How much Internet freedom do Chinese citizens have?

By Qian Gang — I often urge my friends and colleagues in Hong Kong to come to grips with the paradoxical pattern of “step, standstill and back-step” (进步/止步/退步) that characterizes China’s development today. I try to explain how China does not lend itself to simple labels like “free” or “unfree.” As we broach this now exceptionally sticky question of Internet freedom in China, I encourage readers to step back and take the same vantage point.

On January 24, a spokesperson from the State Council Information Office asserted, among other things, that “the achievements of China’s Internet have drawn worldwide attention,” and that “China protects online freedom of expression in accord with the law.”

The spokesperson said in support of these statements that, “China now has more than one million online forums, and more than 200 million blogs, with Web users making more than four million blog posts each day, and new posts to various chat forums each day too numerous even to count.”

And yet, as hundreds of millions of Web users have borne witness, many forums and blogs have also been shut down completely. Countless blog entries have been swiped clean from China’s Internet, and postings in response to news stories, or gentie (跟贴), are obliterated in great numbers every passing moment.

Is the Information Office spokesperson completely in the dark about these practices?

Conversely, it is impossible to support the assertion that China’s Internet is a bleak and sunless place where no word or thought can grab hold.

In recent years, more and more news facts have been broken first by Internet users. More and more corrupt officials live in dread of the “human flesh searches,” in which Internet users dig out and display their dirty deeds before national audiences of netizens. It is also true that the Internet has enabled the distribution of bolder writings by more and more people inside China.

So, can we say that China’s Internet is controlled, or not? What sort of control are we talking about?

Internet controls, in fact, are something every Internet user in China experiences and understands on a very intimate level. And the statement on Internet freedoms issued by the Information Office can itself be taken as an example of how control works.

What we call the “long tail phenomenon” (长尾现象) can be seen as one of the defining characteristics of China’s Internet. The “long tail” refers to the chain of Web user comments and discussion that trails after online news stories. These can be exceptionally long tails. In fact, some news stories on major Internet portals can draw hundreds of thousands of comments, the plainest illustration of how enthusiastic Chinese feel about the right and the opportunity to speak their minds.

Obviously, the recent statement from the Information Office on the topic of Internet freedom, an online story that was billed at the top of most major news portals in China for two straight days earlier this week, was guaranteed to draw the attention of Chinese Internet users. And this is also a topic we can expect to generate strong feelings and opinions.

But when I searched through ten of China’s most high-traffic news portals on January 28, I discovered that four sites had no comments posted whatsoever.

At China’s two leading official news sites, People’s Daily Online and Xinhua Online, there were very few comments. Sina.com, one of China’s biggest commercial Internet portals, indicated 373 comments, but only one page could be viewed — and all the comments visible were denunciations of Google and the United States.

If, as the Information Office spokesperson said, “Chinese web users can fully express their views within the scope permitted by the law,” this is certainly a most unexpected outcome.

Are we to believe this is a faithful reflection of Chinese public opinion?

It has long been rumored that China has vast teams of “50-cent Party” members working online for the party and government, who are paid for making posts that favor the interests of the CCP, but these claims have been difficult to clearly substantiate.

On January 19, Lanzhou’s Western Business Post (西部商报) reported that Gansu province had decided to build a team of 650 online commentators, the official term for these “50-centers.”

The report read:

Online commentators will regularly visit Websites, bulletin-board sites (BBS), blogs, etcetera, in order to understand the information circulating online and make timely posts on hot-button issues receiving concern from Web users, in order to correctly channel public opinion in society.

This news story from the Western Business Post marks the first time ever that that the work of the “50-centers” has made a formal, official debut in the news, and a number of Websites quickly picked up the story. Before long, however, the story was expunged from the Internet.

The secret is now out of the bag, and the deletion of the Western Business Post story should make plain to everyone exactly what Internet control with Chinese characteristics entails.

The Information Office spokesperson’s insistence that the figures for the rapid growth of Web users and Websites in China sufficiently illustrate the correctness of the government’s policies and practices on Internet control, that they indicate that Internet freedoms are protected in China, is unconvincing.

The rapid development of the Internet in China is principally the result of strength of information technologies themselves. The Internet presents us with all sorts of possibilities — not just freedom of expression. It encompasses the media, and yet is not equivalent to the media. It serves at the same time as both a public instrument and a tool for personal use.

In China, the Internet and other new technologies are political double-edged swords, allowing citizens to resist silence and fight despotism, and at the same time assisting the political leadership in its own objectives (one example being the recent building of a massive mobile phone messaging network by which CCP policies and directives can be quickly filtered down through the bureaucracy).

The Internet will remain a market of immense potential in China, and investors, whether public or private, will head there with the hope of striking it big. In fact, Chinese leaders both love and hate, spurn and desire, the Internet. From time to time, more moderate officials will express their goodwill toward Internet users, resulting in patches of occasional openness.

A number of overlapping factors have made for what some have seen as dazzling changes in China’s Internet. More than 384 million users, and 3.68 million sites — certainly, these are achievements of China’s Internet.

But can we chalk these up as achievements of our leaders?

What is more, the most important factor in the expansion of online freedoms has been China’s citizens themselves, who have not set aside their constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of expression. Every moment they fight to make their voices heard, and they pay the price. These are spaces we push into and hold, little by little, not spaces granted to us by the leadership.

China’s Internet is a chaotic space. There are times when controls are more strict, and other times when controls momentarily relax. Some places in China are controlled more tightly by local party leaders, while others are more open.

The only true constant is the government’s determination to exercise control. And the government does not merely control, as the Information Office spokesperson said, information that is “subversive,” “destructive” or “seditious.”

Most of the content routinely “harmonized” — as the process of censorship has come to be referred by Internet users — are observations or remarks about party leaders, angry protestations about corrupt officials, or discussions about the necessary direction of political reform, things of that nature . . .

In most places outside China, including here in Hong Kong, this sort of content is protected by the law. According to internationally accepted norms, they fall into the category of freedom of expression.

China’s control of the Internet is swimming against world trends. It is not open. It is not transparent. And it is still a great distance from “rule of law.”

We should also take note of the fact that Chinese leaders are not only resolutely defending the Internet. Over the last two years, they have adjusted their tactics, and applied national capital to launch a strategic offensive in the Internet realm.

A good friend of mine formerly served as editor-in-chief of a well-known Internet portal in China. About six months ago, he resigned from his position. In a letter, he wrote:

What I feel most sad and dispirited about is that China’s Internet is being rapidly transformed into an internal network. That the global Internet and overseas sites are being blocked goes without saying. But their strategy of nationalizing the Internet is already going ahead with full force. [They] use the charge of low-brow or indecent [content] to blacken the name of commercial Internet sites. They use the specter of Internet addiction to demonize the Web itself. They squeeze out small and medium-sized sites by restricting domain registration and filing requirements. Finally, they use the financial might of state assets to promote national Internet TV and Xinhua News Agency video content. And what’s more, they won’t stop there. In the future they will use state-owned search engines, state-owned real-time communications and online games, etc. Any Internet product that is of a media nature will be gradually nationalized and monopolized.

This state of affairs for China’s Internet is not an isolated occurrence. It is an inevitable byproduct of the swelling and expansion of state capitalism, and the progressive deepening of the monopolization of politics, the economy, society and culture.

Internet freedoms are a microprint of civil rights in China. Will we be able to hold on to the small freedom that we have claimed for our own to this point? How much more freedom will we be able to claim in the future?

We must all watch closely.

[Posted by David Bandurski, January 28, 2010, 3:55pm HK]

[Homepage photo by wysz available at Flickr.com under Creative Commons license].

10 Comments to “How much Internet freedom do Chinese citizens have?”

  1. i want to do a report about china for my scool p.s.100Q

  2. bert says:

    Gaofen stated,

    “I think you are all not familiar with us .We Chinese enjoy our lives since the applyment of reform and open up.
    And please trust me,China is not what you thought.We do believe that our lives will be better under the CCP.”

    Allow me to translate,

    I think you know us so well and it pisses me off and the CCP too. We Chinese HAVE BEEN TOLD TIME AFTER TIME BY STATE TV AND OTHER MEDIA OUTLETS CONTROLLED BY THE CCP that our lives are better since the reform and opening up period. Trust me, because I don’t want you to know the truth. We do believe our lives will get better under the CCP because that is what they tell us.

  3. gaofen says:

    I think you are all not familiar with us .We Chinese enjoy our lives since the applyment of reform and open up.
    And please trust me,China is not what you thought.We do believe that our lives will be better under the CCP.

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  5. Anonymous says:

    [...] But voices in support of Google in China have virtually disappeared from newspapers and online commentaries. Hmm. A true reflection of Chinese public opinion? How would anyone know? [See Qian Gang's recent post on Internet freedoms in China]. [...]

  6. Bert,

    It is very convenient but silly to label those who you don’t agree with “brainwashed”. But again we are all brainwashed by our upbringing, the place, the culture in which we grew up. It is naive of you to imply that those folks have been brainwashed and you have not. Western propaganda is a lot more subtle and effective than the crude CCP propaganda.

  7. Bert says:

    What is even more pathetic is that many “50 centers” might not get paid at all. There are people so brainwashed, they think they are defending something that is a mothers womb.

  8. Yun says:

    “More than 384 million users”

    This statistic is bandied about everywhere without qualification. China Daily, in the article linked to below, says that China’s Internet Users are defined as people who “go on the internet at least once in six months”, which makes the number a little less impressive.

    http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/bizchina/2009-11/20/content_9008830.htm

  9. Phil says:

    The PRC Party-state’s vigilante-type approach of strenuously censoring the internet to squelch criticism of the government sets the PRC apart from a number of other rising world powers such as Brazil, India, and South Africa, which have a much more liberal approach to information exchange. Moreover, the PRC’s great firewall tactics align that country with such authoritarian regimes as Iran and Tunisia, whose governments resemble the PRC in their hostility to an unfettered electronic flow of their own citizenry’s viewpoints. Authoritarian suppression of basic civil rights such as freedom of individual expression cannot be successfully covered up for long by high-sounding PRC propaganda about a “harmonious society.”

  10. Bill says:

    Finally, the Chinese government has scared off its netizens from commenting negatively on its statements. Way to go, Hu ! Now China can have peace, quiet, prosperity and harmony.

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