When an open internet is closed

New Statesman
Extreme kowtowing: hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. (Cartoon: @thomasycwong)

In China, the internet has become a common way to get access to information. People visit media websites such as Xinhua News Agency, People’s Daily Online, Sina, Sohu, QQ, NetEase and ifeng.com. Some of these websites were registered abroad, or are listed in the US. They appear to be independent, free media companies, but this is far from the truth.

Any internet media company operating within China’s borders has to face control and censorship from national propaganda organisations. In 2005, the two Chinese government departments responsible for news censorship and internet control, the State Council Information Office and the then ministry of information industry, jointly published Provisions on the Administration of Internet News and Information Services. These established “legislations” for internet control and censorship, so interference became perfectly justifiable. They stated that news publishing should “serve socialism and adhere to the correct direction of public opinion”. They prohibited content that “subverts state authority” or “instigates illegal gatherings, associations, parades or demonstrations”. They also determined that “the State Council Information Office shall administer internet news censorship”.

They further applied policy restrictions to internet media companies based outside Chinese borders, requiring “the State Council Information Office to evaluate their safety”. Internet media companies that comply with these provisions receive an “internet news information services licence”. They are able to continue operating within China only with this “legitimate” status. If they violate the licence, either they are fined or the website gets shut down. Those responsible for the website and related responsible parties can even be investigated for criminal liability.

Intensive filter

However, the government cannot completely control the internet with just these “provisions”, because media websites operating outside Chinese borders are not subject to the restrictions. The Chinese government therefore appointed the president of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, Fang Binxing, to develop the “Great Firewall” (aka the GFW), to filter uncensored information from outside its borders. As a result, foreign websites criticising the Chinese government became inaccessible in China and website access would reset when searching Google for words related to negative stories about the government. Each year, during politically sensitive periods for the Chinese government, such as “the two conferences” and 4 June (the anniversary of the government’s crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests), the filtering intensifies. The technology is being upgraded continuously, and the participants and funding for the project are both state secrets.

After reading the news, people often comment on it. Internet companies and government inspection organisations censor these comments. Internet companies have developed software capable of automatically filtering and censoring comments. The criteria for censorship are based on a vocabulary indicated by the news censorship departments. For instance, they include words and phrases such as CCP, Jiang, Li, Hu, Wen, central publicity department, democracy, freedom and multiparty system.
As soon as a comment uses these words, the system automatically replaces them with “reasonable” opinions or displays the comment as “to be approved”.

Human censorship is used for comments that are subtly critical of the government. Most of the human censors are outsourced, and schoolteachers are often in charge of this. Most of the censors are students; typically a censorship team is divided into two shifts and works 24 hours a day.

The central publicity department, the State Council Information Office and “internet propaganda management offices” in provincial governments are the government’s organisations for supervising media websites. The supervision organisations have censorship teams, which search for “incorrect” information on internet media websites. They then find the point of contact for the website as quickly as possible – all media websites have to appoint a person as the contact for the government’s internet management office who is in charge of censorship. This person will then deal with the information. The regulator requires the internet media company to record the user’s IP address, in order to pinpoint their location and deal with them.

Among the comments on news websites in China, you often find people speaking on behalf of the government. Officially, they are called “online commentators”. Internet users have playfully named them “the Fifty Centers”. The name comes from a news story. A local government information office trained a group of “online commentators” and paid them fifty cents for every news comment praising the government or criticising anti-government comments. These people speak according to government propaganda requests: for example, referring to man-made disasters as natural, or commenting on political scandals in western countries in response to comments on China’s political corruption.

Without a doubt, the internet is promoting freedom of the press in China. On Sina Weibo, a large amount of opinion critical of the government has not been deleted. For NetEase news comments, the situation is the same. It seems that the Chinese government is moderately relaxing its control of freedom of speech. Nevertheless, many people have been imprisoned in recent years for posting criticism of the government on the internet.

Cheng Hua is the pseudonym of a man who has been working for a long time in Chinese online media. He was detained in a secret location by the Chinese police for several months because a website that he operated covered sensitive topics.