Over the last five years, the number of Internet users in China has more than tripled, making China the country with the largest population of people online. However, at the same time, a sophisticated system of censorship in China, commonly called the “Great Firewall,” has been put into place. While the Chinese government is fostering an increase in the use of digital technology with an eye to economic advancement, it has simultaneously become one of the most restrictive national governments in the world when it comes to policing online political communication.
The goal of China’s censorship system is to shut down Internet sites that are likely to contribute to social instability. Sensitive topics range from the wealth of China’s leaders, to the gap between rich and poor, to information on the Dalai Lama, Falun Gong and Chen Guangcheng. All major websites (including international websites) must comply with Chinese regulations or risk being shut down.
Access to The New York Times and Bloomberg L.P. websites has been blocked in China since both organizations released the net worth of high-ranking Chinese government officials in 2012. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are also blocked, and Skype conversations are monitored. Companies must comply with censorship laws if they wish to maintain Internet presences in China. For example, Google’s search engine in China recently stopped notifying users of keywords that might trigger censors. Words and phrases that have been blocked from online searches include protest, sex, Hillary Clinton, occupy, empty chair and jasmine. Freedom House, a non-governmental organization that collects information on democracy and human rights, reports that one study showed the Chinese government had deleted 13 percent of posts published across nearly 1,400 blog-hosting and bulletin- board platforms.
In 2010, writer and Internet freedom scholar Rebecca MacKinnon testified at a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on human rights that “Internet and mobile phones have empowered many people around the world, and they do have the potential to facilitate greater freedom and democracy.
But more connectivity doesn’t automatically lead to more freedom. Other political, legal and technical factors affect whether it’s possible for communication technology to live up to its potential.”
In an attempt to streamline the censorship process, the Chinese government formed the State Internet Information Office in 2011. It then relocated control of the Internet to that one office, when previously it had been spread among several lower-ranking government offices. Run by Minister Wang Chen, the State Internet Information Office has tightened China’s already resolute grip on Internet content.
Click to view the status of popular U.S. websites inside the Great Firewall on this page.
Since the office was created, the Chinese government has deployed new technology that specifically targets the use of VPN (virtual private network) services, which are often used to circumvent the Great Firewall; VPN services conceal communication and prevent messages from being read by the Chinese government. As of 2012, some of the biggest Internet providers in China are cutting off connections where VPN services are detected. In late December 2012, Xi Jinping, current president of China and head of the ruling Communist party, announced new rules that require all Internet users to register their full names with service providers.
Persecution of bloggers and Internet journalists who participate in online activism is not uncommon. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, China is the country with the third highest number of journalists, bloggers and Internet activists in prison (Turkey and Iran are first and second, respectively), with 32 offenders behind bars as of December 2012. Actions that lead to imprisonment may be as innocuous as sending an email overseas describing a censorship policy. Justification for imprisonment is often limited to leaking state secrets, without further explanation.
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