Notes from (behind) the Great Firewall
If you’ve lived in China, as I have for three years, then you know much of the Internet is blocked off by the “Great Firewall.” All foreigners as well as a tiny minority of Chinese internet users employ a VPN or “Virtual Private Network” to circumvent the wall, but the vast majority of Chinese people are sealed off. Content deemed unacceptable by the Communist Party is obscured using various methods, including bandwith throttling, keyword filtering, and blocking access to specific websites, including Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube. In addition, various forms of pressure are used to coerce journalists and individuals to engage in self-censorship. Journalists can be dismissed from their work, subjected to libel lawsuits, and in some rare cases made to give forced confessions. When I briefly wrote for a small English language magazine in China, my editor routinely removed seemingly innocuous portions from articles out of fear of attracting attention from the censors. In one instance, I merely made a factual statement that approximately one fifth of China’s billionaires “had senior political appointments to the National People’s Congress and CPPCC” which I suggested was “indicative of the enduring legacy and importance of political guanxi.” In the next sentence I went on to concede that China is also home to the largest proportion of self-made billionaires, demonstrating that the situation is complex. This was, I thought, a factual and balanced observation. The feckless Editor scrapped the whole paragraph.
Self-censorship is pervasive, but the level of control over cyberspace that the Chinese government exercises is even more worrisome. As Adam Segal explains in a recent article from Foreign Affairs, “Chinese censors are now skilled at controlling conversations on social media. In 2017, as the dissident and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo became increasingly ill, censors revealed that they could delete his image from chats. In an even more Orwellian move, authorities have rolled out a sophisticated surveillance system based on a vast array of cameras and sensors, aided by facial and voice recognition software and artificial intelligence. The tool has been deployed most extensively in Xinjiang Province, in an effort to track the Muslim Uighur population there, but the government is working to scale it up nationwide.” If China has its way, he predicts it would be the end of the open Internet as we know it.
The reason China engages in such intense censorship is two-fold: on the one hand it serves as a form of economic protectionism to prop up China’s online companies (Youku and Baidu dont have to compete with the likes of Youtube and Google, for instance), but more critically, it allows the Chinese government to exercise greater control over what it deems to be appropriate information and discourse on the web. Although the mechanism for enforcing compliance with non-state companies is not entirely understood, the policy for state media outlets is clearly articulated. As detailed in this report from the Council on Foreign Relations, “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.”
The Chinese market is massive. Profit hungry tech companies understandably want access to a fifth of the world’s population (where approximately 750 million people are online). Google operated a search engine in China for four years, but pulled out in 2010 after excessive government intrusion. Meanwhile, various tech CEOs, most notably Mark Zuckerberg, have spent years making pathetic overtures to try to curry favor with Chinese politicians. But there’s one major snafu that keeps these companies from gaining access: the government wants a guarantee that they can monitor and remove content that they deem insubordinate to their rule. If the latest stories about Google’s secretive plans to build a censored search engine for China are any indication, a subset of Silicon Valley appears to have concluded that forsaking core Western values is worth the bottom line. Don’t take my word for it, go read the New York Times. This shift in moral ethos is perhaps not surprising for a company that recently removed “don’t be evil” from its corporate code of conduct.
I am active on various Chinese social media platforms, especially WeChat. Here’s just one example of how nuanced Chinese censorship has become. The government no longer censors always censors people outright. They’ve realized that totally banning speech is not effective or feasible — limiting dissent to tiny margins of society appears to be sufficient. I have a friend who posts irreverent and controversial material on his social media pages (WeChat “Moments” in particular, which is sort of like a combined Twitter/Instagram feed within the app’s ecosystem). On June 4th, the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, he made a post commemorating the 1989 incident and wrote a message criticizing the Communist Party. A less savvy totalitarian regime would bust down his door and throw him in a gulag. Today’s Chinese Communist Party, however, is much more subtle, but in a sense more nefarious. The algorithms the government has forced companies like WeChat to use has become so precise that they don’t simply delete the post. Instead, they’ve made it so that WeChat accounts connected to a foreign passport or phone number can still view it, but WeChat accounts connected to a Chinese passport or phone number are blocked. This gives potential rabble rousing foreigners the illusion that some degree of dissent is permissible. So if you were to look at my friend’s Tiananmen story on my account, you can see the post. However, if you looked at my Chinese friend’s WeChat account, the post doesn’t exist. At first I was surprised, but then I realized this was consistent with Tencent’s agreement to comply with 2014 regulations on “instant messaging apps,” but only for accounts created in China.
I am worried about the future of the Internet if China is at the helm. The CCP is doing their utmost to make sure the future of the global web plays by its rules. These rules are antithetical to the kind of world we should be striving to foster. Western governments and private corporations should do everything in their power to resist this creeping erosion of Internet freedom.