CNN’s James Griffiths offers a modern horror story – the rapid conversion of China’s internet into a seamless tool of state repression, conformity and oppression.
Reporter and CNN International producer James Griffiths – who has reported from Hong Kong, China, South Korea and Australia – details the way China censors the internet. Westerners once hoped online communication would bring free speech or even democracy to China. Instead, Beijing’s authoritarian regime has turned the internet into a terrifyingly effective weapon that spies on Chinese citizens and keeps dissent in check. Griffiths offers eye-opening examples of how China imposes its will on cyberspace.
Monitoring and Control
Beijing exploits the internet to monitor its citizens. In the early years of the internet, the Chinese government did not stifle free speech online. Officials saw the web as a niche tool for academics. In 1994, only 2,000 people in China had internet access.But, by 1996, Premier Li Peng had signed an order barring people from using the internet to contest the government.
The firewall is software that inspects all the traffic on Chinese computers. Users who try to visit banned sites – such as Twitter or certain Wikipedia pages – see error messages because the firewall blocks such content.
Those who try to use virtual private networks to thwart state censorship can find the police at their doors. In 2015, Chinese computer developer Li Gang created an anti-surveillance protocol that broke through the Great Firewall. Police told him that if he didn’t destroy his creation, he’d face arrest.
Internet censorship in China is both pervasive and unobtrusive. James Griffiths
In the 1990s, 10% of Chinese internet users employed various tools to circumvent the Great Firewall. By 2010, that number was 3%.
In 2005, Li Yuanlong, a reporter at a daily newspaper, wrote an essay bashing China’s leaders and praising the United States. Using FreeGate, a tool for tunneling through the Great Firewall, he posted his piece under a pseudonym to the right-wing, US-based site Epoch Times. Authorities arrested him, charged him with subverting the state and sentenced him to two years in prison.
To cut off more than 20 million people from the internet took only a few actions, completed in minutes. James Griffiths
Chinese authorities tightened their grip on the Uyghur population after ethnic tensions exploded into a riot at a factory. Chinese authorities arrested Uyghur website administrators and took the entire region of Xinjiang offline, blocking 20 million people from internet access.
American Tech Giants
In 1999, Yahoo launched in China. A year later, Google initiated a Chinese-language search engine; it achieved 25% market share by 2002.
American companies in China buckled to government pressure. Yahoo turned over its user records, leading to the arrest of a dissident journalist whom authorities sentenced to a decade in prison. Microsoft deleted a blog post by a regime critic. Google re-engineered its Chinese search engine so that a search for Falun Gong yielded only criticism of the sect.
The behavior of Google and Facebook with regard to China should be more than enough evidence that tech giants will not protect users from censorship.James Griffiths
As the Silicon Valley companies retreated, homegrown Chinese tech giants gained. Baidu overtook Google as China’s top search engine. In 2009, China barred Facebook and Twitter and banned YouTube after videos on the site showed Chinese police beating Tibetan demonstrators.
Huawei, Baidu, Tencent and Alibaba are toeing the party line as Beijing stresses ideological security among their workers. Baidu employs 3,600 registered members of the ruling party, and party members work at web firms to monitor China’s internet.
The addition of the social credit system to this mélange of privacy and censorship concerns could make things even more difficult for those attempting to change China from within. James Griffiths
Tencent and Alibaba partnered with the Chinese government to create a scoring system that rates people’s adherence to party rule. It mines WeChat and Alipay to learn how closely people are following party orthodoxy. If people hang out with untrustworthy citizens, that lowers their score. A high score brings flight upgrades and gifts when applying for loans. A low score can mean paying higher prices or facing refusals from service providers.
No Social Networks
A high-speed train crash in China in 2011 killed 40 people and injured 200. State newspapers didn’t cover it, but the Twitter-style site Weibo did. People used Weibo to express their criticism of the governments’ bungling and subsequent coverup of the crash.
Ironically, Chinese is a language perfectly suited to getting around keyword filters. James Griffiths
In 2013, the government brought together a few “Big Vs” – web posters with verified accounts on Weibo – and urged them to uphold socialist ideas. One Big V, venture capitalist Charles Xue, refused. The government arrested him, and he later appeared on state television and confessed to an addiction to Weibo. Weibo still exists, but users communicate via codes – for example, “64” or “May 35” refers to the Tiananmen massacre.
Russia attempted to build its own Great Firewall, in part due to the 2016 publication of the Panama Papers, which tied a Vladimir Putin ally to billions of dollars in offshore accounts. Russia bought censorship technology from Huawei, a Chinese telecom company, and made the transition from an open internet to a copy of China’s almost overnight, as its Federal Security Service gained control of all the nation’s internet traffic.
From the beginning, VK was shameless in aping Facebook, right down to its blue-tinted website design.James Griffiths
Russia’s tech entrepreneurs – such as Pavel Durov, head of VKontakte (VK), the Russian version of Facebook – proved less compliant than China’s internet leaders. When VK users organized protests against Putin, security officials demanded that Durov shut them down, and he declined. Armed security agents arrived at his home in St. Petersburg, but he eluded arrest and fled the country.
A Dreaded Example
Griffiths writes like a reporter, in short, punchy readable sentences with a welcome shortage of elaborating adverbs. That is, he doesn’t try to amplify the horrors he describes. He doesn’t have to. Griffiths shows a flare for technical detail by not providing too much of it and being very specific. He melds what readers need to know into both the overall picture and his smaller individual examples of suppression as a fact of everyday life. The dystopia he describes seems like a creation of Aldous Huxley or Phillip K. Dick, but Griffiths underscores that this is all too real, and that other governments are racing to emulate China’s dreaded example.
James Griffiths also wrote Speak Not: Empire, Identity and the Politics of Language. Other works on China’s surveillance state include We Have Been Harmonized: Life in China’s Surveillance State by Kai Strittmatter; Chaos Under Heaven: Trump, Xi, and the Battle for the Twenty-First Century by Josh Rogin; and Censored: Distraction and Diversion Inside China’s Great Firewall by Margaret E. Roberts.