Internet Censorship in China

With its porous borders and amorphous population, cyberspace has an ideological geography, depicting the world with information and ideas rather than the international boundaries that may physically separate them. The Internet serves simultaneously as the intellectual global trading post and international ideological battleground. Nations’ conflicting backgrounds and interests are in constant confrontation on the World Wide Web. As their definitions of and attitudes towards free expression online oppose, the United States and China engage in cyber-warfare, teetering between the offensive and defensive lines. For example, in defense of Internet freedom, American must neglect the Chinese e-commerce market, which is the most prosperous cyber economy. To protect their Internet sovereignty, the Chinese must overcome the inherently autonomous and democratic infrastructure of the web, which is rooted in American engineering and ideology. Ultimately, their contrasting behavior and political posture towards free expression online isolates the nations from each other and from their own respective moral and political visions of the Internet. As China attempts to isolate from global cyberspace while America dominate it, dangerous trends of cyber-nationalism and cultural imperialism emerge, producing ignorance and disregard for the social and cultural context that shapes the other’s cyberspace. I will explore how these two nations’ divergent historical, economic, and sociopolitical stakeholders incite both adoption and rebellion against each other’s policy and attitude regarding online censorship.  As the Internet requires global conformation, a transnational definition of Internet freedom can only emerge with the rejection of isolated ignorance and reconciliation of the global Internet.

History influences Internet politics

        Each nation’s political and cultural history is reenacted in cyberspace. Even the Internet’s technical infrastructure anchors in American constitutional imperatives such as democracy and freedom of expression. Created by the American military, Internet infrastructure and protocol, or the TCP/IP suite, does not designate a central point of control or favor certain types of information to be exchanged on cyberspace (Imagining the Internet). Rather, the web treats all packets of information and end-users universally equal. The Internet’s non-hierarchical technical foundation was accompanied by philosophy. America’s early Internet users envisioned the Internet as a space where individual freedom and faith could seek refuge from offline persecution.  When the Internet gained mainstream commercial footing in 1996, American artist and activist John Perry Barlow penned  “A Declaration of Independence in Cyberspace,” declaring, “in China, Germany, France … and the United States, you are trying to ward off the virus of liberty by erecting guard posts at the frontiers of cyberspace” (Barlow). While America may have not lived up to its Founding Fathers’ dreams of democracy and free expression, Barlow and other early Internet idealists looked towards cyberspace as the new home for these foundational American values to thrive.

        On the other side of the global network, one can find relics of China’s autocratic political history and conservative cultural norms. From the Song Dynasty’s control of the publishing industry to the establishment of the Chinese Communist state in 1949, China has historically disabled individual expression and open information exchange (Jiang 65). Since the media is first and foremost a political apparatus created for and by the Communist state, the rise of the Internet, packaged with individual content creation and transnational networks of information, threatened to destabilize the government’s intellectual control. To assert social and political authority on the new medium, China developed its own ideologically regulated version of cyberspace, erecting “The Great Firewall of China,” the most comprehensive attempt to control and censor the Internet (Norris 365). The Central Propaganda Department and State Council Information Office have established two core pillars of their censorship strategy, namely blocking communication between certain “black-listed” end-users and employing content filters, virtually erasing material related to human rights, opposition and independence movements, and pro-democracy groups, and pornography from the Internet, history, and citizens’ consciousness  (Qiang 66, Deibert 326).  

Commercial prospects in censored cyberspace and American conflict of interest

        Though subversive speech is stifled, the Chinese Internet puts their money where their mouth is, birthing the largest e-commerce market in the world (MacKinnon 49). In order to foster their economy and still preserve Internet authority, China must simultaneously maintain intimate relations with the global online economy and ideological distance from international cyberspace. In Access Denied, Milton L. Mueller considers how Chinese cyberspace balances economic engagement and ideological sovereignty, stating “It is a constant, iterative attempt to release productive forces and then corral them into supporting the continued control and dominance of the CCP” (191).

        Seduced by the commercial opportunities in China’s censored cyberspace, American companies may sacrifice their moral vision of an unfiltered Internet for economic gain. Not only does China have a $305 billion e-commerce industry but also the most Internet users of any country. It’s impossible to ignore the vast potential Chinese cyberspace offers to the American private sector (MacKinnon 49).  However, commercial settlement in China may come at an ideological expense. Unlike online platforms in the U.S., protected by Section 230 of the U.S. Code from being held liable for content produced by users, ISPs in China are legally responsible that all material on their servers complies with Chinese Internet laws (Electronic Frontier Foundation)(Deibert 197). Thus, before American ISPs engage in business with China, they must consider what Bill Gates once questioned: “You’ve got to decide: Do you want to obey the laws of the countries you’re in, or not? If not, you may not end up doing business there” (Reuters). Gates’s own Microsoft eventually chose to expand into the Chinese Internet. In fact, Microsoft capitalized on China’s censorial operations, offering a blog service that prevents bloggers from using words such as “democracy” and other “profanities” (Palfrey and Zittrain 109). If seduced by the economic opportunities in Chinese cyberspace, American companies invest in and provide services that not only conform to but also often enable China’s cyber-regulation.

American corporations that conduct business on the Chinese Internet, and thus, subject themselves to oppressive regulation have often been met with backlash back at home in America. For instance, in 2005 Yahoo! China provided personal information about journalist Shi Tao to the Chinese government, resulting in Shi Tao’s decade-long imprisonment. Back in the United States, Yahoo! was called to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee of Congress in a 2007 hearing. Free expression advocates and political leaders delivered vivid verbal punishments, from representative Christopher H. Smith comparing Yahoo!’s actions to disclosing the locations of Jews in Nazi Germany, to committee chairman Tom Lantos condemning “that while technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are pygmies” (The New York Times). While America deemed Yahoo! the company most worthy of moral reprehension in all of Chinese cyberspace, all corporations operating within China’s digital borders must subject themselves to the will of the government and participate in an authoritarian political structure highly unfamiliar to Americans.

        However, as foreign corporations withdraw from Chinese cyberspace in the name of democratic justice, their censored Internet separates further from international influence. When Google rejected China’s censorship policies and ended business relations with the nation in 2010, proponents praised the company for putting Chinese censorship under the international microscope, and perhaps rallying other transnational companies to remove their services from the PRC web (Deibert 275). Despite the company’s uncompromising moral and political conviction, they may have actually hindered America’s quest for universal Internet freedom.

Denying their buffet of information and communication services to China may further localize their Internet activity and polarize cyber- politics. The vast majority of Chinese netizens engage almost exclusively in online services rooted in China.  In fact, according to a study by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, 95% of web page requests made within China are to sites hosted in China (“The Evolving Landscape of Internet Control” 2). While Baidu, a search engine based in China, already had more users than, following the Urumqi riots, China banned several more of the most internationally popular websites, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube (Deibert 274). These absent international sites were quickly replaced with domestic equivalents, and platforms such as instant messaging service QQ and social network RenRen were quickly embraced by cyber-communities in Mainland China (Jiang 141). In view of China’s already insular online activity, Google’s departure from Mainland China may impose further barriers on information flow between censored and global cyberspace. After Google’s exit, technology writer Lance Ulanoff lamented, “the lines of communication are broken, and it will be that much harder to open them again.” In other words, he claims that despite Google’s ideological opposition to Chinese Internet regulation, the powerful platform would more effectively challenge the Chinese system from within it. Usurping Google and other international ISPs, domestic platforms have emerged as guards of The Great Firewall, defending against international influence.

Both respecting and disguising censorship policy, Chinese platforms have been embraced among China’s netizens and government alike. Accustomed to Chinese culture and politics, domestic Internet services little challenge content regulation online. In fact, the government and Chinese Internet executives often form mutually beneficial alliances, as financial and cultural support is awarded to ISPs that dutifully sanitize their content according to government standards. Issued by the Internet Society of China, “The Public Pledge of Self-Regulation and Professional Ethics for China’s Internet Industry” has been adopted by more than 100 Chinese businesses, which commit to content regulation in exchange for government aid (Jiang 82). The collaboration between the Chinese government and domestic social networks constructs a version of cyberspace that so neatly incorporates censorship policies that it disguises the Sino-centric boundaries in which cyber-individuality is forced to exist.  

Since Chinese citizens’ online activity predominantly orbits around domestic, filtered sites, they have little awareness of the digital borders that confine their online behavior and expression.  For instance, though over 160 million netizens contribute to the Chinese blogosphere, the architecture of Chinese blog platforms such as Sina and QZone implicitly exclude discussions of a political nature. Not only do the blog platforms filter posts, they also require users to categorize their posts among several general topics, and of course, a “politics” label is nowhere to be found (Jiang 32). Isolated from the global Internet, China’s domestic platforms impart an illusion of personal autonomy online by shrouding citizens’ regulated behavior in secrecy.

        Despite its sophistication and omnipotence, “The Great Firewall of China” is further concealed from citizens due to the Chinese government’s misleading political posture online. With the establishment of the Chinese “e-parliament,” or a government sanctioned website in which citizens can “propose” issues to authorities, the Chinese government shallowly engages with netizens, mimicking Western democratic ideologies. While the e-democracy theoretically challenges state autocracy, it is really just a political performance, ultimately reinforcing government control (MacKinnon 43).  As the “e-parliament” simulates vesting power in the people and imitates the democratic values of the West, Chinese cyberspace appears citizen-driven, obstructing the true powerlessness of the people to affect political change on and offline.

While the Chinese Internet wears a deceptively, democratic costume for its own netizens, the net is actually less censored for foreign visitors. Preceding the Beijing Olympics, international actors pressured China to uncensor cyberspace and allow foreign journalists to freely report on the games. Aware of the global gaze the games would attract, China decided to appease the international media, loosening Internet regulation for foreigners, yet still upholding their tight control over the citizens’ net (Deibert 273).  The Chinese Internet’s varying appearance is demonstrated in a study conducted by the Open Net Initiative, who found that querying a Chinese-based search engine for the words “Chinese Labor Party” in Chinese yields a 93% inaccessibility rate while the same search performed in English yields only a 20% inaccessibility rate (Deibert 329). As the government imposes strict regulations on its people’s cyberspace and yet offers a minimally filtered version to guests, the respective Internets are segregated, despite their physical proximity. China adapts Internet policy as necessary to preserve its power on and offline. Overall, it attempts to promote ignorance about its regulatory practices to both citizens and the global community. While the Chinese are sheltered from the global Internet and consciousness of their own control, the unaffected foreigners do not experience or have the opportunity to challenge China’s censorship policies in the international arena.

China’s netizens consent to their own control

Divergent sociopolitical histories influence China and the U.S.’s distinctive definitions and philosophies about free expression and government control of Internet operations. Contrary to American society’s utmost regard for personal autonomy and expression, Chinese citizens willingly accept and engage in their own censorship as a reflection of their commitment to national unity and pride. Through the emergence of cyber-nationalism and the establishment of virtual communities that embrace traditional social structures, the Chinese citizens identify with and internalize their own oppression.

China’s online activity concentrates on home turf, fostering a sense of pride and defense of Chinese Internet sovereignty, known as cyber-nationalism.  Historical values of nationhood and unanimity have been incorporated into Chinese cyberspace in order to defend their localized Internet and the government behind it. As patriotism and the censored Internet intimately interweave, netizens begin to identify with their own oppression. Due to ignorance and national pride, the Chinese not only participate in their censored Internet, they actually claim to prefer it.   In a study evaluating online circumvention tool usage, only 3% of subjects admitted to having used circumvention tools, while the majority responded that “they had to no need to access filtered content” (Faris, Palfrey, Roberts, York, and Zuckerman 2,5). Rather than citing fear of persecution or limited technical ability, the core reason Chinese citizens avoid filtered content is due to their satisfaction and faith in Chinese cyberspace.

Moreover, the Chinese government indirectly fosters cyber-nationalism by directly employing netizen intermediaries. Youth league volunteers and paid freelance recruits post pro-government commentary on blogs and chat rooms (MacKinnon 45). Whether for profit or pleasure, these patriotic decoys breed a culture of national loyalty on China’s most popular digital platforms, endorsing oblivious of and commitment to China’s censored net. As national pride seamlessly integrates into online communities, social forces regulate the same speech as the government.

China’s oppressive social structures are also embraced on China’s virtual worlds through a process of social regulation. Even seemingly progressive platforms, such as sites involving sexual or romantic activity, voluntarily anchor back in the nation’s traditional social paradigms. In Animation Garden, one of China’s leading love and dating communities, only heterosexual couples can get ‘married’ (Jacobs 159). Though law does not explicitly prohibit homosexuality online, the government-sponsored media generally avoids positive depictions of gay couples (Yinhe). Animation Garden among many Chinese social networks to willingly mirror the government’s implicit exlusion of alternative lifestyles through a process of social regulation.

China’s resentment for the Western media

        Seeing as many Chinese netizens consent to their own control, many oppose the American media’s negative portrayal of Chinese cyberspace and attempted reform. Regions of the Chinese Internet are devoted to exposing American media’s “anti-China bias,” including the notorious, comprising over 100,000 members, a theme song, and a hand gesture wielded like a gang sign (Jiang 105). Examined by Chinese academic Ying Jiang, Anti-CNN’s evidence of CNN’s anti-China bias falls into three logical frameworks:  if news is reported in the West and not in China, the West is biased and incorrect, if negative news is reported in both the West and China, the West is too focused on the negatives and is still biased, and if positive news about China is not reported by the Western media, it is once more biased (281). Clearly, profound Sino-centrism and isolation from Western media fuels their own biased claims condemning Western media bias.

However, the nations’ tense ecopolitical relationship breeds bias and misinformation on both sides, and Chinese netizens’ resentment towards American media is not wholly unfounded. Internet scholar Milton L. Mueller defends China, offering that U.S. “Internet Freedom” initiatives have been aimed at geopolitical rivals such as China and Iran, and overlook equally censorious allies (Deibert 182).  Threatened by China’s growing power, the United States and its sensationalist media attempts to orient the global community against the prosperous and populous Chinese Internet, threatened by their growing power. The Chinese government and citizens also accuse the U.S. media of engaging in “information imperialism,” or America’s attempt to ideologically colonize Chinese cyberspace(Deibert 182). The Great Censorship Hoax of March 2006 infamously illustrates the projection of American interests on the Chinese Internet. When Chinese blogs Massage Milk and and Milk Pig announced that “due to unavoidable reasons to which everyone is familiar, this blog is temporarily closed,” CNN and the BBC quickly reported that the site shut down due to government censorship. However, the bloggers later revealed that their hiatus was actually a ploy to underscore the American media’s false and hasty critique of Chinese cyberspace (Jiang). It is important to recognize that despite its regulation, Chinese cyberspace has prompted massive social change for China. Considering the extremely limited avenues available for self-expression in pre-Internet China, their cyberspace, overflowing with personal blogs and social network profiles, has enabled individual expression unlike ever before.  As the American media focuses exclusively on the censorship and suppression of liberty in Chinese cyberspace, they neglect and belittle how the Chinese Internet has also cultivated individuality and encouraged personal expression in a nation which once held free thought captive.

In pursuit of Internet freedom for all: success and shortcomings

        Thus far I have detailed how technical, political, and psychosocial mechanisms perpetuate government’s authority, stimulate citizens’ self-censorship and cyber-nationalism, and foster a culture of resistance to American ideology. However, civilians choose to defend Chinese cyberspace due to their isolation from  the international web. Through proxy- servers, IP anonymizers, and other circumvention techniques, a growing number of savvy Chinese netizens have gained awareness of their limited capacity for self-expression. Cyber-dissidents have been able to overcome governmental blockades and access the censored Internet (Hughes and Gudrun 71).

 As these digital rebels fully emerge in global cyberspace, perhaps for the first time, many solicit America’s help to destroy The Great Firewall and establish democracy for their nation. Since critical government speech may result in monetary penalties or imprisonment, Chinese dissenters must exhibit seditious behavior beyond their domestic cyberspace. Forgoing the anti-American attitudes characteristic of censored cyberspace, some netizens attempt to vent their political frustrations and form alliances in America’s open-air Internet. In May, the Chinese sought refuge in none other than the White House’s We The People website. Though the site called for opinions from the American people, Chinese netizens flooded the site with petitions, including those that asked to “send troops to liberate China” because “Our reason same as Declaration of Independence,” respectively garnering 3,900 and 1,100 votes from Chinese citizens (Carlson). As the Chinese are accustomed to sheltered cyberspace, settlement in American Internet territory is a defiant gesture and act of personal freedom in and of itself. Through the United States’ democratic cyber community, dissenting masses could seek refuge and collective action in the virtual home of their political ideals.   

Sympathetic to China’s pleas for personal freedom, America has embarked on a $95 million Internet Freedom initiative, identifying Internet censorship as a violation of human rights in the 21st century (United States Congressional Research Service 1).  According to the 2012 congressional research report “China, Internet Freedom, and U.S. Policy,” U.S. foreign policy promotes a “single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas,” and speculates that an unregulated Internet will encourage “political dissidents” in the PRC (10).

As programs range from the education of civil society in effective Internet usage, to corporate accountability, to the development of censorship circumvention technologies, America crusades for Internet freedom through multiple channels and target populations. In turn, their technical and philosophical teachings will incorporate differently into censored cyberspace based on the audience at which they are aimed.

American attempts to rally the masses of Chinese cyberspace against governmental regulation often not only vanish from the Internet and consciousness but also may ultimately endanger digital activism. For instance, in 2010 only had a market share of 29%, yet still a substantial minority to be affected by the Google’s eventual withdrawal from the Mainland China to avoid content censorship (China Daily). However, before waves of resistance could be generated in Chinese cyberspace, authorities blocked all mention of the political motivation behind China’s decision (MacKinnon 39). Google overlooked the censorious nature of China’s Internet, leaving netizens perplexed rather than politically provoked. Ultimately, Google’s withdrawal from China’s net in the name of Internet Freedom further divided censored cyberspace from the global, free Internet.

  The introduction of censorship circumvention tools in Chinese cyberspace is another example of how the West offer of Internet Freedom to China on a national-level may backfire.  While proxies servers and blocking-resistant browsers such as the NYC-based Tor held promise of emancipation from the controlled Internet, it is hard to hide from Chinese cyber authorities. Online activity patterns and discussions on social networks revealed the increasing usage of circumvention tools, and the government took action to stunt the online liberation, both blocking IP addresses to download the software and disabling the software as well (Faris, Palfrey, Roberts, York, and Zuckerman 12).  The Berkman Center’s “2010 Circumvention Tool Usage Report” summarizes the  challenges that the U.S. faces while promoting circumvention tools, stating “any support by organizations or the US government  for these tools may have the side effect of increasing the efforts the efforts of filtering governments to block the suppressed tools” (2010 Circumvention Tool Usage Report 12).Thus, as Westerners more aggressively target their ideas about the unfiltered internet to a national audience, Chinese government agencies most aggressively quell dissenting opinions, erecting further controls on domestic cyberspace.


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