Domain name : .cn
Population : 1 338 612 968
Internet-users : 420 000 000
Average charge for one hour’s connection at a cybercafé : About 2 US$
Average monthly salary : between 219 and 274 US$
Number of imprisoned netizens : 77
As its polemic with Google and the United States on the Internet’s future unfolds, China continues to intensify Web censorship, faced with an increasingly forceful online community. The much-vaunted promises made by organizers at the open ceremonies of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games have proven to be mere illusions for the world’s biggest netizen prison. Expanded dissemination of propaganda, generalized surveillance and crackdowns on Charter 08 signatories are commonplace on what has become the Chinese Intranet – with significant consequences for trade.
The Google polemic
Internet giant Google spotlighted Internet censorship in China when it announced on January 12, 2010, that it would stop censoring the Chinese version of its search engine, www.google.cn, even if it meant having to withdraw from that market. This decision was made following some highly sophisticated cyber-attacks aimed at dozens of human rights activists and journalists. Since then, there has been some growing tension between Chinese authorities – who assured the world that China has a “completely open” Internet – and the American company, which has become the standard bearer for freedom-of-expression defenders on the Net. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lent Google her support in a historic speech on January 21. She portrayed the United States as defenders of a free Internet, accessible to all, and named freedom of expression on the Internet as a U.S. foreign policy priority.
The “Electronic Great Wall”: The world’s most consummate censorship system
According to the authorities, China has the world’s largest Internet user population: 380 million. Its censorship system is one of the most technologically advanced in existence. It was implemented when the Chinese Internet was first created to facilitate the latter’s economic growth, while also strictly controlling its content to prevent the dissemination of “subversive” information. In the hands of a regime obsessed with maintaining stability – censorship has developed into a tool for political control.
Censors manage to block tens of thousands of websites by combining URL filtering with the censoring of keywords ranging from “Tiananmen” and “Dalai Lama” to “democracy” and “human rights.”
Ever since Chinese characters were introduced on the Net and China took over domain names ending in “.cn,” the regime has been developing a genuine Intranet. Ideogram-based domain names are used to access websites based in China. By typing “.com.cn,” surfers are redirected to the Chinese version of the website concerned. Any Chinese Internet user using ideograms is thus restricted to this Intranet, disconnected from the World Wide Web, and directly controlled by the regime.
Censorship is institutionalized: it is managed by several ministries and administrations. In addition to the generalized filtering system, the largest blog platforms are also monitored. Assistance from foreign companies – mainly Yahoo!, Microsoft and, for now, Google – search engines is making their job that much easier.
The primary news sites, like the state-owned media, receive daily oral and written directives from the Department of Publicity specifying what topics can, or cannot, be covered and under what conditions. For example, the Department sent the following instructions to prevent coverage of a graft case implicating Hu Jintao’s son, Hu Haifeng, in Namibia: "Hu Haifeng, Namibia, corruption probe Namibia, corruption probe Yang Fan, corruption probe TsingHua TongFang, corruption probe South Africa – ensure that searches for these keywords yield no results." The search engines implemented a draconian censorship with regard to this case.
Prospect of tougher censorship and more crackdowns
The year 2009 was punctuated by a series of controversial anniversaries: the Tibet rebellion (in March), the 10th year since the Falun Gong spiritual movement was banned, and the 20th anniversary (in June) of the bloody quashing of student protests in Tiananmen Square (June). Another political highlight of that year was the 60th anniversary (on October 1) of the People’s Republic of China. On each occasion, the authorities’ reaction was to impose an even more drastic censorship on the traditional and new media outlets.
On the eve of the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square events, a dozen websites such as Twitter, YouTube, Bing, Flickr, Opera, Live, WordPress and Blogger were blocked. The information blackout has been so well-enforced for the last 20 years that the vast majority of young Chinese citizens are not even aware that the events of June 1989 ever happened. "The search does not comply with laws, regulations and policies.” That is the response received when Internet users type “June 4” on the “Photos” pages of Baidu –the country’s most popular search engine. Search results mention only official Chinese comments on the “events of June 4.”
Prior to the anniversary of the People's Republic of China, censors redoubled their efforts to prevent Web users from using anti-censorship software such as FreeGate, by blocking thousands of foreign IP addresses suspected of participating in this network.
The government tightened its control at the end of 2009/early 2010. In December 2009, the authorities announced that they would soon require all websites to register on a “white list” under penalty of being placed on a “black list.”. Millions of websites in China, as well as abroad, run the risk of being blocked if this rule is applied to them.
The rule prohibiting individuals from obtaining domain names ending in “.cn” was lifted in February 2010, but replaced by the implementation of a draconian system of censorship: now an individual who wants to create an Internet website must register for it by bringing ID papers to regulators in person.
The anti-pornography campaign launched in January 2009 – according to the authorities – resulted in 15,000 sites being shut down one year later, and in the arrest of over 5,000 people. It also led to the shutdown of websites totally unrelated to the subject. The New York Times was briefly blocked in January 2009. The blog platform www.Bullog.cn, very much in vogue among activist bloggers and intellectuals, was closed that same month for “publishing a lot of negative information in the public domain,” according to the Chinese Ministry of Information. It had notably published Charter 08, an online petition calling for more freedoms in the country, and particularly on the Internet, which to date has been signed by thousands of Chinese people.
Within the scope of this campaign, the government has also ordered Chinese and foreign computer manufacturers to install on their products filtering software called “Green Dam Youth Escort,” designed to protect young Web users from “harmful” content, but whose filtering options would include the blocking of political and religious content. Due to widespread opposition, authorities have postponed making installation of the software mandatory.
All Internet censorship is not done for anti-pornographic purposes. What makes it all the more dangerous is that it is constantly being revised to take into account current events. For example, the keyword list is updated regularly. Among recently censored sites are ImdB – a news website about motion pictures – and YouTube, Blogger, Twitter, Facebook, the BBC in Chinese, Friendfeed, Dailymotion, Flickr, etc. Censors are particularly interested in blocking participative and photo-exchange websites. On March 30, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) issued a Memorandum of Understanding calling for stricter control of audiovisual material posted on the Internet, which lists some thirty content links that should be banned or modified.
Human rights activist websites, Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRC) and Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC), as well as the news site Boxun, were hacked in January 2010 and rendered inaccessible for days. Their foreign Internet service provider was the target of the most intense DDoS attack that it had ever experienced. These attacks were preceded by the installation of malware on the sites of the organizations concerned.
Finally, censorship and crackdowns are becoming decentralized and are now also more often enforced by local officials in an increasingly random and unexpected way, and, to a growing extent, eluding central government control.
Discriminatory treatment with regard to Xinjiang and Tibet Internet access
Chinese “at-risk” regions like Tibet and Xinjiang bear the full brunt of censorship. Repression is a permanent threat for anyone who tries to disseminate accounts of violence committed by security forces. Dozens of Tibetans and Uighurs are detained, and some of them received life sentences for having sent news abroad or tried to share information incompatible with the Party line.
Two Tibetan websites hosted in China, Tibet (http://www.tibettl.com/), known for hosting the blog of popular writer Jamyang Kyi and ChodMe (http://www.cmbpd.cn/index.html), are now inaccessible in most of the country, especially Tibet. In August 2009, Web surfer Pasang Norbu was arrested by Chinese authorities in Lhassa for having consulted the Radio Free Asia’s website (http://www.rfa.org/english/). In November 2009, Tibetan writer and photographer Kunga Tseyang was given a five-year prison sentence for offenses that included publishing articles on the Internet. Two days earlier, the founder of a literary Internet website, Kunchok Tsephel, got fifteen years in prison for “dissemination of state secrets.”
Xinjiang, cut off from the world following the July 2009 uprisings, is still waiting to be reconnected to the Internet. Although the authorities reestablished access in early 2010 – solely for the official media websites Xinhua and People's Daily – they continue to censor all websites in the Uighur language, and those dealing with Xinjiang. Internet users based in this region are not allowed to leave comments or to view the forum sections of the few accessible sites, nor can they send or receive emails. Censorship may be followed by arrests. llham Tohti, an economics professor at Beijing’s Central Minorities University and editor of uighurbiz.net, was illegally detained for several weeks during the summer of 2009, which is also when cyber-dissidents and founders of Uighur websites Dilshat Parhat, Nureli, Obulkasim and Muhemmet were arrested. They are still in prison.
The world’s biggest prison for netizens
Thirty journalists and seventy-two netizens are now behind bars for freely expressing their views. The charges brought against them are “subversion” and “dissemination of state secrets.”
Netizens and dissidents have recently received very harsh prison terms. In December 2009, intellectual Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to a long jail term of eleven years for having written his opinions on the Internet and participated in the launching of Charter 08. Over one hundred other signatories have been questioned, threatened, or summoned by the secret police throughout the country.
Cyber-dissident Huang Qi’s three-year jail sentence was upheld on appeal, and blogger Tan Zuoren got five years for having dared to contradict the official account of how the government dealt with victims in the aftermath of the May 2008 earthquake in Szechwan.
Finally, there has been no further news about human rights defense lawyer Gao Zhisheng, arrested on February 4, 2009, raising the fear that he may have died from ill-treatment at the hands of his torturers.
Tighter surveillance and unrestrained propaganda
Surveillance is becoming more and more sophisticated. The over 40,000 members of the cyber-police are constantly scanning the Web, keeping a sharp eye out for “subversive elements.”
Early this year, following revelations about the pirating of Gmail accounts, some human rights activists and journalists realized that their accounts had been hacked and their emails rerouted to another, unknown, email address.
Cybercafés have also been placed under close surveillance. Their customers are required to produce an ID and have their photo taken. A log of their connections is maintained and made available to the authorities. Their activities are privately monitored in real time by pressured café managers. The connection between police stations and “hotspots” such as cybercafés or financial centers has been expanded and improved within the scope of the “Safe City” project.
The government’s position is to prevent access to any “harmful” piece of information by offering an “alternative” official view of events with the regime present “in the field,” feeding cyber-space its propaganda, and ready to systematically respond online to criticisms of the regime. Discussion forums are infiltrated by Internet users known as the “Fifty Cent Party,” paid to leave positive comments. Welcome to “Control 2.0.”
An active and inventive online community
Nonetheless, a great deal of information is circulating on the Chinese Intranet and heated discussions are going on in online forums. Bloggers and Internet users alike are using more and more proxies and VPNs to circumvent censorship. They keep speaking out against the failings of Chinese society and government abuses, increasingly compelling the official media to cover embarrassing scandals. The new media is thus helping the traditional media to test the limits of censorship. The announcement of the fire that damaged one of the towers of state-owned TV network CCTV was first made via the Internet and Twitter – even though the state-owned media (including CCTV) had received the order not to mention it. Caught in the act, the latter ultimately had to reverse course and provide some form of coverage.
Bloggers like Zola became known for their coverage of social subjects, such as forced evictions. Cyber-dissident Huanq Qi helped to reveal the authorities’ role in the collapsing of Szechwan schools after the earthquake. Some of the negligent local officials have been investigated.
Internet users can have some degree of influence when they get organized. Charter 08 was posted online and widely disseminated before it became the target of censorship, which explains the witch hunt for its writers. One young woman, Deng Yuqiao, who killed a man who tried to assault her, received support from a campaign conducted in the blogosphere and on Twitter. Netizens launched a genuine hunt to track down corrupt officials. When Twitter was blocked, angry surfers invaded a Twitter “copycat” website, www.t.people.com.cn, launched by the state-owned People's Daily, forcing the site to shut down.
The authorities have grasped the influence that netizens can have and sometimes call on them for help. Web users were invited to participate in an investigation into the death of a young detainee in a Yunnan province prison, although they unfortunately were not given access to all case file documents.
Internet users sometimes use humor, puns, and plays on word pronunciation to ridicule censors. For example, they have given a new twist to the slogan, “The Party’s Central Committee policy is yakexi (“good”), which Uighurs chant during the final official Chinese New Year ceremonies using a yakexi homonym meaning “lizard.” The term “lizard” began to be used throughout the Chinese Web as a symbol of the fight against censorship. Just like the story of the “Caonima” mudgrass horse, whose name – when pronounced somewhat differently – is an insult, and who is attacked by crabs from the river symbolizing the censors. This story surfaced at the same time that the authorities launched an anti-obscenity campaign. The lizard and the lama achieved unprecedented popularity and served as models for stuffed toys, clips, songs, cartoons, and even parodies of the state-owned CCTV network’s “Animal World” program.
Trade barriers and pirating
Internet censorship concerns far more than human rights. It also affects trade and business, which are negatively impacted by the lack of access to reliable information. The importing of cell phones and laptop computers equipped with Wifi was prohibited in China because the latter come with filtering technologies that make surveillance more difficult. The iPhone was launched in China only in November 2009, two years after the rest of the world, and without WiFi. Online censorship has also become a way to discriminate against foreign companies and grant preferential treatment to Chinese companies. Visitors to www.Google.com occasionally find themselves rerouted to Baidu. According to the Inside Facebook website, Facebook’s Chinese visitors plummeted from one million in July 2009 to 14,000 by the end of 2009. The site is now blocked. Its Chinese counterparts, notably www.Renren.com and www.51.com, now dominate the market. A local equivalent to Twitter was launched once the microblogging site was blocked. YouTube also has its share of Chinese clones, such as www.Tudou.com and www.Youkube.com.
The Wall Street Journal subsequently labeled Chinese Internet censorship as “disguised protectionism.” China had promised in 2001, when it became a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO), that it would allow foreign companies to have unlimited access to many services, including online services. It was just critized in December 2009 for its regime’s restrictions on the importation and distribution of movies, foreign books and music, which the U.S. has ruled as discriminatory. The WTO recommended that China “bring its measures into compliance.” The WTO also needs to examine the issue of online censorship as a barrier to trade.
http://cmp.hku.hk/: website of journalism and media study centre at Hong Kong University (English)
http://boxun.us/news/publish/ (Boxun): website with news from China (English and Mandarin)
http://chrdnet.org/ : website of the organisation, Chinese Human Rights Defenders (English and Mandarin)
http://www.hrichina.org/: website of the organisation, Human Rights in China (English)
http://www.xinhuanet.com: official news agency Xinhua (English, Mandarin)
http://sirc.blogspot.com: blog on the Internet in Asia (English)
http://blog.sina.com.cn/xujinglei: blog of Chinese film star Xu Jinglei, the country’s most popular (Mandarin)