The Internet is not Spreading Democracy in China


An internet cafe in China (Reuters/Stringer).

The internet is not spreading democracy in China.

Unlike the crumbling Great Wall of China, the Great Firewall of China is standing stronger than ever. The Great Firewall of China is a censoring tool that the Chinese government employs to block and filter internet content that would undermine the regime. Since Xi Jinping became the president in 2012, the government has been cracking down on political movements and dissent on the internet. For the past three years, Freedom House has ranked China last in internet freedom.

The Great Firewall blocks foreign websites from reaching Chinese audiences. It cuts off Chinese citizens’ digital access to unbiased news sources. Reputable news websites such as BBC and CNN are not allowed in China. While searching on Baidu, the biggest Chinese search engine, citizens can’t find any news criticizing the government. Some news companies don’t even appear as a search result. While news articles and videos of the recent protest by Chinese veterans are available outside of China, most Chinese citizens do not even know that the protest is happening.

Social media is heavily censored as well. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp are all unavailable in China. Instead, WeChat and Weibo dominate the Chinese market. Both developed by a Chinese company called Tencent Holdings Unlimited, WeChat and Weibo strictly abide by the government’s rules. The WeChat app has two versions. For Chinese users and accounts in China, the app forbids messages with politically sensitive words. For foreign users in other countries, no words or phrases are censored. Users can also open links to foreign websites from the app if they are not located in China.

In October 2017, Tencent enacted new regulations with the official purpose of “[building] a more harmonious society.” Under the new regulations, the company deleted numerous accounts and group chats that circulated political dissent. In addition, the company now requires group chat administrators to self-censor the content that their members post. If the administrators allow politically sensitive information to circulate, their group chats and open platforms will be shut down permanently. Since Chinese citizens need real-name verification to create an account, being shut down means being blacklisted on social media. To avoid being blocked from WeChat permanently, administrators will warn their members in advance and take down any politically sensitive posts before the government does.

Personal conversations and posts on these social media are also closely monitored. During the anniversary of the Tiananmen incident, users are not allowed to research or post certain words and phrases. Even search results for numbers like 64 and 8964, which are related to the Tiananmen incident, cannot be displayed. The censorship even reaches internet references and jokes. As early as 2013, memes comparing Xi to Winnie the Pooh started to circulate the Chinese internet. It soon became one of the political memes that netizens used to protest online censorship. Weibo banned Winnie the Pooh multiple times throughout the years, the last started in 2017. Pictures and memes comparing Xi to Winnie the Pooh were deleted for violating online regulations. This year, the government even banned Christopher Robin, a new fantasy film which features Winnie the Pooh as one of the main characters.

Moreover, online dissent can result in actual arrests. In 2015, the police arrested Odongerel, a woman from Inner Mongolia, for criticizing the government. The evidence for the arrest was based on her private conversations on WeChat.

The censoring mechanism is improving alongside digital technology development. In addition to human censoring, the Chinese government is perfecting its censorship algorithm and using AI to remove politically sensitive content. The infamous “50 Cent Army” that the government employs also possesses the state-of-the-art skill of manipulating public opinions. Similar to Russia’s meddling in foreign elections, the Chinese government also employs online trolls to spread propaganda and misinformation. The “50 Cent Army” has been reported to spread fake news online and sway Taiwanese voters in favor of the Nationalist party, a China-friendly party, in recent local elections. It created news that undermines the current ruling party, the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party. It also spread fake videos of Chinese military drill in the Taiwanese strait to intimidate voters. The Nationalist Party, in the end, won key mayoral and county magistrate seats throughout the island.

While the current developments seem unpromising from where democracy stands, most Chinese citizens are content inside the Great Firewall. The functions on WeChat and Weibo supersede Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. WeChat especially has become an integral part of the new Chinese lifestyle. From paying for groceries to receiving money from friends, more than 60 percent of the Chinese population uses this “super-App” in their daily lives. The immense convenience that it brings overpowers the fact that the App requires real-name verification and collects personal data for the government.

Many are indifferent or even supportive of the strict censorship. The younger generation grew up using search engines, websites and social media that are designed for the Chinese population. They have little knowledge of the “alternative universe” where political dissent is allowed, and the news media is not run by the government. Even though most Chinese netizens know the existence of the “free internet”, they have little incentives to bypass the Great Firewall since the Chinese version of the internet is as powerful, if not more, than the “free internet.” The older generation, on the other hand, deems the internet a messy and dangerous place that needs heavy regulations. According to a poll ​surveying Chinese citizens at the early stage of internet censorship in 2008, almost 85 percent of the respondents supported government control of the internet.

Former Google Chief Executive Officer Eric Schmidt at a private event predicted that the internet will split into two by 2028. There will be an internet system for democratic countries and another for authoritarian regimes like China. The internet has become an effective tool for the Chinese government to control the country and influence its people. The Arab Spring is in the past. In authoritarian regimes like China, the internet is no longer a free space that mobilizes citizens and bears democracy. The government can shut down any form of political dissent and prevent any collective actions on the internet even before they start. With the success that China has demonstrated, repressive governments such as Venezuela and Ethiopia have also started to censor and shut down the internet as a mean to control the public. The internet may become a tool for repression rather than a new instrument for democracy in authoritarian regimes.

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