users are aware when their search results are blocked (Ng xiv). These notifications remind users of the party’s authority and are moments of intimidation. These notifications warn users their Internet activities are under government inspection.
In addition to shutting down the Internet completely and creating filtering software, the CCP assembles volunteers to enforce strict censorship. 500 students from Shanghai Normal University policed online discussion groups, discussing random topics, such as celebrities, to bury political topics (Dann and Haddow 220). The CCP even hires individuals to establish fake websites to bait and apprehend potential dissidents (Dann and Haddow 220). Individuals who find online discussions about politics will be hesitant or scared to participate because it might be a trap (Dann and Haddow 220). These possibilities and threats are effective because netizens might be scared and censor their discussions.
International Criticism of the CCP’s Internet Censorship: Violation of Human Rights
Although the CCP’s harsh and strategic censorship maintains the party’s authority, it faces international backlash. The United States and the European Union expressed disapproval with the CCP’s Internet censorship because it violates human rights. Freedom of speech is a “universal human right” and the “bedrock of democracy” (Shattuck x).
In response to international disapproval, the CCP published the White Paper to highlight the successes of their Internet model. The White Paper states that their purpose is to create an Internet that ensures “national economic prosperity and development, state security, social harmony, state sovereignty and dignity, and the basic interests of the people” (Price 128). The Party highlights the facts that individuals must obey Chinese regulations and foster Internet security if they are within Chinese territory (Price 129). This explanation is the CCP’s attempt to legitimize their censorship and “appeal to other states” (Price 129). Despite the CCP attempts to appeal to other countries, their emphasis on sovereignty differs from other countries’ vision of the Internet. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which oversees the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), protects freedom of speech across borders (Yan 402). China signed the ICCPR in 1998, but it did not ratify the Covenant (Yan 402). In response, the United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed the United States would discuss China’s Internet control with the United Nations Human Rights Council (Yan 402). This caused international bodies to examine China’s Internet control in 2009 for the first time (Yan 402).
The CCP’s Internet control also faces criticism regarding its human rights violations from global NGOs and international advocacy groups. For example, Internet freedom advocacy group Access Now believes “everyone has the right to seek, receive, and impart information freely on the Internet without censorship or other interference” (MacKinnon 240). Other non-governmental organizations, such as the Global Network Initiative, strive to assist telecommunications companies to uphold their rights to freedom of expression with global standards (MacKinnon 180). Another organization, the Paris based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, supports the belief in an open Internet and is backed by forty governments (MacKinnon 242).
International Criticism of the CCP’s Internet Censorship: Violation of Trade Agreements
The international community has also complained that the CCP’s Internet censorship is a trade barrier. In 2010, Google published a white paper identifying Internet censorship as a trade barrier. It urges the United States government to expose government limitations on the flow of online information and underscores this violation of global trade regulations in China (Yan 403). In response, the United States government indicated that they would complain about China’s Internet control to the World Trade Organization (WTO). The WTO has had a significant impact on China’s growth since China joined the organization in 2001. China’s state owned enterprises lost their monopoly as more competitors entered the market, but the Party maintained its control of the Internet, media, and content (Yan 405). China liberalized the Internet to develop a space for foreign competition, allowing domestic corporations like Sina and Sohu to become major web corporations (Yan 404). In 2012, the WTO ruled that Chinese barriers to the importation and distribution of media products, such as film and newspapers, violated WTO rules (Holden). WTO regulations required member countries to consider foreign corporations the same as domestic corporations (Seidenberg 20). Although the WTO’s goal is to foster free trade—not free speech—China’s Internet control limits global business ventures. Some experts argue that China’s online censorship is “far more intense for foreign entities” (Seidenberg 20).
Because China’s growing economy is dependent on global trade, international businesses have the potential to change China’s censorship methods if they made an attempt to lobby the government or restrict trade. According to Ethan Gutmann, international corporations have power. He writes:
Imagine: on-the-ground multinational industry coalitions and chambers of commerce, seemingly uncoupled from their embassies, successfully lobbying the Chinese government. But in fact, this kind of behavior was exceedingly rare. We may have had the power, but we also had a strange unwillingness to use it. (Gutmann 138)
China specialists, like Gutmann, are aware of the influence that international companies have on Chinese trade. Yet, international companies would rather make a profit in China than join the crusade for human rights. Gutmann believes American businesses “lost China’s Internet” by participating in the Internet gold rush (Gutmann 172). The international business community has the potential to weaken China’s harsh Internet censorship—if they ignore the glittering rewards of money.
The CCP’s Response to the International Climate
Although the CCP maintains its censorship methods regardless of international criticism, the international climate influences the CCP’s approach to Internet censorship. For instance, China lifted the Great Firewall during the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 to accommodate foreign visitors, reporters, and athletes (Yan 393). Before the Olympics, CCP General Secretary Hu Jintao reminded officials to be aware of the influential power of the Internet and to prioritize its management (Yan 393). However, foreign websites such as YouTube and Facebook became inaccessible after the Olympics. The CCP’s reaction to Internet censorship during the Olympics highlights their ultimate authority. The CCP has the power to remove Internet censorship if it wants to impress its visitors. While the Olympics encouraged the CCP to loosen its censorship regulations, other international events, such as the Arab Spring, gave the CCP more reason to tighten its censorship laws. The Arab Spring (2010, 2011) demonstrated the power of the Internet, and warned the CCP of the Internet’s potential threat. The CCP’s reactions to the Olympics and the Arab Spring reveal the influential role the international community has on the Party’s censorship strategies. The Party wields ultimate authority in deciding when, how, and to what extent the Internet is censored—all depending on the Party’s needs at the time.
Despite domestic and global reactions to Internet censorship, the CCP latches onto its power. Although Chinese netizens realize the extent of the CCP’s censorship and recognize the CCP’s struggle to maintain authority, Internet users are a relative minority in China. The typical Chinese Internet user is a student or a young white-collar worker, which does not represent the largely rural, low income, and high school educated population (MacKinnon 44). Rebecca MacKinnon states that more people must engage with the Internet for it to be a “truly effective vehicle for representative, democratic discourse” (MacKinnon 44). However, the development of the Internet and the increased governmental crackdowns highlight the power of the netizens. With the Internet, netizens are more aware of political realities and are able to promote socio-political change.
Ultimately, Internet censorship is the CCP’s double-edged sword. Internet censorship is necessary for the CCP to maintain their authority because the Internet is a space that fosters knowledge, discussion, and dissention. At the same time, Internet censorship blemishes the CCP’s reputation domestically and globally. This cat and mouse game between the CCP and Chinese netizens is a delicate struggle between power and progress. As Jason Q. Ng states, “Internet users are clever, and with ever-growing information about how companies and governments censor content online, the mice will be harder to catch and silence” (Ng xxvii).