Tug of War over China’s Cyberspace: A Sequel to Journey to the heart of Internet censorship

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Tug of War over China’s Cyberspace

A Sequel to

Journey to the heart of Internet censorship


Since the last report on internet control, Journey to the heart of Internet censorship[i], was published by CHRD and Reporters without Borders (RSF) in October 2007, the cat-and-mouse game between the government and Chinese internet users has intensified.

Over the past two years, the Chinese government has devoted great resources to strengthening its system of internet censorship, already one of the most advanced in the world. The Chinese government now seems to tie its success in internet control to regime survival. “Whether we can cope with the internet”, Hu Jintao warned at a study session of the Politburo on January 23, 2007, “affects the development of socialist culture…and the stability of the state”[ii]. Hu called on fellow cadres to “control the power of leading the public opinion on the internet, raise the standard of leading and strive for the art of guiding, and actively make use of new technology to step up the propaganda dynamics in order to form the mainstream public opinion.” [iii]Hu’s comments came as authorities were gearing up for the key events of the 17th National Party Congress of October 2007 and the Olympic Games of August 2008.

Government agencies and departments lost little time in responding to Hu’s order. Between 2007 and 2008:

  • They adopted measures to control online magazines, mobile phone text messages, internet address registers, blog service providers and internet video companies.
  • They deployed the “110 cyber police” to patrol web portals.
  • They considered plans to establish an internet regulatory commission, eventually deciding against it.
  • They invested in research to study new measures of controlling the internet.
  • They issued regulations on sources of articles and implemented a point system to punish internet providers for infractions.
  • And they established an “internal third-party monitoring system” intended to hand much of the responsibility for internet control to commercial websites.

In addition to these bureaucratic mechanisms of control and censorship, the government continues to persecute individuals for exercising their freedom of expression on the internet.Internet users were detained, convicted of crimes and imprisoned, often for as little as posting a call for a protest march or exposing the extravagant expense of a government building.Simply posting a comment or reproducing an article was sufficient cause for investigation.Blogs and articles that expressed criticism of or opposition to anything related to preparations for the Olympic Games, the government’s handling of the Sichuan earthquake, or the milk powder scandal, and those discussing and supporting Charter 08, were especially targeted.[iv]

Within the wider context of media control, it is not only the internet on which the Chinese government concentrates its efforts.CHRD’s recent report, “Follow the Principles of the Party”: State Control of the Media(and What the Media is Doing to Fight Back)[v] finds that “…the Chinese government continues to employ a wide and complex web of regulations and techniques to ensure that the media’s primary purpose is to ‘follow the principles of the Party’.” The traditional media tend to be capital-intensive and owned by companies clearly based in a particular location, making them easier to control. This holds true for the larger internet companies as well, and the government employs similar means to control them.At the same time, there are many smaller internet organizations and individual internet users and bloggers who are able to one extent or another to circumvent the mechanisms of control.The government’s strategy is to use the “big fish”—the major internet companies—to keep the “small fish”—individual and organizational users of the services of the large internet companies—under control.The government’s strategy works quite well in general, but at times it is unable to stop quite a large amount of information which the government might prefer to suppress from spreading widely on the internet.

Because of these dynamics specific to the internet, it continues to prove a difficult medium to control, even for an increasingly powerful authoritarian state well-versed in surveillance and censorship. Generally, Chinese internet users appear to be getting more adept at exploiting the cracks in control which exist. In the past couple of years, we have observed an unprecedented rise in online citizen journalism in China.[vi] The most well-known cases of online activism discussed in this report include:

  • reporting on the Chongqing “nail house”, one homeowner’s stand against forced demolition,
  • the organization of resident opposition to the construction of a chemical plant in Xiamen,
  • the exposure of slavery in brick kilns in Shaanxi Province,
  • commentary on the fake south China tiger, and
  • the online petition for political reform, Charter 08.

Users also challenged the legality of internet control by suing internet service providers for closing and blocking websites and blogs. The legal challenges were invariably unsuccessful because courts, pressured by political interests, either refused to take the cases or ruled against the plaintiffs, but the prospect of legal challenges by internet users to internet companies’ compliance with government directives regarding internet control may eventually lead to changes in the behavior of internet service providers.

The tug of war between netizens and the government has recently resulted in the phenomenal popularity of the “Song of Grass-mud Horse” (草泥马之歌). The lyrics of the seemingly innocent children’s song contain made-up names, the pronunciation of which closely resembles swear words. The song is a response by netizens to the government’s latest campaign to purge the internet of obscenity. It can be considered a collective act of resistance, its ridicule an implicit criticism of the government’s attempts to censor the internet.

So who is winning this war over China’s cyberspace?This report aims to answer this question through examining the government tactics to exert control over the internet and netizens’ strategies to navigate the official obstacles in the past two years. It outlines specific measures taken by the government to target different types of internet media as well as its general effort to tighten internet surveillance. It exposes new government measures turning commercial internet companies into tools of control and propaganda. It chronicles acts of internet control during important events, such as the 17th Party Congress and the Olympics. It analyzes successful cases of internet activism around China and legal challenges attempting to hold the authorities and companies accountable for their infringement of the rights to freedom of expression and information. The report’s appendices also include cases of punishment of internet companies, closures of websites and blogs and incarceration and harassment of internet journalists by the authorities documented by the author and CHRD in 2007 and 2008.

At the end of this report, CHRD urges the Chinese government to:

  • Enact laws to implement the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression;
  • Conduct a constitutional review of current administrative regulations that impose restrictions which unduly infringe on freedom of expression;
  • Ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR);
  • Stop using commercial websites as tools of censorship and propaganda;
  • End immediately the subjugation of freedom of expression to the Party’s interests;
  • Conduct a constitutional review of government organs and GONGOs whose primary functions are to censor and monitor freedom of expression on the internet;
  • End the practice of using laws to punish individuals for exercising their freedom of expression, especially on the Internet.

This report is a sequel to Journey to the Heart of Internet Censorship, published by CHRD and RSF in October 2007. Similar to that report, this current report is based on a Chinese study by an internet professional who has had access to the inside workings of the censorship agencies.

Please click here for the full report in PDF format

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