Within its digital borders, China has long censored what its people read and say online. Now, it is increasingly going beyond its own online realms to police what people and companies are saying about it all over the world.
For years, China has exerted digital control with a system of internet filters known as the Great Firewall, which allows authorities to limit what people see online. To broaden its censorship efforts, Beijing is venturing outside the Great Firewall and paying more attention to what its citizens are saying on non-Chinese apps and services.
As part of that shift, Beijing has at times pressured foreign companies like Google and Facebook, which are both blocked in China, to take down certain content. At other times, it has bypassed foreign companies entirely and instead directly pushed users of global social media to encourage self-censorship.
This effort is accelerating as President Xi Jinping consolidates his power. The Chinese leadership is expected to officially abolish term limits at a meeting that begins next week, giving Mr. Xi outsize authority over the country’s direction.
Zhang Guanghong recently discovered the changing landscape for technology firsthand. Mr. Zhang, a Chinese human rights activist, decided last fall to share an article with a group of friends in and outside China that criticized China’s president. To do so, he used WhatsApp, an American app owned by Facebook that almost nobody uses in China.
Amnesty International notes that China “has the largest recorded number of imprisoned journalists and cyber-dissidents in the world and Paris-based Reporters Without Borders stated in 2010 and 2012 that China is the world’s biggest prison for netizens”. The offences of which they are accused include communicating with groups abroad, signing online petitions, and calling for reform and an end to corruption.
As Mr. Xi asserts himself and the primacy of Chinese geopolitical power, China has also become more comfortable projecting Mr. Xi’s vision of a tightly controlled internet. Beijing had long been content to block foreign internet companies and police the homegrown alternatives that sprouted up to take their place, but it is now directly pressuring individuals or requesting that companies cooperate with its online censorship efforts.
Within the last couple of days, it has been revealed that the Chinese Government has banned George Orwell’s dystopian satirical novella Animal Farm and the letter ‘N’ in a wide-ranging online censorship crackdown.
Popular websites blocked in China:
- New York Times
- The Economist
- Wall Street Journal
Experts believe the increased levels of suppression – which come just days after the Chinese Communist Party announced presidential term limits would be abolished – are a sign Xi Jinping hopes to become a dictator for life.