China: The Masters and Commanders of Internet Censorship

JABBER ALSABAH WRITES — President Xi Jinping unveiled new regulations for China’s internet freedom at the World Internet Conference from November 7 – 9 in Wuzhen. Yet ironically, this international conference focused on promoting the concept of mutual trust and collective international governance based on openness, rather than restriction.

Freedom House, a watchdog organization that advocates for political freedom around the world, reported that China has recently begun working with a cohort of countries to expand so-called digital authoritarianism. This export of censorship may well lead to a global decline in Internet freedom. After all, nine state-run operators maintain China’s gateways to the global internet, enabling authorities to cut off cross-border information requests. This means that all service providers must subscribe through these operators, which function under the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.

It is no secret that Chinese internet regulations are very stringent. Since there are no hard rules regarding freedom of the press, speech or expression on the internet, the government may decide to censor content whenever it sees fit. In the past, China has even censored Winnie the Pooh— people thought the character resembled Xi and often derisively referred to him as “Pooh.” In addition, the government censored talk show host John Oliver’s name, because he mocked the president in an episode of Last Week Tonight.

This kind of censorship in China is relatively new; it began when Xi ascended as the nation’s leader in 2012. A slew of political events, such as the arrest of Chongqing Party boss Bo Xilai and copycat protests of the Middle East’s Arab Spring from 2010 to 2012, also contributed.

In fact, China’s Internet control is considered more extensive and advanced than that of any other country in the world. Government authorities not only block website content but monitor individuals’ Internet access, measures commonly nicknamed “The Great Firewall of China”.

Is this censorship needed? A study conducted by two economists from Peking University and Stanford University showed that even when people are provided tools to bypass censorship, almost half do not use them. And when they do, it was not to gain access to foreign news websites.

Western interest in limiting Chinese censorship does not seem to have a great impact, probably due to the language barrier. People who are not easily multilingual prefer to read the news in their native language. In fact, Chinese youth have started to support Xi’s new regulations.  With no exposure to Western platforms such as Google, Facebook, or Twitter, popular Chinese sites such as Baidu and Weibo, both of which are censored, seem to suffice.  

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