China had 772 million internet users by the end of December 2017, with penetration rate of 55.8%[i]. Thus, it became the largest online population in the world. As the records of internet service and users grew exponentially, the Chinese government has undertaken measures to limit the access of its netizens to contents that a deemed politically sensitive and would potentially undermine the Party’s legitimacy.
Only in the late 1980s, China connected with the internet. The primary objective was to use the internet for scaling up their business and commerce. However, soon they realized that the internet made the control of free flow of information both within the country and across the border difficult. Information access is much convenient and decentralized than it was ten years ago. Modern communication technologies, such as, smart phones and internet facilitate the dissemination of news, cultural exchanges, and political activism by transcending time and space barriers.
At times when penetration rate of the Internet and mobile phone grows rapidly – which helps in spreading information and shaping public opinion, the Chinese Government realizes the politically adverse effect of it. Taking into account the contradictorily dualistic impacts of internet; economic benefits and political perturbation, China perceives it as a ‘necessary evil.’ The last three decades of marriage with internet helped China uplift itself from a poor backward economy to the second largest economy in the world. The internet has played a crucial role in shaping the economic development of China. Additionally, Xi Jinping also joined Facebook as a means to connect to the people on social media outside China and to establish a positive image for the party and its leadership.
China’s curtails on the freedom of cyber space
The problem of internet surveillance, censorship and data mining is growing and becoming a worldwide phenomenon. Recently leaked documents exposed that Google is building censored search engine in China that will suppress freedom of information and divide the internet. Google withdrew its search engine from China eight years ago due to censorship but it is now working on a project r named “Dragonfly”, which purposely want to enter the Chinese market to censor search results in China. It will further hinder the communication barriers, freedom of human right in Tibet and China. Pathrick Poon, a Hong Kong-based researcher with human rights group Amnesty International, said the intercept that Google’s return to China signifies a win for the Chinese government and its censorship regime. According to him if the world’s largest organizer of information in the world agrees to China’s censorship terms, then it sends the message that nobody else should bother challenging the Chinese censorship, either.[ii] It will be a shameful if Google comply with the Chine’s dynamic censorship rule to gain market access.
Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is asserting its control over the Internet governance within the country. Those foreign companies which want to establish their business in China need to strictly comply with its cyber law. According to the law, China seeks to require companies to store all data within China and pass security reviews, within China’s ethos of “cyber sovereignty”, the idea that state should be permitted to govern, monitor their own cyberspace, control and incoming data flow. Last year in July, Apple removed dozens of VPNs from its App store in China, citing compliance with government regulations. The law obviously intrudes upon individuals’ right to freedom of expression, opinion and information. To the effective implementation of censorship process, the state resorts to sophisticated technologies such as the Great Firewall and the Golden Shield.
CCP is aggressively finding ways to filter and control access to information for citizens within their border. China filters a significant portion of contents pertaining to its own human rights record. The consistent and stringent regulation of internet by the government results lack of transparency within the system and trust deficiency from the part of its netizens.
Many Tibetans in Tibet take risks on a daily basis in the interest of promoting human rights. Consequently, the authority, equipped with law and technological surveillance, tries to have tight control over what citizens can see and say online. The Chinese leadership has dramatically expanded the technological capacity and human capital devoted to controlling content on the Internet.[iii] It also employs Internet propagandists reportedly ranges from 500,000 to two million as popularly known as 50 cent army, to write comments on the internet to safeguard the prestige and integrity of CCP. They are employed across government propaganda departments, private corporations, and news outlets.[iv] With the intention of fabricating facts, China delete posts approximately 488 million comments on social media annually. Unfortunately, China has long been denying this unscrupulous operation in the cyber space.
Strict government policies have ensued dramatic fall in the number of postings on the Chinese Social media platforms ordinary citizens. However, the prominent human rights figures – both Tibetans and Chinese – bear the brunt of this policy. No matter how much attempts China make to curtail the freedom of cyber space, the citizens often manage to slip through the cracks. The irresponsibility of local level authority, lack of just judicial system are some examples of sensitive issues that people speak about in the social media. This expression of grievances through social media indirectly put pressure upon the government.
In the long run, the government has to bring positive changes pertaining to its internet policy rather than trying to control it. With the increase in the speed of exchange of information via internet and mobile phone, the Great Chinese Firewall is constantly facing insurmountable challenges. To legitimize or create further ways for trampling cyber space freedom, China today emphasizes on the idea of ‘Internet sovereignty’ that each country has the right to control its domestic internet space. It also reflects a desire on the part of the Chinese government to ensure that Chinese internet companies dominate the Chinese market.
Over the past few years, China has vowed to eliminate virtual private networks (VPNs), the technology that allows people inside China to access platforms on the global internet that have been blocked by Chinese censors, including Google, Facebook, YouTube and many other famed English-language newspapers. Nevertheless, some users, through technologically sophisticated means develop their own circumvention tools. In fact, a special Web browser once emerged on the internet that enables users to access blocked Web sites. The Chinese government must realize that limiting access to information is wrong but transparency will lead to a more powerful and resourceful China. Stringent surveillance and censorship will isolate China from the rest of the world, thereby, limiting its ability to learn about the world and cope with others.
[iii] The Third Revolution Xi Jinping and the new Chinese State by Elizabeth C. Economy page no: 56
[iv] https://www.pewglobal.org/database/indictor/24//. “opinion of China,: Pew Research Center, June2016
*Tenzin Dalha is a research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Tibet Policy Institute.