China’s record of Internet Freedom is Very Poor! By Manzoor Ahmed

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For the fourth consecutive year, access to the internet in China has been ranked the least free among 65 surveyed nations, according to the latest report by US Human Rights group Freedom House. The report says that China is at the forefront of a global embrace of social media to ‘manipulate elections and monitor citizens’. This report highlights and reinforces the well known fact that China’s record of internet freedom is very poor.

China has over 800 million users of the internet, but they cannot access websites like Google and social media platforms like Twitter. China has a firewall, officially known as Golden Shield and developed in the late 1990s, which blocks users from accessing major websites and social media tools.

Fang Binxing, known as ‘Father of China’s Great Firewall’ developed Golden Shield, a transformative software that enables the Chinese government to inspect any data being received or sent, and to block destination IP addresses and domain names. Not only does China block internet access, it has also created its own version of Google to cater to the domestic demand.

The Freedom House Report comes at a time when China celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in June 2019 and was faced with nearly six months of increasingly violent anti-government protests in Hong Kong. China’s domestic clampdown on its citizens is increasingly being overtaken by attempts to manipulate social media to influence opinion in other countries, including attempts to fix elections.

According to the latest report, China’s censorship had reached “unprecedented extremes” this year, and the internet in the country was the least free of all surveyed nations, including Iran, Syria, Cuba and Vietnam. It needs recalling that China introduced censorship of the internet and the tools to effectively clamp down almost simultaneously in the late 1990s.

China has also over the years, tightened the rules and laws for digital mobilisation and activism by increasingly shuttering individual accounts posting “harmful” content on the social media platforms like WeChat, and domestic companies are being used to carry out surveillance of Chinese users. The bottom line is that China has become “a leader in developing, employing and exporting social media surveillance tools”. And has “a host of invasive tools, both low and hi-tech, for repressing any behaviour that strays from what is acceptable under ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ – the doctrine of China’s authoritarian leader.” This is the main conclusion of the Freedom House report.

Guidelines for Internet Censorship

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 Chinese law. The order also required that some domain names and IP addresses were recorded. Two years later, Beijing blocked Google for the first time. In 2002, the government introduced the ‘Public Pledge on Self-Discipline for China’s Internet Industry’, which established four principles to be adhered to: patriotic observance of law, equitableness, trustworthiness and honesty. More than 100 companies, including Yahoo!, signed the pledge!

Thus, China created not only the tools to block and monitor internet traffic but also introduced rules and mechanisms to prevent their own people from expressing themselves openly on the net.

 Internet Policing

Internet policing is extensive and common and more ominously, every keyword searched is tracked. In 2004, guidelines were issued in China 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.

According to CNN, China’s internet Police employs some 30,000 agents to investigate individuals who post information online that may be offensive to the Chinese government and officials. This kind of information includes rumours or state secrets, as well as material whose objective is to bring down, in the Chinese mind, the morale and reputation of the government. Even in internet cafes, all chats, online games and e-mails are recorded by the Government, making it impossible to remain under the radar or send any truly ‘private’ messages.

The total number of people actually employed to monitor opinion and censor content on the internet (2013) in China was close to two million. Additionally, 100,000 people are employed by both the government and private companies to manually delete posts. Interestingly, a 2016 Harvard study estimates that the Chinese Government fabricates and posts approximately 448 million comments on social media annually. Besides keeping its own citizens under surveillance, Beijing also stepped up its efforts to influence the outcomes of elections overseas, the report said, as a way of shaping the narrative in China’s favour. The jury may still be out on the impact in international platforms, but domestically, this strategy has worked out quite well.

Protests in Hong Kong and Social Media

Adrian Shahbaz, co-author of the Freedom House 2019 report describes how China has weaponised, “its own content dissemination systems” to manage internet discourse on sensitive topics such as the Hong Kong protests and the NBA scandal. The latter occurred when a tweet by the Houston Rockets’ General Manager supporting the Hong Kong protesters sparked calls for a boycott of league telecasts and consumer products and a state backlash in China.

More recently, Chinese authorities detained a journalist who had recently written about the protests in Hong Kong. Huang Xueqin, was detained last week in the southern city of Guangzhou, on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”  Huang is the latest mainland citizen known to have been arrested for publicly supporting the Hong Kong protests. Police in China have in recent months detained and questioned several citizens who have shared protest slogans online. In June 2019, Huang published an essay about her experience after attending the first march in Hong Kong against the extradition bill, now withdrawn, that would have allowed the extradition of the Hong Kong’s residents to mainland China.

As China broadens its censorship of social media and expands its control over dissemination of information about politically sensitive events, including the Tiananmen Square crackdown and the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, it has also ensured its citizens access to a social media platforms like Sina Weibo. This is done so that it can be monitored and gives the impression of giving the people some freedom! The report also notes that China had been implicated in cyber attacks and information warfare against other nations, including a February 2019 cyber attack in Australia, ahead of elections there.

Conclusion

It is clear that China’s social media companies and outlets could be misused whenever China feels its own political sensitivities are under threat. This strategy also foreshadows global concerns about Beijing's exports of 5G technology and surveillance tools. In sum, China’s internet restrictions are creating challenges within Chinese society and elsewhere. While it is not apparent to the world, recent chats on Chinese social media platforms show an increasing concern over developments in Hong Kong and other places, indicating that mainland China will face increasing domestic pressure as the political landscape changes across the country.

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