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The “Great Firewall” of China

Beijing's Crack Down on Information Sharing and Accessibility

People congregate and take photographs at a make-shift tribute outside the Google Inc. office in Beijing, China, on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2010. (Getty)

by Thomas J. Shattuck

In the lead up to the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China this coming autumn, there have been a number of crackdowns in cyber space. These crackdowns include removing apps from the Apple Store, banning certain images, creating strict guidelines on how to refer to sensitive topics, and blocking specific words from WeChat, a popular Chinese chat app. While these measures show how much control the party and state hold over Chinese citizens and companies operating within China’s borders, further preventing the flow of information shows that the Community Party of China (CCP) understands—and fears—the power of a citizenry with access to uncensored information.

In 1997, China adopted new measures to its criminal law (Articles 285, 286, and 287) that set out to codify what Chinese citizens were forbidden from doing on the internet. These articles have been amended several times since their inception 20 years ago to fit with the times. The CCP uses these provisions to rationalize its massive restrictions to information online.

The now (in)famous “Great Firewall” was eventually created as a mechanism to restrict access or censor information that the CCP deems sensitive or inappropriate—like the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989. The system also blocks thousands of websites, Google searches, and IP addresses.

BLOCKING INFORMATION: FROM THE ABSURD TO THE SERIOUS

China’s internet censorship frequently makes international headlines due to some particularly egregious examples. One of the most recent examples is the banning of certain images of the cartoon character Winne the Pooh. Images of Pooh juxtaposed with images of Chinese President Xi Jinping have recently become a popular meme due to the apparent similarity between the cartoon character and the president. To prevent netizens from poking fun at China’s leader, China’s cyberspace police prevented searches containing the two terms together, blocked the sharing of these memes on WeChat, and stopped anyone from making comments with “Winnie the Pooh” in them. These pages even posted warnings to would-be offenders about violating China’s laws.

In addition to the absurd examples, China’s Great Firewall blocks netizens from using certain keywords in chat apps in an effort to prevent online protests. These examples are primarily found on WeChat due to its popularity in China and because most other options are blocked. In mid-July after the death of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, Chinese censors blocked messages containing photos of the human rights activist as well as messages containing some forms of his name and candle emoticons. The censorship was in place for both group and one-on-one chats. It is reported that users would send an image of Liu only for the recipient never to receive it. To bypass the censors, users mourning Liu’s death created codes to refer to him. Since his name or initials were blocked, people would add spaces between letters or remove one (LXB became XB); others referred to him as “Brother Liu” or “XXX,” and “Wang Xiaobo” or “Teacher Liu.” These advances in censorship—the ability to block photos, words, and emoticons—in any sort of chat do not bode well for the future dissemination of information within China.

Liu became famous for his role during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. He went on a hunger strike in support of the protesters and helped to negotiate their exit from the square. He also was a primary drafter and signatory of Charter 08, a document calling for political reform in China away from one-party rule. His role as a dissident led to his arrest multiple times, so it is no surprise that Chinese censors made an extra effort to block people trying to memorialize him. The censorship related to Liu demonstrates how paranoid the CCP regime is about any form of dissent. The government will go to surprisingly great lengths—including blocking things as simple as an emoticon or a name—to quash anything perceived as a challenge to its power.

The images of the “Beijing Internet Police”, one male and one female dressed in uniform and saluting, started appearing from 1 September 2007 every 30 minutes on computer screens run by 13 major portals based in Beijing.(Getty)

PRESSURING COMPANIES TO SELF-CENSOR

In recent years, China’s internet laws have led to issues with internet giants Google and Apple. In 2010, Google found that a number of companies had been attacked and hacked as well as a number of Gmail accounts of prominent human rights activists. In response, Google diverted all search traffic to the uncensored Hong Kong domain prompting Chinese authorities to block access to Google’s HK site. As a result, Google was forced out of the Chinese market. Google and China have been in talks for several years about its return to the Chinese market.

Similarly, Apple has recently come under scrutiny for seemingly bowing to Chinese pressure over censorship issues. In late 2016, Apple removed the New York Times app from its Apple Store at the request of the government because it violated some of the regulations imposed under the 2016 Provision on the Administration of Mobile Internet Application Information Services. The Provision states,

Mobile internet application providers and internet application store service providers must not exploit mobile internet applications to engage activities prohibited by laws and regulations such as those endangering national security, disrupting social order, or violating the lawful rights and interests of others; and must not exploit mobile internet applications to draft, reproduce, publish, or transmit information content prohibited by laws and regulations.

Before its removal from the Apple Store, the Times had already faced the Chinese government blocking access to its website. In July 2017, Apple said that it was following Chinese law when it removed a number of virtual private networks (VPNs), programs that allow users to circumvent the Great Firewall. It is reported that the CCP has notified service operators that they have until February 1, 2018 to stop their clients from gaining access to all VPNs, completely blocking people’s and companies’ access to the open internet. There are also reports that users could not receive photos and videos from WhatsApp, another popular messaging app but one that is not under the control of the CCP. These programs allow people within China to gain access to uncensored information, but the window on their availability is closing rather fast.

Most recently, on August 18, Cambridge University Press (CUP) announced that it was removing articles at the request of the CCP, and then promptly backpedaled after outcry from the academic community on August 21. The General Administration of Press and Publication warned that if CUP did not remove 300 articles and book reviews with content that the government deemed sensitive (like the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989), then the China Quarterly website would be completely blocked in China. In an emailed statement, CUP rationalized its decision by essentially claiming it was for the greater good: by removing 300 articles, CUP was able to remain in China, giving researchers the opportunity to read the unblocked articles.

The academic community expressed outrage over the CUP’s willingness to bow to the censorship of academic writings and threatened to boycott CUP. A Change.org petition calling for the boycott said, “As academics, we believe in the free and open exchange of ideas and information on all topics not just those we agree with. It is disturbing to academics and universities world wide that China is attempting to export its censorship on topics that do not fit its preferred narrative.” The public outcry over letting a government choose what scholarly, peer-reviewed works can be accessed succeeded—for now. Mentions of CUP’s U-turn were subsequently scrubbed on “China’s Twitter” Weibo. At the time of writing, China has not yet blocked access to the offending articles or websites.

These moves go well beyond the expected crackdown before the Party Congresses that occur once every five years. The ban on VPNs, and the other actions noted in this article, shows that Xi and the CCP are adamant about controlling access to information within China. Preventing people from having private, one-on-one conversations and determining what people are allowed to share with each other truly embodies Orwell’s famous line in 1984, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” Xi and the CCP are working tirelessly to follow this maxim. The major threat to achieving this goal is the free flow of the truth and information, and that threat is on the verge of elimination.

*Thomas J. Shattuck is the assistant editor and a research associate at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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