China and the Internet: Freedom or Falsehood?

17 Feb

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At the turn of the millennia the internet was in its infant stages, however its political potential was clear to see. The ability to instantly communicate and rapidly spread information seemed the perfect combination for dissidence to spread in an authoritarian regime. As a result eyes were focused on China and how the centralised government would deal with this new challenge. For many there was a quiet optimism that this new technology would lead to the weakening of the central authorities hold on society with then president Bill Clinton saying attempts to control the internet in China would be comparable to trying to ‘nail Jell-o to the wall’ (Epstein 2013).

Fourteen years on though and Gady Epstein believes that the use of the internet has not only been unsuccessful in liberating China, but has instead been utilised by the government to increase their control. The implementation of projects like the ‘Great Firewall’ ensures that foreign social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube remain outside of residents reach while ‘Golden Shield’ works to internally block and censor controversial content. The state also works with Chinese internet companies such as Renren, China’s Facebook equivalent, to monitor and censor user created content. Although some western companies such as Google have attempted to cross the border, they are often either cut out due to censorship laws or ruthlessly probed by state employed cyber-hackers.

What this equates to is what many thought to be impossible: China has a national internet which, through the firewall measures, is distinct from the rest of the world. This means that the information passed internally is monitored and controlled while the national agenda can be enforced consistently across all sites by a force of more than 2 million individuals (BBC 2013), all of whom are employed by the state. As the BBC reported censors run programs which search out buzzwords which are indicative of content  which their ‘clients’ (the state) may find ‘undesirable’ before compiling reports on individuals and returning the results to their clients. Lulu (2014) theorised that a recent internet outage on the 21st of January may have been a result of changes to these screening processes saying only the government has the capacity to shut down as many servers as were faulty on the day. Regardless, their control is undoubtable.

An individual who fell victim to these screenings was Liu Xiaobo who in 2009 was arrested for writing a pro democratic manifesto and posting it online. As Watts (2009) reported the state arrested Liu for engaging in ‘agitation activities’ and ‘defaming… the government’.  The control of information the state had at this time is also clear from Watts’ claim that Liu’s lawyer was ‘unaware of the arrest until he was called by journalists’.  Liu’s bravery was rewarded with a Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 however Epstein claims he’s generally unknown in China due to his name joining the long list of buzzwords which have been previously described. Nemcova (2014) writes that his dissidence has led to his wife Xia being placed in a ‘virtual cage’ in an effort to create a ‘wall of silence’.

Nemcova theorises that China’s national internet would have had a place in any tyrannical authoritarian rule, drawing on her experience in Soviet Czechoslovakia under Brezhnev in the 70s and 80s. She writes that the rulers of china, ‘cling to one of the most commonly used authoritarian tools: the creation of an alternate reality, one in which, for their own subjects at least, some people and some ideas are not allowed to exist.’

Furthermore the state’s cyber forces have been given the skills and instructions to venture outside their borders to acquire assets for China. Philipp (2014) reported an example of this where medical device companies Medtronic, Boston Scientific and St Jude Medical all fell victim to hackers in early 2013 with Rep. Billy Long claiming that ‘China has official government policies of stealing U.S. assets for economic gain’. Other examples of hacking include successful attacks on American defence firms and foreign media which has criticised the regime.

Where is the light in this tunnel then? Epstein keeps faith in the idea that more and more individuals will be logging onto the internet in China by the day and although the majority are poorer individuals who use the internet for very basic needs (i.e. checking the weather) he argues they can still be drawn into the world of politics and potentially some low grade dissidence. With the volume of this sort of engagement increasing, Epstein argues that communist party members are being held accountable in way that they haven’t before which in many ways shows the feint outline of democratic process. He also writes that the party as a whole are being held more accountable for faults in China such as pollution; ‘the internet requires the party centre to be more efficient at being authoritarian’.

Epstein also argues that the growth in internet use could lead to a critical mass of dissident content being created where censors cannot take offensive content down quickly enough before it is ingested by potential rebels. This idea is more difficult to subscribe to as more censors can (and will) be recruited, not to mention the extreme and mobilising kind of dissidence that Epstein seems to be suggesting is punished severely and quickly. The case of Lui is a classic example where although his dissent could have caused real change, he is now barely known in China and may never see outside a jail cell again.

The story of China and the internet is one of control and authoritarian rule. The central government’s ability to adapt to the times has enabled them to achieve the impossible and reap the rewards of a self-contained population. Although there is potential for some form of liberation through greater communication within communities in China, the writing, and the Jell-o, is on the wall for the future of the internet in China; China is an authoritarian state and the internet is a tool to enforce the regime. If ever an individual attempts to overstep this boundary they will be punished by the state and erased from the public conscience.

 

References

EPSTEIN, G. (2013) China’s Internet: A Giant Cage, The Economist. Available from: http://www.economist.com/news/special-report/21574628-internet-was-expected-help-democratise-china-instead-it-has-enabled [Accessed 16 February 2014]

BBC (2013) China employs two million microblog monitors state media say, BBC. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-24396957 [Accessed 16 February 2014]

LULU, Y. C. (2014) Chinese Internet Outage May Be Result of Censorship Changes, Bloomberg. Available from: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-01-23/china-internet-outage-caused-by-cyber-attack-government-says.html [Accessed 16 February 2014]

WATTS, J. (2009) Prominent dissident Liu Xiaobo formally arrested, The Guardian. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/jun/24/china-human-rights [Accessed 16 February 2014]

NEMCOVA, D. (2014) China has not been able to hide Liu Xiaobo’s ideas, Washington Post. Available from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/china-has-not-been-able-to-hide-liu-xiaobos-ideas/2014/01/17/1c4d841e-7977-11e3-b1c5-739e63e9c9a7_story.html [Accessed 16 February 2014]

PHILIPP, J. (2014) China Alleged to Have Hacked Three Medical Device Companies, The Epoch Times. Available from:  http://www.theepochtimes.com/n3/504911-china-alleged-to-have-hacked-three-medical-device-companies/ [Accessed 16 February 2014]

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