How Chinese Authoritarian Regime Adapt To The Age Of Internet

“ [the CCP] must depend on two weapons: guns and pens…The logic behind this philosophy is not only to control the pen but to have this control backed by the gun…Whoever wants to question or to resist will be shown a gun.”   Yuegang  Lu [1] 

Introduction

Since entering into twenty-first century, the number of Internet user in China has experienced a dramatic growth for the last two decades and now reached 731 million, occupying more than half of the total population (52.7%) by March 2017.[2]  Although the Internet is normally regarded as a platform of confluence of various opinions, which convoys the freedom of speech and may further collapse the authoritarianism towards a more democratic regime, Chinese one-party leaded regime seemingly well adapts to the challenges brought by this new technology.

As the citizens are gradually depending on the social networking, the Chinese government also transforms their regulation from non-virtual world to the cyberspace. Accompanying with the growing use of social media, the government regulation is also improved. The governance of Internet in China can be divided easily into two types: the technical one, regarding the typical network filtering – the Great Wall, which is in use to block access to the “harmful” information from outside of China. The other type is non-technical, including official regulations and censorship.[3] The censorship also has different forms such as sensitive words filtering and self-censorship that is required for all online participations, especially content provider.

The Non-technical Governance

Since China was firstly connected into the Internet, the online users have experienced a dramatic growth in the last two decades. Characterised by fast speed and efficiency without limitation of time and space, Internet has become main platform for most people to exchange information and opinions. The authority also tries to catch up the pace of this technological development by holding control of this sphere and also adopting the Internet in their need. In January 2016, President Xi had a speech at the News and Public Opinion Work Conference to declare the new task of their work: “it must suit to the communication trends of audience division and differentiation, and accelerate the building of a new structure for public opinion guidance. It must promote converged development, and actively draw support from new media communication superiorities.”[4]

1 – Guidance of the Public Opinion on Internet Governance

In this condition, Chinese government starts to issue various regulations and tries to direct the public opinion, by making citizens believe the governance is to ensure moral goodness and social security, to legitimise the Internet governance. In Cui and Wu’s report (2016), they examined 301 articles, published on the largest newspaper in China– the official mouthpiece – The People’s Daily from 2000 to 2014, extracted by researching “Internet/network” in database and combining it with key words: governance, civil, stability, etc.. This research aims to indicate how the official media utilised “moral goodness” and “social orderliness” to influence the public opinion about Internet governance: to make the public believe that the Internet governance is necessary for their goodness.

With the targeted articles, they coded each article according to the content in two dimensions: the rationale of the government and the nature of Internet (Fig.1). [5] Regarding the rationale, in the first two period from 2000 to 2004 and 2005 to 2009, “moral goodness” (45.8% and 55.8%) and “personal security” (44.4% and 30.8%), understood respectively as protecting Internet environment from unhealthy and non-civilised content and from cyber crimes and fraud, were propagated as the main purpose of governance. However, in the latest period from 2010 to 2014, to secure social stability rose to the top position of purpose (from 18.1% and 20.8% to 53.2%). The care of social stability referred to “maintain an ‘orderly’ and ‘harmonious’ society and political environment.”[6] This coincided with a change in the function of Internet, appearing in the same period that, in the first decade, Internet was regarded mainly as a “content platform” (44.4% and 67.5%) to share information whereas it worked largely as “opinion platform” (57.8%) since 2010. The official consideration of the nature of Internet implies a shift of netizens’ online activities toward to intervention in social and political issue by expressing their opinions.

Fig.1 Percentages of rationales for Internet governance, the image of Internet and global discourses in   People’s Daily, 2000-2014
Fig.1 Percentages of rationales for Internet governance, the image of Internet and global discourses in People’s Daily, 2000-2014

 

2 – Regulations

Besides the propaganda of the legitimacy of Internet governance by emphasising for the purpose of social stability and mental health, the government also achieves their legitimacy via increasingly improved regulation, for example, it ends the online anonymity by carrying out real-name system.   

In April 2016, an upgraded version of regulation called, ‘Provisions on the Administration of Online Publishing Services’, was issued by Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIT: a state agency established in 2008, which take over the responsibility of the State Council’s Information Office). There are several articles being worth to notice. Firstly, in Article 4, the provision stimulates The State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television of the PRC should be

“responsible for the pre-approval, supervision and administration of online publishing services nationwide. The MIT, as the department in charge of the Internet industry, shall be responsible for the corresponding supervision and administration of national online publishing service…Publication administrative departments of local people’s governments all levels and all provincial telecommunications departments shall conduct corresponding supervision and administration of online publishing services and access services….”[7]

This regulation clearly indicates the responsibility of each department to censor and rule the online publishing contents. The “pre-approval” implies a requirement of censorship and permission by the related department before any contents and news published by Internet publishers. This action abandons the independence of these publishers and controls the direction of most online information.      

In July 2016, the ‘Cybersecurity Law of the People’s Republic of China’ was issued as well. In Article 24, the law regulates the network operators has to verify users’ identity if anyone apply for accessing the Internet:

Article 24: Where network operators provide network access and domain registration services for users, handle network access formalities for fixed-line or mobile phone users, or provide users with information release services, instant messaging services and other services, they shall require users to provide true identity information when signing agreements with users or confirming the provision of services. If any user fails to provide his or her true identify information, the network operator shall not provide him or her with relevant services.” [8]

And in Article 12, it declare that:

“Any individual or organisation using the network shall comply with the Constitution and laws, follow public order and respect social morality, shall not endanger cybersecurity, and shall not use the network to conduct any activity that endangers national security, honour and internet, incites to subvert the state power or overthrow the socialist system, incites to split the country or undermine national unity, advocates terrorism or pornographic information, fabricates or disseminates false information to disrupt the economic and social order……” [9]

However, the definition of actions as being suspicious “to endanger national security”, “subvert the state power” or “overthrow the socialist system” is not stipulated clearly and “endangering national security” is the most used accusation of political prisoners including human right activists. The requirement of true identity to access network make the government to locate an IP address and its user easily, which help them to monitor the online activities.

According to Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database (Fig.2), a non-profit humanitarian organisation aiming to advance the protection of human rights in China, from 2003 to 2013, the amount of arrests and incidents for “endangering state security” has a large increase and when Xi Jinping was appointed to be the president in 2013, “he oversaw roughly three times as many … as Hu Jintao did in 2003”.[10] Furthermore, a recent graph published on Dui Hua official website in June 30, 2016 depicts the obvious growth of the political prisoner (Fig.3). The category of individuals of political prisoner includes political dissidents (expressing opposition to one-party leadership), religious practitioners (with non-officially sanctioned belief, such as Falun Gong), ethnic minorities (participating in pro-independence movement, such as the Xinjiang independence movement) and petitioners (“seeking for redress to grievances related to land seizure, demolition, corruption” and so on).

Screen Shot 2017-05-18 at 下午11.59.08
Fig.2 “Arrests & Indictments for Endangering State Security, 2003 – 2013” Duihua

 

 

Screen Shot 2017-05-19 at 上午12.00.21
Fig.3 “Individuals in Political Prisoner Database”, Duihua

3 – Penetration into the Platform 

However, apart from the governance, the Chinese government and party started to penetrate into the top popular social media platforms – Wechat (a messaging application) and microblogs (Sina Weibo: Chinese twitter).  According to the latest China Statistical Report on Internet Development (January, 2017), there are more than 164 thousand accounts, relative to different fields of governmental affairs, ranging from Youth League Committee, administration of justice, health care to tourism agencies, and the online clerks working for these governmental account already reached 239 million accounting to 32.7% of total internet users by December 2016.[11] At the same time, the governmental propaganda are gradually evolving into new forms using new media to attract young Internet users and meet their cultural interest.

For example, the website “Zhi Tong Zhongnanhai” (“直通中南海” means “Directing to ‘Zhongnanhai’) is a website as a platform for the public to express their opinions and suggestions directly to the central department of government. The Communist Youth League of China, as the party organisation of the youth, also opened an account on Sina Weibo and Zhihu.com that is the popular question-and-answer online community in young generation. The accounts of these official departments are less formal comparing to the website “Zhi Tong Zhongnanhai” in order to arise more closed feelings within the public. The authority is eager to change their impression among the public from an arbitrary authority to an open-minded “server for people” via their selective acceptance of citizens’ opinion and criticism.

The Technical Governance

With the development of the regulation, the censorship of Internet is also executed in technological means, which is based on four dimensions, including “network filtering, search filtering, chat censorship, and blog censorship.”[12] The most notable filtering tool is the Great Firewall, which is initialed since 1998. Its aim is to block Internet users in Mainland China from accessing to certain international websites. Apart from blocking, when online content are relative to some sensitive topic, the content will be filtered and deleted too. “Politically sensitive content in China does not always mean message calling for collective action. Anything that may exert a negative impact on China’s international image could be politically sensitive, for example, air pollution… corruption or election.”[13]

To examine the censorship of sensitive words, I did a test on two largest Chinese social media platforms: Weibo and Wechat, and the main search engines Google (internationally) and Baidu.com (domestically) to display the censorship by comparing their search results of a phrase “Han Zhao Liang” (“含赵量”means “Zhao-content” depriving from “Gold content”) or “Zhao Jia Ran” (“赵家人”means “Zhao Family”), which is redeemed as sensitive. (The test was made on April 20, 2017)

The term “Zhao Family” originates from Chinese writer Lu Xun’s work “The True Story of Ah Q” but then redefined, in an online article circulated in Wechat public account in early 2016, to describe those who are very rich and powerful in China and also their offspring. The “Zhao Content”, then, is used as an ironic phrase to examine how closed a person is to the dignitaries and how powerful a person is. The article claimed that there is always someone from “Zhao Family ” hiding behind each plutocrat and this “someone” is holding real power in hand.[14]  This description implies the collusion and corruption between the officials and businessman. The article, now, is no longer available in Chinese media and the word “Zhao Content” and “Zhao Family” are both filtered online. Comparing the search results on Google.cn and Baidu.com, the top six results from Google, showed in the screenshot as Fig.4, are all about the appearance of a new sensitive word in China whereas there is no result from Baidu.com, as showed in Fig.5. There is no result neither on Sina Weibo nor on Wechat, as Weibo showed “According to relevant laws, regulations, and policies, search results of ‘Han Zhao Liang’ (‘含赵量’) cannot be displayed” (Fig.6) and Wechat notified “There is no more search result.” (Fig.7)

 

 

含赵量 google
Fig.4      Search result of “Han Zhao Liang” (“含赵量”-“Zhao content”) on Google.hk .  All the results are reporting this new sensitive word and its meaning.

 

 

含赵量 百度
Fig.5 Search result of “Han Zhao Liang” (“含赵量”-“Zhao content”) on Baidu.com Baidu.com showed “Sorry, no search result related to ‘Han Zhao Liang’” (In Chinese“很抱歉,没有 找到与‘含赵量’相关的网页”)

 

 

 

含赵量 微博
Fig.6 Search result of “Han Zhao Liang” (“含赵量”-“Zhao content”) on Sina Weibo “According to relevant laws, regulations, and policies, search results of ‘Han Zhao Liang’ (‘含赵量’) cannot be displayed.”

 

 

 

含赵量 微信
Fig.7 Search result of “Han Zhao Liang” (“含赵量”-“Zhao content”) on Wechat “There is no more search result.”

 

 

However, there is not a certain list of the sensitive words and these words vary in different time, according to what incident happens so that users cannot know exactly what kind of content will be censored and filtered but can only acknowledge it from experience. This situation, in fact, enhances a sense of self-censorship to push the Internet companies and individuals to examine their content automatically in order to avoid block and deletion, although they can only guess the measurement. This unclear measurement makes most of mass media and individuals become conservative on their content and comment.

Conclusion

As the Internet provides an ideal platform for Chinese netizens to express their dissatisfaction and the government notices the importance of this trend and meets this requirement, however, making easier for netizens to express their opinion and delighting the netizens with their interest on social media does not mean the country is becoming democracy. According to the discussion above, Chinese authority is still extremely sensitive about human right movement. Regarding the announcement made by google.cn about its withdraw from mainland again, Google declared that they have experienced cyber attack from Chinese government with evidences and pointed out the target of this attack was to access the Gmail account and personal information of human rights activists.[15] The Internet plays the role as a platform of expressing different ideas but at the same time, exposes these activists easily to the authoritarian force. Especially with an unclear definition with the accusation as “endangering the national security,” any online comment and content showed as dissent can be make the netizen being targeted.

Through the sensitive word filtering and the legacy of historical issues, what the state created in Chinese Internet is an ideology of self-censorship. The impact of this self-censorship is not limited in Internet sphere but also influencing the way of thinking. In some extend, the importance of the sensitive filtering is not only to abandon the information harming the state power but more essentially, to foster an environment of self-censorship that everyone is vigilant and careful about what they can say and what they cannot say, in other words, the citizens are censoring themselves at anytime. This is much more efficient and influential tool than any regulations and techniques as it forces our mind to examine our thinking and speech. This can be seen as an invisible panopticon in our mind that encourages self-censorship through the perception that users are being watched.”[16] The Internet, which creates an assumed open platform, also invents a technological panopticon to make censorship more easily and enhance the self-censorship, and “actually prolongs the CCP’s rule, bolstering its domestic power and legitimacy while the regime enacts no meaningful political or legal reforms”

There is another phrase “political sensitivity” emphasised by the official media, which has a typical definition in Chinese context on Baidu.com as “an inherent comprehension and nurtured character and ability. This character make people, in different times, obtain a correct understanding and grasp of state’s and party’s policies and directives and apply it into own work and life, considering own real condition.”[17] The definition emphasises the correction of people’s understanding of politics, however, there is not a standard to define if the policies are correct in the definition. Should we examine the policy taking account into human right or the legitimacy of an authority? This political sensitivity, in other words, is another requirement of self-censorship in China, which requires the citizens to admit the government and the party’s leader.

 

-Meng Xiao

 

 

 

 

[Footnotes]

[1] Yuegang, Lu, “A Bold New Voice-Lu Yuegang’s Extraordinary Open Letter to Authorities,” China Digital Times, last modified on July 20, 2004 http://chinadigitaltimes.net/2004/07/a-bold-new-voice-lu-yuegangs-extraordinary-open-letter-to-authorities/

[2] “Internet Usage in Asia,” Internet World Stats, last modified on March 30, 2017, http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats3.htm

[3] Di Cui and Fang Wu, “Moral goodness and social orderliness: An Analysis of the Official media Discourse about Internet Governance in China”, Telecommunications Policy, 40 (2016): 266

[4] “Speech at the News and Public Opinion Work Conference,” China Copyright and Media, accessed April 24, 2017, https://chinacopyrightandmedia.wordpress.com/2016/02/19/speech-at-the-news-and-public-opinion-work-conference/

[5] Cui and Wu, “Moral Goodness and Social Orderliness,” 265

[6] Ibid. 268

[7] “Provisions on the Administration of Online Publishing Services,” PKULaw, accessed April 24, 2017 http://en.pkulaw.cn/display.aspx?cgid=264071&lib=law

[8] “Cybersecurity Law of the People’s Republic of China,” Lawinforchina, accessed April 24, 2017 http://www.lawinfochina.com/display.aspx?id=22826&lib=law

[9] Ibid.

[10] “State Security Indictments, Cult Trials Up in Xi Jinping’s 2013,” Duihua, accessed April 24, 2017 http://www.duihuahrjournal.org/2015/01/state-security-indictments-cult-trials.html

[11] “China Statistical Report on Internet Development,” CNNIC, accessed April 24, 2017/4/25 http://www.cnnic.net.cn/hlwfzyj/hlwxzbg/hlwtjbg/201701/P020170123364672657408.pdf 

[12] Qinghua Yang and Yu Liu, “What’s on the Other Side of the Great Firewall? Chinese Web Users’ Motivations for Bypassing the Internet Censorship,” Computer in Human Behavior 37 (2014):249-257

[13] Yang and Liu, “What’s on the Other Side of the Great Firewall? ”

[14] The original article is in Chinese. BBC news and The New York Time both reported about this word. “Barbarians at the Gate, Zhao Family Inside,” China Digital Times website, accessed April 24, 2017 http://chinadigitaltimes.net/chinese/2015/12/%E7%BB%86%E6%80%9D%E6%9E%81%E6%81%90%E7%9A%84%E4%B8%87%E7%A7%91%E5%AE%9D%E8%83%BD%E4%B9%8B%E4%BA%89%EF%BC%9A%E9%97%A8%E5%8F%A3%E7%9A%84%E9%87%8E%E8%9B%AE%E4%BA%BA%EF%BC%8C%E8%83%8C%E5%90%8E%E7%9A%84/ 

[15] Google Official Blog, “A New Approach to China” posted in January 2010 and an update to this announcement is posted in March, 2010. Accessed April 24, 2017 https://googleblog.blogspot.co.uk/2010/01/new-approach-to-china.html 

[16] Tao Zhu; Christopher Bronk and Dan S. Wallach, “An Analysis of Chinese Search Engine Filtering” 2011. Accessed April 24, 2017 https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/88dd/5c30a0e8561e93504349262ab9a680eaba5a.pdf

[17] Baike.Baidu.com The origin resource is in Chinese. Accessed April 24, 2017/4/25 http://baike.baidu.com/item/%E6%94%BF%E6%B2%BB%E6%95%8F%E6%84%9F%E6%80%A7/2730322  

 

[Bibliography]

China Copyright and Media. “Speech at the News and Public Opinion Work Conference.” Accessed April 24, 2017. https://chinacopyrightandmedia.wordpress.com/2016/02/19/speech-at-the-news-and-public-opinion-work-conference/

China Digital Times. “Barbarians at the Gate, Zhao Family Inside.” Accessed April 24, 2017 http://chinadigitaltimes.net/chinese/2015/12/%E7%BB%86%E6%80%9D%E6%9E%81%E6%81%90%E7%9A%84%E4%B8%87%E7%A7%91%E5%AE%9D%E8%83%BD%E4%B9%8B%E4%BA%89%EF%BC%9A%E9%97%A8%E5%8F%A3%E7%9A%84%E9%87%8E%E8%9B%AE%E4%BA%BA%EF%BC%8C%E8%83%8C%E5%90%8E%E7%9A%84/

CNNIC. “China Statistical Report on Internet Development.” Accessed April 24, 2017/4/25 http://www.cnnic.net.cn/hlwfzyj/hlwxzbg/hlwtjbg/201701/P020170123364672657408.pdf

Cui, Di, and Wu, Fang. “Moral goodness and social orderliness: An Analysis of the Official media Discourse about Internet Governance in China.” Telecommunications Policy, 40 (2016): 265-276

Duihua. “State Security Indictments, Cult Trials Up in Xi Jinping’s 2013.” Accessed April 24, 2017  http://www.duihuahrjournal.org/2015/01/state-security-indictments-cult-trials.html

Google Official Blog, “A New Approach to China.” Accessed on April 24, 2017 https://googleblog.blogspot.co.uk/2010/01/new-approach-to-china.html

Internet World Stats. “Internet Usage in Asia” last modified on March 30, 2017, http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats3.htm

Layinforchina. “Cybersecurity Law of the People’s Republic of China.” Accessed April 24, 2017 http://www.lawinfochina.com/display.aspx?id=22826&lib=law

Lu, Yuegang. “A Bold New Voice-Lu Yuegang’s Extraordinary Open Letter to Authorities,” China Digital Times, last modified on July 20, 2004 http://chinadigitaltimes.net/2004/07/a-bold-new-voice-lu-yuegangs-extraordinary-open-letter-to-authorities/

PKULaw. “Provisions on the Administration of Online Publishing Services.” Accessed April 24, 2017 http://en.pkulaw.cn/display.aspx?cgid=264071&lib=law

Yang, Qinghua, and  Liu, Yu. “What’s on the Other Side of the Great Firewall? Chinese Web Users’ Motivations for Bypassing the Internet Censorship,” Computer in Human Behavior 37 (2014):249-257

Qinghua Yang and Yu Liu, “What’s on the Other Side of the Great Firewall? Chinese Web Users’ Motivations fpr Bypassing the Internet Censorship,” Computer in Human Behavior 37 (2014):249-257

[Images]

Fig.1 “Percentages of rationales for Internet governance, the image of Internet and global discourses in People’s Daily, 2000-2014” in Cui, Di, and Wu, Fang. “Moral goodness and social orderliness: An Analysis of the Official media Discourse about Internet Governance in China.” Telecommunications Policy, 40 (2016): 265-276

Fig.2 “Arrests & Indictments for Endangering State Security, 2003 – 2013” Duihua, accessed April 24, 2017 http://duihua.org/wp/?page_id=195

Fig.3 “Individuals in Political Prisoner Database”, Duihua, accessed April 24, 2017 http://duihua.org/wp/?page_id=195

Fig.4 Screenshot of Search result of “Han Zhao Liang” (“含赵量”-“Zhao content”) on Google.hk

Fig.5 Screenshot of Search result of “Han Zhao Liang” (“含赵量”-“Zhao content”) on Baidu.com

Fig.6 Screenshot of Search result of “Han Zhao Liang” (“含赵量”-“Zhao content”) on Sina Weibo

Fig.7 Screenshot of Search result of “Han Zhao Liang” (“含赵量”-“Zhao content”) on Wechat

 

 

 

 

 

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