Just weeks ahead of the Congress, which is expected to renew Xi’s mandate for another five years, the US encrypted messaging app WhatsApp suddenly began malfunctioning in China, in a sign that a new turning-point had been reached in the Party’s censorship. Use of WhatsApp had until then been tolerated.
“Control of the Chinese Internet has grown day by day for more than a year,” said Cédric Alviani, the head of the East Asia bureau of Reporters Without Borders (RSF). “The president, who likes to call himself the New Helmsman in allusion to Mao Zedong, has established a very sophisticated system of information censorship and surveillance in recent years, one that has gone to a whole new level.”
Since becoming president, Xi has proved to be a determined enemy of press freedom, pursuing complete control of the media in order protect China against what he calls the influence of “hostile foreign powers.”
He began by “reorienting” journalists, who had cautiously tried to contribute to the social debate under his predecessor. Now their duties are restricted to the thankless task of relaying “the Party’s propaganda.” He then cracked down hard on bloggers who had taken up the torch of journalism.
Chat forums and social networks, on the other hand, had remained relatively spared. Sina Weibo, whose 340 million regular users exceed Twitter’s, and Tencent QQ and WeChat, which seem set to reach 1 billion accounts in the near future, had become spaces for free speech.
The Chinese appreciated being able to chat with relative anonymity, which also allowed them to exchange information that was missing from the media. The evolving technology and inventiveness of its users limited the impact of censorship, which was mainly effectively in blocking foreign media and social networks such as Google and Facebook.
This era may already be over. Under Xi, Internet censorship has reached industrial levels and has been combined with a formidable surveillance apparatus. According to official sources, China’s Internet espionage apparatus employs two million people, one mole for every 374 Internet users.
The WeChat social network has rightly acquired a reputation for being a police Trojan horse. Since last year, information gathered from WeChat, including conversation detail, can officially be used as prosecution evidence in trials.
To make matters worse, the Cyberspace Administration of China, an entity personally supervised by the president, has in recent months deployed a range of chilling measures directly targeting China’s 750 million Internet users.
End of Internet anonymity
Since last week, the moderators of discussion groups on social networks such as WeChat have been held personally responsible for “unhealthy or illegal information” and any content that “distorts the history of China and the Party, misinterprets policy directives and promotes abnormal values.” The definitions are so broad that almost any discussion could be concerned.
Many discussion groups are expected to disband of their own accord. In those that continue, the moderators will undoubtedly be highly vigilant at all times to avoid problems.
This latest provision reinforces already harsh regulations that, since June, have criminalized the “illegal publishing” of content and, since 2013, have exposed anyone posting questionable content that is reposted more than 500 times or is viewed more than 5,000 to the possibility of a three-year jail term.
So, whenever Chinese Internet users are about to “like” or repost content, they will have to ask themselves whether it is compatible with Party doctrine or whether they want to run the risks involved.
Recent changes have also sounded the knell for anonymity on the Chinese Internet. Since the start of the month, online communities are required to verify the identity of their users and to ban comments by unregistered visitors.
Tencent, Sina and Baidu, China’s Internet giants, were slow to comply with this requirement, which is costly and complicated to implement, so the Cyberspace Administration of China imposed heavy fines on them to show who is boss.
There have been regular announcements of new Internet restrictions for more than a year now: a ban on streaming video or audio content without a special licence, closure of celebrity news sites regarded as frivolous and incompatible with the party line, a ban on foreign companies posting content online without a permit and a requirement that they store their data on servers in China they are easier to monitor.
The next upcoming measure may be the most drastic one. The government has ordered telecom operators to put a stop to all Virtual Private Network services (VPNs) by next February. Millions of Chinese, including many researchers and businessmen, and most of China’s foreign residents use VPNs to bypass website blocking. If the VPN ban proves to be effective, the Great Firewall beloved of Xi will become an enhanced reality.
The People’s Republic of China continues to be ranked 176th out of 180 countries in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index. Only Syria, Turkmenistan, Eritrea and North Korea have even more disgraceful scores.