A new report says that the Chinese regime continues to tighten its grip on the internet and impose ever more aggressive censorship on Chinese social media while jailing those who dare to express dissent.
The report, “Forbidden Feeds: Government Controls on Social Media in China,” compiled by PEN America and released on March 13, documents the escalating censorship of information and online speech on China’s internet, particularly on social media, where China has seen an explosive growth in users in the last decade. PEN America advocates for free expression for writers and artists.
“China’s Great Firewall is getting taller,” the report says, referring to the Chinese regime’s multibillion dollar investment over the past two decades in building the world’s largest and most sophisticated internet censorship system.
According to the report, the Chinese regime has been remarkably successful at allowing its citizens to feel that they are free to use social media to enrich their lives in a wide range of ways, while also creating a system that remains under the regime’s control.
The vague and broad nature of China’s censorship rules means that the “red lines” for speech on social media are continually drawn and re-drawn. This makes it difficult for any socially engaged authors or bloggers to express views freely, as any crackdown from the regime’s censors could easily ruin their online presence and hence their careers.
“Socially engaged authors and bloggers who wish to make their voices heard online are faced with difficult choices: take one’s chances in speaking freely, self-censor, withdraw from the conversation, or leave the country,” the report says.
As tightly controlled and censored as it already was, the report observed that the Chinese regime is still increasing online censorship to further attack remaining pockets of dissenting voices.
“Before, your post would get deleted. Now they would just come and take you away,” said Sarah Cook, a senior research analyst for Freedom House, discussing the report during a March 19 event in Washington, co-sponsored by Freedom House and PEN.
The report comes with an appendix listing 80 prominent cases from over the past six years of Chinese citizens being warned, threatened, detained, interrogated, fined, or imprisoned for online posts.
For example, Xinjiang-based activist Zhang Haitao was sentenced to 19 years in prison in 2016 for communicating with overseas media such as Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, and for being critical of the Chinese regime’s repression in Xinjiang. His Twitter and WeChat posts, and other writings and interviews, were used as evidence in court.
The Chinese regime claims its censorship is a way to fight “online rumors,” similar to social media’s attempts to censor “fake news” in the West. In reality, the censorship essentially ensures that no online presence grows enough to pose a threat to the Communist Party’s rule and the prevailing propaganda that it has sought to impose forcibly.
Shanthi Kalathil, director of International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy, said at the March 19 event that the Chinese regime might be exporting censorship and its model of authoritarianism overseas as Chinese companies expand around the world.
“There are already a lot of ties developed between Chinese companies and the Silicon Valley,” Kalathil said, echoing the part of the report that warns the United States and other nations that tech companies are eyeing entry or re-entry into the massive Chinese market. In the process, they are often tempted or coerced to become complicit in supporting the Chinese regime’s internet censorship in China.
Kalathil expressed concern that foreign companies might begin applying the same censorship in their home markets. Such an intrusion would be ironic, given the regime’s insistence on “cyber sovereignty.”
“Control of social media is an essential part of China’s ‘cyber sovereignty’ model, a vision that rejects the universalism of the internet in favor of the idea that each country has the right to shape and control the internet within its own borders,” the report says.
Yaxue Cao, the director of the China human rights watchdog website ChinaChange.org, said that the United States is losing the competition of ideas on cyberspace not because Chinese authoritarianism is more persuasive, but because U.S. decisionmakers simply do not yet have a plan to fight back with messages of human rights and democracy.
“The New York Times is blocked in China. Why, then, is China’s CCTV allowed to be here?” asked Cao. “China is using censorship as a trade barrier, and using propaganda as an anti-American tool. … We should press for reciprocity.”