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When an open internet is closed

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 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.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Ai Weiwei guest-edit

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.