China was again ranked the worst among governments for increased exploitation of the internet for social control and political purposes, according to a report released by Freedom House on Nov. 4.
“China is the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom for the fourth consecutive year,” the human rights group said in its latest annual report on internet freedom.
The report surveyed 65 countries and concluded that 33 of them had an overall decline in their internet freedom score compared to a year earlier. The score is assessed based on factors including obstacles to internet access in that country, limitations set on content, and user rights violations.
The report also noted that at least 40 countries possessed advanced social media surveillance programs, including China.
“Censorship reached unprecedented extremes in China as the government enhanced its information controls ahead of the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre and in the face of persistent anti-government protests in Hong Kong,” according to the report.
China received a total score of 10 out of 100, 2 points lower than a year ago.
On June 4, 1989, Chinese soldiers opened fire on unarmed civilians in Tiananmen Square to crush pro-democracy protests, leaving hundreds, or by some estimates, thousands dead. The Chinese regime denies having initiated a violent crackdown, and any discussion about the protest movement is considered taboo in China.
Freedom House, citing a previous Epoch Times report, explained how Chinese authorities temporarily shut down regional internet networks, including in Shanghai and southern China’s Guangdong Province, as a possible preemptive censorship measure ahead of June 4 this year.
The report noted that China has scrapped social media posts related to Hong Kong protests on the popular Twitter-like microblogging site Weibo, based on keywords such as “police” and “justice.”
Hong Kong mass protests, now in their fifth month after millions took to the streets in June, have called for an independent inquiry into instances of police violence against protesters, in addition to their other demands such as universal suffrage in city elections.
Meanwhile, Chinese authorities have detained Chinese netizens for voicing support for Hong Kong protests online.
Authorities have also shuttered individual Weibo accounts for any “deviant” behaviors, such as commenting on environmental disasters.
“China’s online information landscape is significantly less diverse than it was even five years ago, due to increasing censorship, especially of content produced by civil society activists, investigative journalists, and ‘self-media,’” the report stated, the latter referring to social media accounts that provide news and commentary.
For instance, in Xinjiang, where Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities are being heavily suppressed and held in concentration camps, Uyghur-language content and relevant news reporting have been heavily censored, according to the report. Meanwhile, Islamophobic and xenophobic posts are allowed to circulate on the Chinese internet.
Other religious minorities, such as adherents of Falun Gong, have also been jailed in recent years for online activities, including accessing websites banned in China, and posting messages about human rights abuses on Chinese social media.
Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, is an ancient spiritual practice with moral teachings and meditative exercises. China’s ongoing persecution of the group, which began in 1999, has resulted in hundreds of thousands being detained in prisons, labor camps, and brainwashing centers, according to the Falun Dafa Information Center.
In addition, China is actively developing and exporting social media surveillance tools.
The report identified private Chinese company Semptian, based in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, which markets its Aegis surveillance system, in addition to a “national firewall” product that mimics China’s Great Firewall, which blocks foreign websites.
According to the Shenzhen government’s website, Semptian received at least 300,000 yuan (about $42,880) in local government subsidies in 2018.
Several provincial governments in China have also reportedly developed a “Police Cloud” system to accumulate data: people’s social media accounts, their telecoms records, e-commerce activities, biometric data, and surveillance footage, according to the report.
These data could then be used to target certain individuals for interacting with “persons of concern” or for being part of “certain ethnicities,” euphemisms for Uyghurs.
Adrian Shahbaz, Freedom House’s research director for technology and democracy, raised concerns about the spread of this technology around the world. “Big-data spying tools are making their way around the world,” he said in a press release, adding that “advances in AI are driving a booming, unregulated market for social media surveillance.”