‘Netizens’ Pry Open Censorship in China
When suddenly Chinese had access to President Barack Obama’s Google+ account in February, some 600 messages poured in.
Some asked the American president to clarify the mysterious circumstances surrounding a former police chief who had taken refuge in a U.S. consulate because of corruption investigations of Chinese officials that he had been doing. Another urged President Obama to change his party affiliation to a certain Chinese party:
“We will give you a big red flower, which you can wear on your chest, and honourably give you a party certificate (completely free membership for the first year),” (online user, Duke Dai. – Sapa-AFP, translated by ChinaSMACK website)
More typical was another that denounced that same party:
“Angus Zhang – i love china , and i dislike Communist Party”
While direct Internet access to the president of the United States might be rare, the sudden flowering of messages reflected how Chinese online have become emboldened to speak their minds on issues such as democracy, political prisoners, and Internet freedom.
Censorship is still strong in China, and multinational media corporations such as Twitter and Facebook find it hard to enter the Chinese blogosphere. But Chinese “netizens” are surpassing corporations in forcing China to open its virtual communication. Bloggers seek innovative escape valves around internet filters and creatively use language to circumvent censorship, expanding opportunities for citizen journalism in China’s increasingly pluralistic social media landscape.
Adam Segal, a counterterrorism and national security expert at the Council on Foreign Affairs, said in an interview that the brief Google+ to President Obama appears to have been because of a lapse in internet filters that created a loophole for users to take advantage of.
“My understanding was that a university student found an avenue. It is not a sign of opening,” he explained.
Laura Mack, a U.S. foreign correspondent who lived in Beijing for two and a half years, reported that many bloggers in China use linguistic workarounds to get past censors. They spell out Chinese characters phonetically, for instance, or substitute similar-sounding but innocuous characters that are not picked up by the filters.
Since 2006, Mack has worked for Newsweek International and three other publications. Now she runs a travel site, About.com, which runs off proxy servers located in China. While her site does not address political issues, Mack frequently mentions what she calls the “3 T’s: Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen” as attractive destinations for sightseeing. That is enough to cause problems with the web site on a daily basis. She must use a VPN to view the site, accessing a different proxy, depending on which one is not being blocked by China that day.
Most importantly, Mack is not cowed by China’s censorship policies, even though running the site can be technologically cumbersome.
“Living in China has not affected my journalism. I didn’t change the topics that I write about,” she said.
Ingenuous bloggers on the internet do not bode well for China’s policy makers. While Article 35 in the Chinese constitution guarantees freedom of speech, the government tightened its national Internet security laws in April 2010, known as the Law on Guarding State Secrets, a move widely criticized by human rights and free speech advocates in China and around the world.
“In the new law, the definition of state secrets remains as sweeping as the original law and still fails to comply with international human rights standards,” says the non-governmental advocacy group Human Rights in China.
Ma Yanchun, spokeswoman at the Consulate of the People’s Republic of China in New York, likens Chinese Internet laws to existing US laws, stating that China has rules and regulations concerning privacy and protecting children. “I think the US works the same way,” she said. As to whether special laws apply to journalists using social media, she said, “Journalists are no exception. There are no special laws around social media for journalists.”
While there may not be any specific laws about social media, there are special procedures for journalists, foreign and domestic. The consulate’s web site outlines eight different rules foreign journalists must follow, including carrying a press card at all times and registering with the local Information Department wherever they are residing in China.
Barnard College Professor Guobin Yang and author of “The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online” emphasized that government crackdowns often backfire in the face of social media.
“The Chinese government realizes it’s impossible to completely control the Internet,” Yang said. “It’s hard to imagine a complete shutdown of the social mediasphere.”
As Yunchan at the consulate indicated, China sees such rules and regulations as a way of enforcing its national security interests. US policy makers accuse China of overstepping its boundaries by encroaching on US and international security.
Segal referred in a recent report of China engaging in “cyber warfare” by attacking SQL databases. Allegations have also been made that China has used fake Facebook accounts to pilfer NATO officials’ passwords.
But the acrimony between China and the U.S. on the cyber front does not seem to be extending to the business world, where China remains the United States’ third largest export market. On Feb. 14, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping held a conference with US and Chinese business leaders in Washington emphasizing the need for greater trade cooperation. Since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, it committed itself to allowing foreign direct investment in the telecommunications infrastructure.
There is indication that in terms of international trade and investment, the Great Firewall is fading, while at the same time, solidifying a sometimes questionable relationship between foreign investment in China’s digital infrastructure and its government’s authoritarian practices.
In December 2011, Bain Capital Asia, in which presidential candidate Mitt Romney owns a small $100,000 to $250,000 stake, bought Uniview Technologies, a surveillance camera firm which produces cameras the Chinese government uses to monitor its cities. Companies like Honeywell, General Electric, I.B.M., United Technologies, and Cisco Systems Video invested in and sold video surveillance technologies for the Internet. Although the direct export of surveillance equipment to China has been banned in the U.S. since the Tiananmen Square uprisings in 1989, other technologies can be sold and exported to China, such as cameras and Internet technology, which can have general uses, not just for surveillance.
While Facebook has seen little market penetration in China, Google seems to be faring better. Its annual advertising revenue alone is still $640 million, the third largest among any media in China, according to Forbes.
In addition, U.S. and other Western Internet companies face tough competition with home-grown Chinese platforms like Ren-Ren, China’s answer to Facebook, which has 124 million users, as well as Tencent and Sina. Yanchun described Weibo, a Sina subsidiary as a microblogging tool, which incorporates Twitter’s and Facebook’s functionality into a single platform, reaching over 180 million users as of June 30 of this year. “It’s similar to Facebook. People use it to share their life experiences,” she said.
Although decried by the private, nonpartisan nonprofit organization of roughly 240 American companies, the U.S. China Business Council, as anti-free trade, China’s domestic market pluralism is, in part, due to the country’s indigenous innovation policies, which give preferential treatment to Chinese-made products on the market. The business council also accuses China of using this policy to legitimitize the violation of companies’ intellectual property rights .
However, a diverse domestic social media profile, showcasing national media enterprises, does not spell an open Internet. Particularly in China, digital goods traverse the digital divide easier than information crosses it. And as always, there is a constant tension between the free flow of information on the World Wide Web and national cyber security interests.
While charting a course of market liberalization, China still regards social media as a threat when used to express opinions about government policies. The 2012 World Report on China by Human Rights Watch noted that China has stepped up their video and Internet surveillance mechanismsto further suppress dissident movements.
Human rights lawyer Liu Shihui was detained and tortured, according to the Guardian and Human Rights Watch’s 2012 World Report. Shihui was only released after signing a “waiver” that he would not use social media to report on the conditions of his capture. Yu Jie, now in exile in the U.S., told the Committee to Protect Journalists that he was hooded and whisked away to an undisclosed location, where he was beaten and intimidated by undercover police. Tsering Woeser, who blogs for The Invisible Tibet, is under house arrest, where his Internet access was cut off. He was barred from traveling to the Netherlands to receive an award.
Western media analysts say that social media-fueled movements like the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring have been making Chinese officials feel uneasy, and that when Wang Chen, head of Internet information said on Sept. 29, 2011 in Beijing, “Many people are considering how to prevent the abuse of these (social) networks following violent crimes that took place in some parts of the world this year,” he was referring to unrest in general, not just last year’s youth riots in Britain he made direct reference to.
Despite China’s efforts to maintain national security by monitoring the Internet, the use of social media is on the rise in China. The Investor’s Business Daily cited in October 2011 that more than half of China’s 500 million Internet users are connected to some form of social media, where micro blogging has climbed by nearly 209% to 195 million from June 2010 to June 2011.
China’s three Internet filtering centers apparently cannot keep up the pace with the viral nature of social media.
“The programmers can’t keep up with Twitter, Weibo, even if for just five minutes stuff pops up before they take it down,” Mack noted.
Commenting on the power of social media, Segal said, “Social media is changing politics. There is more transparency. The Chinese government feels more of a need to respond.”
Rebecca Ellis is a student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She can be reached on Twitter (@rebejellis)