Open thread: Chinese censorship


in Internet matters, Language, Law, Politics, Writing

One mechanism of control used by the Chinese government is censorship of the media and the internet. Reportedly, this has been so comprehensive and successful that young people in China are unlikely to know about the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

This is an important example of how governments are often the biggest threat to internet users.

The Economist recently reported on government manipulation of Chinese television, as well as on academic publishing.

All this is relevant in part because of how China is a rising power but not a free society, as well as because of what it reveals about how the Chinese Communist Party maintains popular legitimacy and control.

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. September 16, 2017 at 4:57 pm

Despite censorship, China has some cool bookshops

The government is ambivalent about them

IN AN underground railway station below the main public library in Shanghai is a spacious bookshop called Jifeng. It is one of the city’s most respected, but its days are numbered. A display inside the entrance shows how many of them remain before the shop closes—147 as of September 6th. The authorities, it seems, have had enough of its open-minded selection of works and the talks it hosts on controversial topics.

That, too, may test local officials’ tolerance. Like Jifeng, Commune tries to attract customers by organising talks—though not always as edgy as Jifeng’s. Speakers over the past year have included the Chinese translator of Umberto Eco’s novel, “Numero Zero”, which satirises politicians and the media; and a film director, Jia Zhangke, whose movies about the social costs of China’s boom sometimes rile the censors.

But companies like Commune are careful not to provoke the authorities too blatantly. They obtain books published abroad from a state-owned distributor, the China National Publications Import and Export Corporation (its motto: “Opening, Harmonising, Innovating, Advancing”), which prohibits anything critical of the Communist Party. “There’s nothing we can do about it,” Ms Cheng says.

In Shanghai, in a quiet side-street close to Jifeng, is a café called 1984 that looks much like a trendy bookshop (pictured, above). Its entrance hall is lined with different editions of George Orwell’s dystopian novel. But its owners are canny. “None of the books in this shop is for sale,” says a sign inside.

. November 8, 2017 at 10:38 am

Managing the Message

What you can’t say about the 19th National Communist Party Congress on WeChat

WeChat censored keywords related to the 19th National Communist Party Congress over a year prior to the event and updated blocked content as the event approached.

Surprisingly, we found that even neutral references to official party policies and ideology were blocked in addition to references to the Congress, party leaders, and power struggles within the Communist Party of China.

. November 14, 2017 at 7:28 pm

China’s internet censors announced new regulations aimed at curbing the spread of “illegal information”. Staff at news websites will be required to undergo training in “the Marxist view of journalism”. Those who fail to promote “a positive and healthy…online culture” face dismissal.

. November 22, 2017 at 11:34 am

Skype Vanishes From App Stores in China, Including Apple’s

Skype, which is owned by Microsoft, still functions in China, and its fate in the country is not yet clear. But its removal from the app stores is the most recent example of a decades-long push by China’s government to control and monitor the flow of information online.
Continue reading the main story
Related Coverage

China Blocks WhatsApp, Broadening Online Censorship SEPT. 25, 2017
Apple Removes Apps From China Store That Help Internet Users Evade Censorship JULY 29, 2017
China’s New Cybersecurity Law Leaves Foreign Firms Guessing MAY 31, 2017

While China has long wielded the most sophisticated and comprehensive internet controls in the world, under President Xi Jinping it has upped the ante, squelching most major foreign social networks and messaging apps one at a time.

Earlier this autumn, the Facebook-owned messaging service WhatsApp was hit by blockages in China, becoming the latest in a long line of products to be rendered unusable by Chinese government filters. Others include Gmail, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Telegram and Line.

. January 14, 2018 at 8:55 pm

The hearing discussed elaborate efforts to control Chinese students in America. Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch, an NGO, described Chinese police visiting the parents of a student who two days earlier had raised “touchy subjects” in a closed-door college seminar in America. Mr Rubio noted government attempts to curb enrolment by Chinese students at the University of California in San Diego, after a speech by the Dalai Lama there. Meanwhile, Chinese attempts to co-opt public officials and academics, even at state and local level, continue apace. Chinese operations are “an extraordinarily important geopolitical issue,” said Mr Rubio.

The immediate aim of Chinese sharp power is often self-censorship. Sometimes that takes pressure. In August the Chinese government asked a number of academic publishers to censor their databases of academic articles to exclude sensitive subjects such as the Tiananmen Square protests and unrest among ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang. Springer and Cambridge University Press complied but, following furious criticism in the West, CUP reinstated the items.

In November, at short notice, an Australian publisher withdrew a book, “Silent Invasion”, citing possible defamation suits from “Beijing’s agents of influence”. For those already anxious about rising Chinese intervention, the news appeared to confirm their worst fears—and substantiate the academic’s argument, summed up in the volume’s subtitle, “How China is turning Australia into a Puppet State”.

. February 22, 2018 at 6:00 pm

Many observers believe that the great firewall’s porousness is a feature, not a bug—that its architects see benefit in a barrier that does not completely alienate entrepreneurs, academics and foreign residents, but which most Chinese web-users will not have the energy, or the finances (VPNs usually require subscriptions), to surmount. But doubts are growing about this interpretation. For the past year the government has been trying to make it harder to find, and use, VPNs—the most common form of firewall-leaping tool. Mr Wu’s punishment was clearly intended as a harsh warning to others in China not to try selling such services to ordinary consumers. Speculation is growing that even tougher curbs will be imposed in 2018.

As well as closing down suppliers based in China, the government has made it more difficult for people in China to buy foreign VPN services. In July Apple dismayed civil-rights campaigners when it agreed to wipe VPN products from its Chinese app store. The company pulled down more than 600 of them. They are also disappearing from Android stores, though more slowly. Meanwhile most of the public places that used to offer unfiltered internet—such as hotels with many foreign guests—now provide the expurgated kind.

Subscribers to the best-known foreign VPN services are still able to use their accounts in China. But they were rattled in July when Bloomberg, citing anonymous sources, reported that telecoms companies had been told to block access to unauthorised “personal” VPNs, presumably including foreign ones, by February 1st 2018. China’s internet providers may well have the ability to do so: during sensitive political events foreign VPNs often become cumbersome or even impossible to use, apparently because of government-ordered efforts to throttle them. The ministry in charge of cyber affairs issued a confusing rebuttal of Bloomberg’s story. Foreign diplomats in Beijing say they are finding it difficult to get straight answers from the government about how far it intends to go.

. July 2, 2018 at 6:00 pm

The optimists made two sorts of mistake. The first was to overestimate the subversive power of various novelties. This was often an error of projection: they could not imagine being as tireless as Chinese leaders turned out to be in defending their authority. Modern telecommunications technologies “have proved an unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes,” Rupert Murdoch claimed in 1993. He later recanted, seeking to assuage appalled Chinese leaders, but plenty of others insisted that he had been right first time, if not about the faxes and satellite televisions of the 1990s, then about the internet of the 2000s. Why, technology entrepreneurs would scoff in Beijing bars a generation ago, China would have to hire hundreds of thousands of secret policemen to control the internet. Then China did more or less precisely that.

. August 15, 2018 at 4:42 pm

When China started building its “Great Firewall” around its version of the internet 20 years ago, Wired magazine, then the central organ of online culture, wondered whether it would suffer the fate of its physical predecessor, the Great Wall, which largely failed to protect the country against raids. But it has got more and more effective. In particular, its operators have learned to balance the aim of keeping out Western democratic values with the need to maintain close links to the world economy. China’s recent clampdown on virtual private networks (VPNs), services that tunnel through the Great Firewall, seems designed to fine-tune these filters.

Within China, censorship is, in essence, outsourced to the internet firms. In April Toutiao, a popular news-aggregation service, found itself in the cross-hairs of China’s top media regulator for posting “vulgar” content. The firm’s chief executive, Zhang Yiming, quickly issued an apology, saying he should have realised that “technology has to be guided by the core values of socialism.” He also promised to hire another 4,000 censors, on top of the 6,000 his firm already employs. The total number of “content controllers” working in China’s internet industry, some reckon, is more than 2m.

Nearly the same number, it is thought, work for the Chinese government, injecting propaganda and misinformation into the social-media flow. In one study in 2017 a group of researchers at Harvard and other American universities found that this “50-cent party”, so called because members supposedly receive 50 cents (in yuan) for every piece of content, generates nearly 450m posts per year. Most of them do not attack critics of the Communist Party and the government, or even discuss controversial questions. “We show that the goal of this massive secretive operation is instead to distract the public and change the subject,” the authors conclude.

Despite this tight government control, Chinese internet firms enjoy extensive commercial freedom. Indeed, they are less regulated than Western ones, which is a big reason why the competition is much tougher and innovation in some areas, such as ride-hailing and rental bikes, has been faster. Kai-Fu Lee of Sinovation Ventures, a venture-capital firm based in Beijing, compares Chinese entrepreneurs to gladiators. Hardened by the copycat wars of the 2000s, during which most of them tried to replicate Western ideas, they have now come into their own. And unlike startups in Silicon Valley, those in Beijing or Shanghai sometimes tackle dominant firms head-on.

All the same, Alibaba and Tencent are the acknowledged leaders, particularly in financial services (Baidu, China’s number three, struggles to keep up). With their respective subsidiaries, Alipay and WeChat Pay, they dominate mobile payments. In the big coastal cities, these services have all but replaced cash for smaller purchases and generate immense amounts of data, which the companies then use to target advertisements, improve their e-commerce services and power artificial-intelligence (AI) offerings. Alibaba and Tencent also control much of China’s venture capital. According to McKinsey, a consultancy, between them they make about half of all VC investments in mainland China. In America the tech titans account for only around 5% of such investment.

But as Xi Jinping, China’s president, tightens his grip on the country, the tech giants, too, have found themselves more constrained. In addition to being forced to ensure that the government retains its monopoly on information, they are now also being required to help make China a “cyber-superpower”, turning them into “quasi-state-owned companies”, in the words of Max Zenglein of the Mercator Institute for China Studies, a think-tank. Nowhere is this clearer than in AI, where the country wants to be the world leader by 2030 and plans to build a domestic industry worth $150bn.

. August 26, 2018 at 4:57 pm

Today’s great rising power is the very opposite of the United States, the great rising power of Tocqueville’s time. China is an example not of democracy allied to liberty but of centralisation allied to authoritarianism. Its state and its pliant tech firms can control the flow of information to an extent never dreamed of. Increasingly, China embodies everything that Tocqueville warned against: power centralised in the hands of the state; citizens reduced to atoms; a collective willingness to sacrifice liberty for a comfortable life.

. August 26, 2019 at 10:27 am

Russia is growing dependent on China in technology, too. Huawei, a company deeply distrusted by America, is rolling out its 5g telecoms equipment in Russia. Alibaba, a Chinese e-commerce giant, has entered into a joint venture with, the owner of Russia’s largest social-media networks. Russia’s draconian law on the “sovereignty of the internet”, currently before parliament, is copied from China, and it is hoping to use Chinese technology to implement it. Dahua Technology is helping Russia with face recognition. Hikvision cameras are watching Moscow residents. Grigory Yavlinsky, a liberal politician, argues in a recent article on these deals that turning Russia into “China’s satellite…for the sake of sticking it to the usa is an unforgivable shortsightedness.”

Leonid Kovachich, a journalist who monitors Russia’s use of Chinese tech, says Russian officials are aware of security risks associated with China’s penetration and are trying to use Russian-made software and algorithms. But they cannot get away from the Chinese hardware. Mr Putin once said that the countries and companies which dominate artificial intelligence will rule the world. Russia’s ai is highly likely to come almost entirely from China.

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