As China continues to ramp up its censorship of internet usage by its estimated 600,000 million users, the arrest of a 16-year-old boy is just one more statistic in China’s war against freedom of expression.
Early in September China’s Supreme Court issued guidelines and penalties to punish those publishing what the state deems to be “rumors” and “slander”. If such a message is forwarded more than 500 times or is read more than 5,000 times, the sender could spend three years in prison.
The Beijing Times reported that Mr. Yang claimed that internet police arrested his son on Friday, charging him with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” in messages he sent over the internet. He had gone to a popular social media site called Weibo where he posted his unhappiness with how a police investigation of a local businessman resulted in the man’s suicide by leaping off a building to his death.
A spokesman for the court said that such a “gossip rule” was necessary:
Society has demanded serious punishment for … using the internet to spread rumors and defame people. No country would consider libel to be “freedom of speech.”
This latest ruling is an extension of a “white paper” published by the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) in June 2010, part of which proclaimed:
Within Chinese territory the internet is under the jurisdiction of Chinese sovereignty. The internet sovereignty of China should be respected and protected.
As early as February 1994 the PRC recognized the threat of unlimited freedom of expression that would grow outside of normal channels as the budding internet gained purchase around the world. It gave responsibility of internet “security protection” to its Ministry of Public Security. The next step towards Chinese internet censorship was taken two years later requiring all internet service providers (ISPs) to be licensed by the state and that all internet traffic be routed through one of four government controlled networks: ChinaNet, GBNet, CERNET, or CSTNET.
The third step was taken in December 1997 when regulations were issued defining “harmful information” and “harmful activities” regarding internet usage. Three years later the PRC began applying content restrictions for ISPs, requiring them to link only to overseas news web sites that had been approved by the PRC.
The PRC invested eight years and $800 million in the technology to enforce these rules and regulations: the Golden Shield Project, now known as the Great Firewall of China. The project now employs more than 30,000 workers using technology purchased from Cisco Systems which allows the PRC to create, according to Greg Walton of the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development,
a massive, ubiquitous architecture of surveillance … to integrate a gigantic online database with an all-encompassing surveillance network – incorporating speech and face recognition, closed-circuit television, smart cards, credit records, and internet surveillance technologies.
It didn’t take long for the ministry, using this imported technology, to begin to find miscreants to make examples of for those considering violating these rules. In 2001, Wang Xiaoning (along with a number of other internet “activists”) was arrested and sent to prison for 10 years for using a Yahoo email account to post anonymous messages to an internet mailing list.
In 2004 Shi Tao was arrested and charged with “illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities” after he summarized a government order to downplay mention of the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests. For that he was sentenced to 10 years in jail.
In 2008 Liu Shaokun was sentenced to one year in a “re-education” and hard labor camp for “inciting a disturbance” over the internet. His crime: posting photographs of collapsed school buildings and commenting on the plight of parents who had lost children in those disasters.
Back in December China announced further restrictions on the use of the internet, requiring all users to use their real names when signing up for ISP accounts, and for those ISPs to monitor forbidden and illegal postings and report such activities to the government’s agencies.
At the time that Mr. Yang’s son was arrested several other bloggers were arrested as well, including some highly popular bloggers with massive numbers of followers. Known as “Big Vs” not only because of their popularity but because each of them had been verified not to be writing anonymously (and hence they have a V next to their name), the arrests stem from a “judicial breakthrough” that now allows the PRC surveillance and internet agencies to treat bloggers as automobile drivers operating in public and hence are subject to traffic rules with increasingly serious consequences for their violation.
The iron fist of communist rule over the Chinese internet is not completely effective, at least not yet. The Chinese government is faced with two difficult problems: “workarounds” are being developed faster than new rules can be promulgated, and the dampening of economic impetus as the rules are being enforced, discouraging entrepreneurs from doing business under such draconian edicts.
Chinese internet censorship diktats are being circumvented by those determined to remain free through the use of proxy servers outside of the firewall. VPN (virtual private networks) and SSH (secure shell networks), often in conjunction with encryption software like Ultrasurf are making enforcement of these new regulations increasingly difficult. As the editor of the China Digital Times, Xiao Qiang, said on NPR earlier this month:
Despite all the control and monitoring of the government, there’s a fundamental desire of the people who simply want to express themselves. And if they cannot speak directly, they will speak in alternative ways…
[The] government doesn’t have full control of the online political discussion… this harsh censorship reflects the government’s increasing anxiety that they have lost that control…
As former Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping said back in the early 1980s at the start of the economic reform that is transforming China into an economic powerhouse: “If you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in.” The present powers in China are now facing the consequences of Xiaoping’s decision to allow the free market to operate while keeping political freedom under tight-fisted communist rule. The PRC is learning just how difficult it is to maintain and encourage economic freedom under a communist political dictatorship. The internet is proving to be both a blessing to the economy and a curse to the dictatorship trying to have its cake and eat it too.