China’s online population of 800 million gets a highly restricted internet, one that doesn’t include access to Google, Facebook, YouTube or the New York Times. There’s little coverage of the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square. Even Winnie the Pooh got temporarily banned. China is able to control such a vast ocean of content through the largest system of censorship in the world, aptly known as the Great Firewall. It’s a joint effort between government monitors and the technology and telecommunications companies compelled to enforce the state’s rules. The stakes go beyond China, which is setting an example that other authoritarian countries can imitate.
While strict censorship is nothing new in one-party China, under President Xi Jinping online restraints have grown tighter, particularly around the time of politically sensitive events like the death of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and the Communist Party Congress in 2017. China began blocking Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging service ahead of the congress and extended a clampdown on virtual private networks, a commonly used method to circumvent the Great Firewall. Securing China’s “cyber sovereignty,” or protecting the country’s internet from undue foreign influence, is one of Xi’s avowed goals. Moves to restrict online freedoms include squelching a rising tide of #MeToo accusations; measures that all but eliminate the ability to post social media or even play games anonymously; and constricting the pipeline of new games to vet content and combat addiction. Pooh’s temporary banishment came after bloggers depicted Xi as the cartoon bear. Meanwhile, foreign companies that want to operate on the mainland are forced to adopt practices often seen as invasive elsewhere. Apple, which fought requests by the U.S. government to create backdoors into its password-protected products, has deleted apps and built local data centers in line with Chinese government requirements. All this contributes to China having the least online freedom of the 65 countries monitored by rights group Freedom House. It says China’s internet controls have reached “new extremes.” In the past year, people have been jailed for posting ill-advised comments — including in private chats — on the Twitter-like Weibo or WeChat, Tencent’s ubiquitous messaging service.
Data for chart here.
China hasn’t always restricted the web. When it formally arrived in 1994, it was relatively free and seen as an extension of the Open Door policy of tapping Western knowledge to reform the economy. As its popularity grew, the government yielded to a sentiment expressed by former leader Deng Xiaoping: When you open the window, the flies come in. From 2000, the foundations of the Great Firewall were laid with the introduction of the Golden Shield Project, a database-driven surveillance system capable of accessing every citizen’s record and connecting China’s security organizations. Now the government employs at least 50,000 people to enforce censorship, barring websites it disapproves of and forcing search engines to filter out content considered harmful. There’s also an army of social-media influencers who, by one estimate, post 500 million pro-government comments a year. Crucially, the authorities make companies responsible for the content they show, even that generated by users, a practice that encourages self-censorship in a country where the state licenses all media. With an almost captive local market, China’s tech giants — Tencent Holdings Ltd. and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. — have flourished, in the process becoming important taxpayers in China. At the other extreme, Greatfire.org, a non-profit group that opposes censorship, has created mirrored sites and a browser to get around the controls.
Most countries impose some sort of cyber control, like banning websites that promote hate. With more than half its 1.4 billion people online, China argues that the restrictions are mostly about maintaining social order and safeguarding national security. Proponents cite the worrying control on the flow of news exerted by the likes of Google and Facebook as a reason for the state to adopt an active role. Critics say China’s Great Firewall reflects its paranoia over the internet’s potential to spread opposition to one-party rule. As well as impeding freedom of speech, China’s approach constrains it economically, they say, by stifling innovation, preventing the exchange of important ideas and cutting access to services used by businesses like Google Cloud. Academics cannot tap Google Scholar, used globally by students and professors to share work. More broadly, critics fear if Russia and other like-minded countries follow China’s example and succeed in imposing restrictions on their citizens and global online companies, the vision behind the founding of the internet — an unfettered global exchange of information — could be seriously compromised.
To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake: Grant Clark at firstname.lastname@example.org, Edwin Chan
First published Oct. 12, 2017
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