By Tenzin Dalha, Researcher at Tibet Policy Institute. Read the original here
China had 772 million internet users by the end of December 2017, with penetration rate of 55.8%. It became the largest online population in the world.
As the record of internet service users grow exponentially, the Chinese government has undertaken measures to restrict the access of content that is deemed politically sensitive and would potentially undermine the Party’s legitimacy.
Information access is more convenient and decentralised 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, transcending time and space barriers.
Taking into account the contradictory dualistic impact of the internet — economic benefits and political perturbation, China perceives it as a ‘necessary evil.’ The last three decades of marriage with the 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 way to connect to 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 named “Dragonfly”, which purposely wants to enter the Chinese market to censor search results in China.
It will further hinder the communication barriers and freedom of human rights in Tibet and China. Pathrick Poon, a Hong Kong-based researcher with human rights group Amnesty International, said that Google’s return to China signifies a win for the Chinese government and its censorship regime.
According to Pathrick, if the world’s largest organiser of information in the world agrees to China’s censorship terms, it sends across the message that nobody else should bother challenging the Chinese censorship, either. It will be shameful if Google complies with China’s dynamic censorship rule to gain market access.
CCP is asserting steps to govern the internet within the country. Foreign companies which want to establish their business in China need to comply strictly with its cyber law.
According to the law, China requires local and oversea firms to submit to security checks and companies to store all data within the China’s ethos of “cyber sovereignty
The idea behind this is that the state should be permitted to govern, monitor their own cyberspace and control incoming dataflow.
In July 2017, Apple removed 60 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 maintain effective censorship processes, 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 content pertaining to its own human rights record. The consistent and stringent regulation of internet by the government results in a lack of transparency within the system and a trust deficiency from 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. It also employs Internet propagandists reportedly ranging from 500,000 to two million more popularly known as 50cent 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. With the intention of fabricating facts, China delete 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 resulted in a dramatic fall in the number of postings on Chinese social media platforms by ordinary citizens. The prominent human rights figures – both Tibetans and Chinese – bear the brunt of this policy.
Despite China’s attempts to curtail cyber space freedom, 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 share about on the social media. This expression of grievances through social media indirectly places pressure on the government.
A Positive Change is Required
In the long run, the government has to bring a positive change pertaining to its internet policy rather than try to control it. The Great Chinese Firewall constantly faces insurmountable challenges with the increase in speed of information exchanged via the internet.
To legitimise trampling on cyber space freedom, China emphasises the idea of ‘Internet sovereignty’ that each country has the right to control its domestic internet space today. It also reflects a desire of the Chinese government in ensuring that Chinese internet companies dominate the Chinese market.
Over the past few years, China has vowed to eliminate virtual private networks (VPNs), a 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 media.
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.
Flexibility with Technological boundaries
The Chinese government must realise 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.
China needs to be more flexible with technological boundaries and limit surveillance tools, in order to appeal to the world through its soft power.