Recent events have revealed how China’s internet companies and higher education collude with censorship authorities to closely monitor citizens on social media.
On June 9, China Digital Times, a U.S.-based website that closely monitors internet censorship in China, first revealed a public bulletin announcement posted by an unnamed college in China for all its students to read. Four students, listed with their full names and class, were placed under investigation by local police for “inappropriate” online behavior.
The notice was dated June 7, and issued jointly by the school’s security office, student affairs department, and graduate students department.
Guo Zhenhao, a vehicle engineering student, was placed under investigation by local police soon after his comments on social media chats were deemed “destabilizing to society” on June 5.
Another student named Ma Zhaoqun, who majored in mechanical design, manufacturing, and automation, was placed under police investigation for similar reasons. Ma reposted a picture that was previously sent to his high school classmates’ chat group on WeChat, a popular social media platform, along with some comments, on June 6.
Gu Yan, a civil engineering student, was placed under investigation on April 16, three days after his comments on his family’s social media group were found to be “not appropriate for social stability.”
The fourth student, Liu Yangjie, another engineering student, was under police investigation for about two weeks after he downloaded a video from an overseas website and reposted it onto one of his WeChat groups on April 25.
The announcement did not reveal the contents of the so-called “inappropriate” social media posts, but it came with a hefty warning: the internet is not a “land above the law,” and the school would cooperate with local police to issue necessary disciplinary punishment for any student “who threatened to carry act radical acts that would severely disrupt social stability.”
In recent years, China’s internet censorship apparatus has gotten increasingly oppressive. In its latest annual report on internet freedom, human rights organization Freedom House, listed China as the world’s worst abuser for three consecutive years since 2015. Popular social media platforms like WeChat and Weibo, China’s equivalent to Twitter, work closely with Chinese authorities to censor content that the regime disapproves of.
To enforce the Chinese regime’s censorship policies—set up by the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the state’s top agency for enforcing online censorship—Weibo recruited 1,000 users to act as online censors who would monitor posts and report any “harmful” content.
Another arm of the Chinese Communist Party, the United Front Work Department, has become key to the regime’s efforts to silence any dissenting opinions online. The United Front is tasked with spreading the Party’s agenda inside and outside of China.
On June 11, the United Front hosted a workshop, inviting over 50 Chinese internet company executives, heads of new media platforms, well-known Weibo users, and popular social media personalities to make sure their “political stances remained firm,” according to a recent report by the state-run newspaper The Paper. The workshop attendees were also asked to be active promoters of “positive energy” online—a euphemism for making sure their online remarks fall within the Party line.
Many attendees made promises hinting that they would enforce censorship policies. Zhou Yuan, the founder and CEO of Zhihu, China’s equivalent of Quora said his company would work under the direction of the government to create a “pure and clean internet environment” for Chinese youth.
Meng Lingyue, a Weibo user with over 5.7 million followers, supported the regime’s online campaign, saying he would be both a “speaker and promoter of government policy” to safeguard “social values” and pass on “positive energy.”
Imposing self-censorship is another tactic the Chinese regime uses to stifle criticism of the regime. In March, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported that some college professors and people working in the financial sector were required by their employers to fill out a form asking for their phone’s IMEI number, a 15-digit code unique to every cell phone, in addition to information about their social media accounts. They also had to answer questions about whether they downloaded and stored “sensitive information” on their phones or used their phones to discuss “state secrets.” By asking such detailed questions, the form serves to intimidate employees into complying with censorship rules.