6/29/18, "The great firewall of China: Xi Jinping’s internet shutdown," UK Guardian, Elizabeth C. Economy
"Before Xi Jinping, the internet was becoming a more vibrant political
space for Chinese citizens. But today the country has the largest and
most sophisticated online censorship operation in the world."
"In December 2015, thousands of tech entrepreneurs and analysts, along
with a few international heads of state, gathered in Wuzhen, in southern
China, for the country’s second World Internet
Conference. At the opening ceremony the Chinese president, Xi Jinping,
set out his vision for the future of China’s internet. “We should
respect the right of individual countries to independently choose their
own path of cyber-development,” said Xi, warning against foreign
interference “in other countries’ internal affairs”.
No one was surprised by what they heard. Xi had already
established that the Chinese internet would be a world unto itself, with
its content closely monitored and managed by the Communist party. In
recent years, the Chinese leadership has devoted more and more resources
to controlling content online. Government policies have contributed to a
dramatic fall in the number of postings on the Chinese blogging
platform Sina Weibo (similar to Twitter), and have silenced many of
China’s most important voices advocating reform and opening up the
It wasn’t always like this. In the years before Xi became president
in 2012, the internet had begun to afford the Chinese people an
unprecedented level of transparency and power to communicate. Popular
bloggers, some of whom advocated bold social and political reforms,
commanded tens of millions of followers. Chinese citizens used virtual
private networks (VPNs) to access blocked websites. Citizens banded
together online to hold authorities accountable for their actions,
through virtual petitions and organising physical protests. In 2010, a
survey of 300 Chinese officials revealed that 70% were anxious about
whether mistakes or details about their private life might be leaked
online. Of the almost 6,000 Chinese citizens also surveyed, 88% believed
it was good for officials to feel this anxiety.
For Xi Jinping,
however, there is no distinction between the virtual world and the real
world: both should reflect the same political values, ideals, and
standards. To this end, the government has invested in technological
upgrades to monitor and censor content. It has passed new laws on
acceptable content, and aggressively punished those who defy the new
Under Xi, foreign content providers have found their
access to China shrinking. They are being pushed out by both Xi’s
ideological war and his desire that Chinese companies dominate the
country’s rapidly growing online economy.
At home, Xi paints the west’s version of the internet, which
prioritises freedom of information flow, as anathema to the values of
the Chinese government. Abroad, he asserts China’s sovereign right to
determine what constitutes harmful content. Rather than acknowledging
that efforts to control the internet are a source of embarrassment – a
sign of potential authoritarian fragility – Xi is trying to turn his
vision of a “Chinanet” (to use blogger Michael Anti’s phrase) into a
model for other countries.
The challenge for China’s leadership is to maintain what it perceives
as the benefits of the internet – advancing commerce and innovation –
without letting technology accelerate political change. To maintain his
“Chinanet”, Xi seems willing to accept the costs in terms of economic
development, creative expression, government credibility, and the
development of civil society. But the internet continues to serve as a
powerful tool for citizens seeking to advance social change and human
rights. The game of cat-and-mouse continues, and there are many more
mice than cats.
The very first email in China
was sent in September 1987 – 16 years after Ray Tomlinson sent the
first email in the US. It broadcast a triumphal message: “Across the
Great Wall we can reach every corner in the world.” For the first few
years, the government reserved the internet for academics and officials.
Then, in 1995, it was opened to the general public. In 1996, although
only about 150,000 Chinese people were connected to the internet, the
government deemed it the “Year of the Internet”, and internet clubs and
cafes appeared all over China’s largest cities.
as enthusiastically as the government proclaimed its support for the
internet, it also took steps to control it. Rogier Creemers, a China
expert at Oxford University, has noted that “As the internet became a
publicly accessible information and communication platform, there was no
debate about whether it should fall under government supervision – only
about how such control would be implemented in practice.” By 1997,
Beijing had enacted its first laws criminalising online postings that it
believed were designed to hurt national security or the interests of
China’s leaders were right to be worried. Their citizens quickly
realised the political potential inherent in the internet. In 1998, a
30-year-old software engineer called Lin Hai forwarded 30,000 Chinese
email addresses to a US-based pro-democracy magazine.
Lin was arrested,
tried and ultimately sent to prison
in the country’s first known trial for a political violation committed
completely online. The following year, the spiritual organisation Falun Gong
used email and mobile phones to organise a silent demonstration of more
than 10,000 followers around the Communist party’s central compound,
Zhongnanhai, to protest their inability to practise freely. The
gathering, which had been arranged without the knowledge of the
government, precipitated an ongoing persecution of Falun Gong
practitioners and a new determination to exercise control over the
The man who emerged to lead the government’s technological efforts
was Fang Binxing. In the late 1990s, Fang worked on developing the
“Golden Shield” – transformative software that enabled the government
to inspect any data being received or sent, and to block destination IP
addresses and domain names. His work was rewarded by a swift political
rise. By the 2000s, he had earned the moniker “Father of the Great
Firewall” and, eventually, the enmity of hundreds of thousands
of Chinese web users.
Throughout the early 2000s, the Chinese leadership supplemented
Fang’s technology with a set of new regulations designed to ensure that
anyone with access to China’s internet played by Chinese rules. In
September 2000, the state council issued order no 292, which required
internet service providers to ensure that the information sent out on
their services adhered to the law, and that some domain names and IP
addresses were recorded. Two years later, Beijing blocked Google for the first time. (A few years later, Google introduced Google.cn, a censored version
of the site.) In 2002, the government increased its emphasis on
self-censorship with the Public Pledge on Self-Discipline for China’s
Internet Industry, which established four principles: patriotic
observance of law, equitableness, trustworthiness and honesty. More than
100 companies, including Yahoo!, signed the pledge.
Perhaps the most significant development, however, was a 2004
guideline on internet censorship that called for Chinese universities to
recruit internet commentators who could guide online discussions in
politically acceptable directions and report comments that did
not follow Chinese law. These commentators became known as wu mao dang, or “50-cent party”, after the small bonuses they were supposedly paid for each post.
Yet even as the government was striving to limit individuals’ access
to information, many citizens were making significant inroads into the
country’s political world – and their primary target was corrupt local
In May 2009, Deng Yujiao, a young woman working in a hotel in Hubei
province, stabbed a party official to death after she rejected his
efforts to pay her for sex and he tried to rape her. Police initially
committed Deng to a mental hospital. A popular blogger, Wu Gan, however,
publicised her case. Using information gathered through a process known
as ren rou sousuo, or “human flesh search engine”, in which
web users collaborate to discover the identity of a specific individual
or organisation, Wu wrote a blog describing the events and actions of
the party officials involved.
In an interview with the Atlantic magazine at the time, he commented:
“The cultural significance of flesh searches is this: in an
undemocratic country, the people have limited means to get information …
[but] citizens can get access to information through the internet,
exposing lies and the truth.” Deng’s case began to attract public support,
with young people gathering in Beijing with signs reading “Anyone
could be Deng Yujiao.” Eventually the court ruled that Deng had acted in
During this period, in the final years of Hu Jintao’s presidency, the
internet was becoming more and more powerful as a mechanism by which
Chinese citizens held their officials to account. Most cases were like
that of Deng Yujiao – lodged and resolved at the local level. A small
number, however, reached central authorities in Beijing. On 23 July
2011, a high-speed train derailed in the coastal city of Wenzhou,
leaving at least 40 people dead and 172 injured. In the wake of the
accident, Chinese officials banned journalists
from investigating, telling them to use only information “released from
authorities”. But local residents took photos of the wreckage being
buried instead of being examined for evidence. The photos went viral and
heightened the impression that the government’s main goal was not
to seek the true cause of the accident.
Sina Weibo poll – later blocked – asked users why they thought the
train wreckage was buried: 98% (61,382) believed it represented
destruction of evidence. Dark humour spread online: “How far are we from
heaven? Only a train ticket away,” and “The Ministry of Railways
earnestly requests that you ride the Heavenly Party Express.” The
popular pressure resulted in a full-scale investigation of the crash,
and in late December, the government issued a report blaming poorly
designed signal equipment and insufficient safety procedures. As many as
54 officials faced disciplinary action as a result of the crash.
The internet also provided a new sense of community for Chinese
citizens, who mostly lacked robust civil-society organisations. In July
2012, devastating floods in Beijing led to the evacuation of more than
65,000 residents and the deaths of at least 77 people. Damages totalled
an estimated $1.9bn. Local officials failed to respond effectively:
police officers allegedly kept ticketing stranded cars instead of
assisting residents, and the early warning system did not work. Yet the
real story was the extraordinary outpouring of assistance from Beijing
web users, who volunteered their homes and food to stranded citizens. In
a span of just 24 hours, an estimated 8.8m messages were sent on Weibo
regarding the floods. The story of the floods became not only one of
government incompetence, but also one of how an online community could
transform into a real one.
While the Chinese people explored new ways to use the internet, the
leadership also began to develop a taste for the new powers it offered,
such as a better understanding of citizens’ concerns and new ways to
shape public opinion. Yet as the internet increasingly became a vehicle
for dissent, concern within the leadership mounted that it might be used
to mobilise a large-scale political protest capable of threatening
the central government. The government responded with a stream of
technological fixes and political directives; yet the boundaries of
internet life continued to expand.
The advent of Xi Jinping in 2012 brought a new determination to move
beyond deleting posts and passing regulations. Beijing wanted to ensure
that internet content more actively served the interests of
the Communist party. Within the virtual world, as in the real world, the
party moved to silence dissenting voices, to mobilise party members in
support of its values, and to prevent foreign ideas from seeping
into Chinese political and social life. In a leaked speech in August
2013, Xi articulated a dark vision: “The internet has become the main
battlefield for the public opinion struggle.”
Early in his tenure, Xi embraced the world of social media. One Weibo
group, called Fan Group to Learn from Xi, appeared in late 2012, much
to the delight of Chinese propaganda officials. (Many Chinese suspected
that the account was directed by someone in the government, although the
account’s owner denied it.) Xi allowed a visit he made to Hebei to be
liveblogged on Weibo by government-affiliated press, and videos about
Xi, including a viral music video called How Should I Address You, based
on a trip he made to a mountain village, demonstrate the government’s
increasing skill at digital propaganda.
Under Xi, the government has also developed new technology that has
enabled it to exert far greater control over the internet. In January
2015, the government blocked many of the VPNs that citizens had used to
circumvent the Great Firewall. This was surprising to many outside
observers, who had believed that VPNs were too useful to the Chinese
economy – supporting multinationals, banks and retailers, among others –
for the government to crack down on them.
In spring 2015, Beijing launched the Great Cannon.
Unlike the Great Firewall, which has the capacity to block traffic as
it enters or exits China, the Great Cannon is able to adjust and replace
content as it travels around the internet. One of its first targets was
the US coding and software development site GitHub. The Chinese
government used the Great Cannon to levy a distributed denial of service
attack against the site, overwhelming it with traffic redirected from
Baidu (a search engine similar to Google). The attack focused on
attempting to force GitHub to remove pages linked to the
Chinese-language edition of the New York Times and GreatFire.org,
a popular VPN that helps people circumvent Chinese internet censorship.
But perhaps Xi’s most noticeable gambit has been to constrain the
nature of the content available online. In August 2013, the government
issued a new set of regulations known as the “seven baselines”. The
reaction by Chinese internet companies was immediate. Sina, for example,
shut down or “handled” 100,000 Weibo accounts found to not comply with
the new rules.
The government also adopted tough restrictions on internet-based
rumours. In September 2013, the supreme people’s court ruled that
authors of online posts that deliberately spread rumours or lies, and
were either seen by more than 5,000 individuals or shared more than 500
times, could face defamation charges and up to three years in jail.
Following massive flooding in Hebei province in July 2016, for example,
the government detained three individuals accused of spreading “false
news” via social media regarding the death toll and cause of the flood.
Some social media posts and photos of the flooding, particularly of
drowning victims, were also censored.
In addition, Xi’s government began targeting individuals with large
social media followings who might challenge the authority of the
Communist party. Restrictions on the most prominent Chinese web
influencers, beginning in 2013, represented an important turning point
in China’s internet life. Discussions began to move away from politics
to personal and less sensitive issues. The impact on Sina Weibo was
dramatic. According to a study of 1.6 million Weibo users, the number
of Weibo posts fell by 70% between 2011 and 2013.
The strength of the Communist party’s control over the internet rests
above all on its commitment to prevent the spread of information that it
finds dangerous. It has also adopted sophisticated technology, such as
the Great Firewall and the Golden Shield. Perhaps its most potent source
of influence, however, is the cyber-army it has developed to implement
total number of people employed to monitor opinion and censor content
on the internet – a role euphemistically known as “internet public
opinion analyst” – was estimated at 2 million in 2013. They are employed
across government propaganda departments, private corporations and news
outlets. One 2016 Harvard study estimated that the Chinese government
fabricates and posts approximately 448m comments on social media
annually. A considerable amount of censorship is conducted through the
manual deletion of posts, and an estimated 100,000 people are employed
by both the government and private companies to do just this.
Private companies also play an important role in facilitating
internet censorship in China. Since commercial internet providers are so
involved in censoring the sites that they host, internet scholar Guobin
Yang argues that “it may not be too much of a stretch to talk about the
privatisation of internet content control”. The process is made simpler
by the fact that several major technology entrepreneurs also hold
political office. For example, Robin Li of Baidu is a member of the
Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, an advisory
legislature, while Lei Jun, founder and CEO of mobile phone giant
Xiaomi, is a representative of the National People’s Congress.
Yet Xi’s growing control over the internet does not come without
costs. An internet that does not work efficiently or limits access to
information impedes economic growth. China’s internet is notoriously
unreliable, and ranks 91st in the world for speed. As New Yorker writer
Evan Osnos asked in discussing the transformation of the Chinese
internet during Xi’s tenure: “How many countries in 2015 have an
internet connection to the world that is worse than it was a year ago?”
Scientific innovation, particularly prized by the Chinese leadership,
may also be at risk. After the VPN crackdown, a Chinese biologist
published an essay that became popular on social media, entitled Why Do
Scientists Need Google? He wrote: “If a country wants to make this many
scientists take out time from the short duration of their professional
lives to research technology for climbing over the Great Firewall and
to install and to continually upgrade every kind of software for
routers, computers, tablets and mobile devices, no matter that this
behaviour wastes a great amount of time; it is all completely
More difficult to gauge is the cost the Chinese leadership incurs to
its credibility. Web users criticising the Great Firewall have used puns
to mock China’s censorship system. Playing off the fact that the
phrases “strong nation” and “wall nation” share a phonetic pronunciation
in Chinese (qiangguo), some began using the phrase “wall
nation” to refer to China. Those responsible for seeking to control
content have also been widely mocked. When Fang opened an account
on Sina Weibo in December 2010, he quickly closed the account after
thousands of online users left “expletive-laden messages” accusing him
of being a government hack. Censors at Sina Weibo blocked “Fang Binxing”
as a search term; one Twitter user wrote: “Kind of poetic, really, the
blocker, blocked.” When Fang delivered a speech at Wuhan University in
central China in 2011, a few students pelted him with eggs and a pair of shoes.
the government seems willing to bear the economic and scientific costs,
as well as potential damage to its credibility, if it means more
control over the internet. For the international community, Beijing’s
cyber-policy is a sign of the challenge that a more powerful China
presents to the liberal world order, which prioritises values such as
freedom of speech. It also reflects the paradox inherent in China’s
efforts to promote itself as a champion of globalisation, while simultaneously advocating a model of internet sovereignty and
closing its cyber-world to information and investment from abroad."
"Adapted from The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese
State by Elizabeth C Economy, published by Oxford University Press and
available at guardianbookshop.com"
News that doesn't receive the necessary attention.
Sunday, July 1, 2018
With 2 million government censors, Communist China has largest and most sophisticated online censorship operation in the world, a challenge to liberal world order which prioritizes values such as freedom of speech-UK Guardian, 6/29/18...(Does Communist China need US taxpayer funded bombing and "regime change" murders for going its own way?)
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