While many once believed access to the Internet would usher in universal human rights and democracy, in the hands of China and other tyrannical governments it has become an extraordinary instrument of repression and thought-control.
While countless millions (indeed, 40 percent of the world’s population) have come to rely on the Internet as a primary source of information, censorship and the spread of disinformation via the Internet have given dictatorships huge powers to deceive and manipulate citizens, and to deprive them of access to information crucial to their ability to understand global and local realities.
On the world stage, Internet manipulation by the People’s Republic of China stands out.
China has about 642 million Internet users, close to half its massive population. But the Internet to which they have access is deeply corrupted by government censorship ruthlessly aimed at maintaining the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in power.
The content of electronic media is thoroughly shaped by blocking access to a wide variety of information, inserting what is deemed useful to achieving the political goals of the CCP, which ensures that editorial opinions never question the authority of the Party and the state.
The Communist Party, which unilaterally runs the government, has asserted full “national sovereignty” concerning what may or may not be seen on the Internet. Thanks to technology provided by Google and Cisco Systems, thousands of words, phrases and names cannot be accessed using search engines in accordance with policies of the State Internet Information Office.
Among the banned words are “human rights,” “oppression,” Tiananmen Square, dissident Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, and the name of the newspaper you are reading.
A Harvard University study found that Chinese authorities block as many as 18,000 websites, including many standard, independent sources of international news.
What is more, all books published in China are censored.
A new study by the American branch of International PEN found widespread censorship, often without the consent of authors, by editors who have removed references to difficult and controversial policies and tragic events that have occurred in modern Chinese history.
Chinese media are prevented from collecting and exposing facts about such issues as the recent Oriental Star cruise ship disaster; while the authorities vigorously denied the practice of selling the organs of executed prisoners, the government has slowly walked back its lies in the face of international publicity.
The state posits itself unabashedly as the arbiter of truth. Citizens are thus prohibited from “making falsehoods or distorting the truth, spreading rumors, and destroying the order of society.”
But of course, that is precisely what the Chinese state itself is doing by arbitrarily removing facts and ideas from the Internet and replacing them with propaganda, and by its broader censorship regime.
Moreover, the crude effort to retain control and power by limiting citizens’ access to information and ideas is amazingly shortsighted from a strategic point of view. It severely limits fulfillment of the human potential of the Chinese people, putting them at a huge disadvantage vis a vis peoples of living in free societies.
We in the free world know what the Chinese people know, and what they are not allowed to know. But by and large, the Chinese people do not have the means to know what has been “disappeared” from their available spectrum of knowledge. They are forced to live in a restricted, distorted universe constructed by functionaries blindly following commands issued by a brittle bureaucracy so insecure that its leaders fear challenging ideas.
Yet we can assume that millions of Chinese live with the knowledge that they are being deprived of information and manipulated by the state—a perilous frame of mind that itself breeds rumors and deep anxieties, and, ultimately, social instability, the very thing communist rulers seek to prevent.
People around the world who enjoy freedom and democracy owe it to Chinese citizens to hold firm to our principles and insist that the Chinese people enjoy them as well.
A Pew Foundation poll found that huge proportions of people in major European countries recognize that the Chinese are deprived of their human rights. But in the face of pressure to maintain economic cooperation, Western governments are showing strong tendencies to appease China’s violations of the freedom of expression and other fundamental human rights.
They tend to remain silent as China twists the concept of human rights to mean nothing but economic benefits and social entitlements.
Indeed, the current Chinese authorities apparently do not understand that all people possess universal human rights by virtue of the common human nature they share with all others. They cling to the retrograde falsehood that human rights are defined and conferred upon citizens by the state.
Without freedom, the Chinese people have little hope of contributing to solving global problems like pollution. It is thus important that European Union officials, as they engage with China during events like the EU-China summit held on 29 June, reflect and honor the views of European citizens as regards human rights. By doing so they will be moving the world toward a future where the Chinese people can truly join the international community.
Aaron Rhodes is president of the Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe and a founder of the Freedom Rights Project, a think-tank. He was Executive Director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights 1993-2007.