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China’s New Leaders Throttle the Internet More Deftly

July 25, 2013

A report by New-York-based Freedom House, which monitors freedom and democracy worldwide, says internet surveillance has grown more sophisticated under the political dispensation of newly-elected Chinese President Xi Jingpin. The findings go to affirm long-term trends in Beijing’s censorship of the web documented by US researchers.
The report titled ‘Throttling Dissent: China’s New Leaders Refine Internet Control’ came out on Wednesday, July 24.
“New regulations made it harder for activists to conceal their identity online. Some circumvention tools, which help users access uncensored websites overseas, were significantly disrupted. And private companies stepped up their capacity to delete banned content, sometimes within minutes,” a press statement issued by the think-tank said.
While Freedom House’s report focuses on recent trends in internet freedom, researchers of the University of California’s Berkeley School of Information say that authorities in China issue different instructions to censors depending on the severity of the perceived threat to the Chinese Communist Party and other agencies of State.
In a comment on July 10 to the New York Times’ NYR Blog, Perry Link says, “Local authorities have a toolbox of phrases—fairly standard nationwide—that they use to offer guidance to website editors about dealing with sensitive topics. The harshest response is “completely and immediately delete.” But with the rapid growth of difficult-to-control social media, a need has arisen for a wide range of more subtle alternatives.”
Link’s opinion piece is based on the findings of Xiao Qiang, adjunct professor at the Berkeley School of Information. Quiang had studied 2600 directives issued to website editors over the last 10 years to both stifle dissent and promote pro-government propaganda.
“Under the scrutiny of Web users, propaganda officials face the unwelcome task of censoring the Internet while trying to appear as though they are not—or at least not doing it ‘unreasonably.’ This forces them to seek balance,” writes Link.
As an example, Link summarises sensitive topics requiring the blue pencil in instructions issued by Beijing to censors in Hunan Province in June 2011. Those which: 1) blackens the image of Party and state leaders or obfuscates the great historical achievements of the Party; 2) attacks our system or advocates the Western democratic system; 3) incites illegal assembly, petitioning, or “rights support” activity that harms social stability; 4) uses price rises, corruption cases, or other controversial events to spread rumours and incite hatred of officials, of police, or of the wealthy that could lead to activity offline; 5) incites ethnic hatred [of Han Chinese] that harms national unity; 6) attacks the Party’s systems of managing the media and the Internet by using the slanderous claim that we limit free speech.
On the other hand, when material seen as elevating the image of the CCP or government agencies was published, other instructions were issued to the editors: “place prominently on the home page” or “immediately re-circulate.”
The sophistication seems to be the result of the activism and boldness of China’s bloggers and users of social media – especially microblog. In a posting in March 2012, the Paris-based international media watchdog Reporters without Borders (RSF) observed that CCP officials were losing the war with dissidents for controlling the internet. “While the Chinese government is not prepared to relax its painstakingly won grip on the Internet, it is increasingly overwhelmed by the immense potential of the Participative Web, and the tension between the regime and cyberdissidents is intensifying.” China ranks sixth from the last (173rd from 179) in RSF’s Press Freedom Index.
Freedom House’s new report highlights these key findings to combat the challenges of the Participative Web:
  • Surveillance exposed more people to repercussions for online activity. December regulations mandated more real name registration online, formalizing existing checks on anonymous communication. It’s still possible to defy these rules, but not for mobile internet users, whose phones are already registered—and more Chinese people got online via cellphone than broadband for the first time in 2012. In Tibet and Xinjiang, police searched mobile handsets for banned content, and jailed dozens for using digital tools.   
  • Private innovation served censors, not customers.  Domestic companies must censor to succeed. To stay ahead of evolving official directives and restrict creative online activism, they’ve produced sophisticated and nuanced controls: Instant messages containing sensitive keywords disappeared, connections using VPN tools were severed, and public microblog posts were quietly made private, visible only to the author.
  • Activism was manipulated for political gain.  Internet users enforced President Xi’s 2013 anti-graft campaign by scrutinizing local officials for signs of overspending—though never top leaders; Bloomberg’s website was blocked in 2012 for reporting on Xi’s own wealthy connections. Sometimes a political faction seemed to briefly lift censorship on content that would discredit an opponent.
Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.