Lentis/Harmonious Society: Internet Censorship in China

A free Internet allows users to express their ideas quickly to a global audience. In the People's Republic of China, where free expression has historically been stifled, such technology could have a profound impact on the way people interact. While discussing how the Internet may affect China, political dissident Ai Weiwei said "... People are learning how to exercise their own rights. It is a unique, treasured moment. People have started to feel the breeze. The Internet is a wild land with its own games, languages and gestures through which we are starting to share common feelings." [1] Such language indicates the extent to which the Internet affects a persons's freedom of speech. Ai opines that this effect is inherent to the technology and cannot be controlled forever. For now, though, free expression is limited by the Chinese government's censorship technologies.

The stated purpose of censorship in China is "maintaining harmony" (和谐), and while anti-government content is allowed, any threatening language or attempts to arouse public action is subject to censorship.[2] Most outside observers, including international media organizations and the U.S. State Department, contend that China's censorship is meant to quash unflattering stories about the CCP and prevent organized political opposition.[3][4] Many human rights advocates view censorship as both a human rights abuse and a method for the government to cover up and further perpetrate humans rights abuses.[5] Other groups are concerned that censorship suppresses public knowledge of important social and ethical issues.[6] Chinese citizens, however, range in opinions. While there are many critics of censorship, there are also many who view the system as necessary and even beneficial. Censorship is not a government secret in China; instead, the government promotes its censorship efforts to citizens as a method for maintaining security and stability.[7] Some organizations even provide awards to companies that are particularly effective at censoring, suggesting that many Chinese are proud of their censorship efforts.[8]


In 1924, the Communist Party of the People's Republic of China (CPC) founded the Publicity Department to oversee propaganda and censorship-related issues.[9] Since then it has been active in censoring television, newspapers, radio, and more recently the Internet. Chinese citizens received Internet access in 1996.[10] In 1997, the Ministry of Public Security implemented regulations for Internet use and issued a set of rules for Internet conduct. Section 5 of the regulations describe the following inappropriate uses:

No unit or individual may use the Internet to create, replicate, retrieve, or transmit the following kinds of information:
Inciting to resist or breaking the Constitution or laws or the implementation of administrative regulations;
Inciting to overthrow the government or the socialist system;
Inciting division of the country, harming national unification;
Inciting hatred or discrimination among nationalities or harming the unity of the nationalities;
Making falsehoods or distorting the truth, spreading rumors, destroying the order of society;
Promoting feudal superstitions, sexually suggestive material, gambling, violence, murder;
Terrorism or inciting others to criminal activity; openly insulting other people or distorting the truth to slander people;
Injuring the reputation of state organizations;
Other activities against the Constitution, laws or administrative regulations.[11]

Censorship legislation is broad and allows the government to justify a wide variety of actions in order to serve its needs; many arrests are made under charges such as "subverting state power." Many of the stated goals of Internet censorship are consistent with China's history of valuing collectivism over individualism. Confucianism, a commonly held philosophy in China, emphasizes harmony and social order in relationships in both the family and the state over individual preferences and expression. [12] By its stated goals, Chinese Internet censorship can be interpreted as a continuation of Chinese norms since Confucius' era.

Methods of Internet CensorshipEdit

The Golden Shield ProjectEdit

In 1998, the Chinese government implemented the first of several iterations of an information management system known as "The Golden Shield Project." The Ministry of Public Security rationalized the project as a method to promote “the adoption of advanced information and communication technology to strengthen central police control, responsiveness, and crime combating capacity, so as to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of police work.” By 2001, all of China's major networks passed through servers at international "gateways," at which network traffic could be filtered and monitored. The system blocked content by preventing IP addresses from being routed through, and this strategy led to the project being derisively termed "The Great Firewall of China." [13] [14]

Self CensorshipEdit

Another method the Chinese government uses for restricting content is to "delegate" some censorship work to businesses operating in China. Modern government regulations target Internet Content Providers (ICPs), individuals or organizations that wish to display content to the public on the Internet. In order to comply with these laws, all ICPs are required to apply for and display a government-issued ICP License on their webpages. ICPs must police their content for illicit material in order to receive and maintain their licenses.[15] Thus, websites operating inside the Great Firewall such as Sina Weibo, a popular microblog, are expected to self-censor.[16] Although the Communist Party does not provide official lists of topics to censor, secret memos on censorship from the government to media organizations have been found [17]. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) oversees the self-censorship efforts of Chinese ICPs.[18]

Many companies employ large workforces to monitor uploaded content.[19] Businesses in China often over-block content, rather than risk incurring repercussions from the MIIT. The chairman of Baidu, a prominent Chinese search engine company, disclosed that each day his staff deletes approximately one million instances of users creating online forums and communities.[10] Companies that fail to self-censor face fines, suspension, or being invited to "tea," a Chinese euphemism for interrogation.[20] The New York Times reported a case in which police forcibly convinced a Chinese ICP CEO to step up his company's censorship efforts.[21]

Fifty-Cent PartyEdit

A third means of exercising censorship comes from the "50 Cent Party", a group of web commentators that are recruited and paid to post pro-government remarks on microblogs and online forums while disguised as common citizens [22]. The group's derogatory nickname refers to rumors that its members are paid fifty Chinese cents for each pro-government remark they make.[23] They are generally intended to derail anti-government conversation and promote government ideology. Users who see these comments may succumb to the bandwagon effect and express more pro-government ideas themselves. The 50 Cent Party members also report users who have posted offending statements. There are an estimated 250,000 of these mercenary Internet posters currently operating in China. [2]



Censorship is an important tool in helping the CCP retain power in China. Political activism is common in China: sociologist Sun Liping at Tsinghua University states that there were over 180,000 protests in China in 2010, or about 500 protests a day. [24] These protests and riots are responses to abuses of power by the government, land grabs, institutionalized ethnic discrimination, and poor working conditions.[25] [26] [27] Many social media posts promoting or mentioning these "mass incidents" are quickly removed.[2] During the 2011 Arab Spring, online dissidents in China called for a "Jasmine Revolution" against the CCP. In response, the CCP blocked internet searches for the word "jasmine," took down posts on Sina Weibo related to revolts and jasmine, and arrested internet users who alluded to protests [28]. Thus, anti-government protests, which spread quickly through social media in Tunisia and Egypt [29], were quickly quashed in China.

Competing factions within the CCP have selectively used censorship as a tool for political manipulation. In October 2012, the New York Times reported that Premier Wen Jiabao's family had amassed a fortune of US $2.7 billion despite Wen's poor background, implicating him in nepotism and corruption [30]. Less than three hours after the article was posted online, the New York Times website was blocked by the Great Firewall, preventing Chinese Internet users from learning about the issue [31]. However, in February 2012, when Bo Xilai, a neo-Maoist CCP chair in Chongqing who championed ideas counter to mainstream party ideology, was accused of corruption and his wife was accused of killing a British businessman, the state media reported the scandal and the Internet response was largely uncensored [32]. A widespread outcry against Bo's corruption spread on Sina Weibo and other Chinese microblogging sites [33]. The differing outcomes of these cases were determined by how they were censored. In the case of Bo, the ideological radical of the CCP, netizens were free to post complaints and read about his corruption, and he was later expelled from the party [34]. Wen, a member of the CCP establishment, has yet to receive any retribution or public backlash, as the terms "New York Times" and "Wen Jiabao" were blocked to Chinese Internet users.[35] These cases reflect that censorship is a powerful political tool, not only through silencing opposition to an establishment politician, but also through its marked absence, harnessing public opinion to expel an ideological rogue.


Internet censorship has also dramatically altered the way foreign businesses operate in China. Small businesses and suppliers face adverse business impacts from disruptions to their websites, but even large companies have been affected. Google, which was founded in 1999, offered a Chinese language-based version of its search engine to users while maintaining all of its operations in the United States. However, users often experienced unpredictable service disruptions because all Internet traffic was first screened by The Great Firewall. As a result, Google drew criticism in China for being incompetent and unreliable.[36] Facing increased economic pressure to establish its presence among China's fast growing Internet user population, Google founded Google China in 2005. Google faced a dilemma, though, as it had several choices: play by its own rules, self-censor in compliance with government policies, or allow the government to perform censoring. Google concluded that although self-censorship was inconsistent with its values, it was nonetheless justifiable because it was necessary for doing business and was improving access to information. A public statement released January 27, 2006 by Google's senior policy counsel, Andrew McLaughlin, stated, "Filtering our search results clearly compromises our mission. Failing to offer Google search at all to a fifth of the world's population, however, does so far more severely."[37]

Despite being considered a leader in most other parts of the world, Google struggled in China. Even though it respected the rules in China, it never overtook its primary competitor, Baidu, in market share. In 2009, Google's market share peaked at 35.6 % [38]; however, it was never the most popular search engine among users. Baidu not only had the advantage of being a local corporation but also had a comprehensive understanding of the way the technology market operated in China within the censorship system. Baidu was allied with the government and offered services that Google did not offer, such as links to pirated media.[39] Google attempted to set itself up for success by investing in local companies and hiring local executives but was ultimately unable to keep up with the uniquely, fast-paced market. Google was also unfamiliar with how to provide a desirable user experience within the confines of an Internet censorship system.

Operation Aurora, a sophisticated hacking attack on Google and several major infrastructure companies which began mid-2009, led to a major turning point in Google's course. WikiLeaks cables later confirmed that the attack originated in China and prompted suspicions that the attack was motivated by political maneuvering among CCP officials.[40] In response to these cyber attacks, David Drummond, Google's chief legal officer, released a statement [41] on January 12, 2010 describing "a new approach to China." This time, Google concluded that it could no longer justify self-censorship and threatened to leave China if the government did not provide any alternative. While Internet users were sympathetic to Google's case[42], the government asserted its authority and refused to compromise. In March 2010, Google China redirected all of its searches to Hong Kong, and in January 2012, Google's market share fell to 16.7 %. [43]

Google's failures in China are not unique. Several American Internet-based companies including Yahoo! and eBay had failed before. Google, like its predecessors, was hindered by two related factors: discrimination towards foreign firms and censorship. The Google search engine was more scrutinized than Baidu's and often faced disruptions from censors who would control or erase search results. Google also did not have close ties to the government and was viewed as untrustworthy. Therefore, Google and its predecessors saw their business operations fail in China because they neither understood culture quickly enough nor learned how to adapt their technology while abiding by the Chinese censorship system.


Despite censorship, Internet culture in China is thriving. The creation of native websites mimicking those of the West has led to a large but connected network. Microblogging site Sina Weibo boasts over 300 million users.[44] However, the Chinese population is unable to effectively discuss social issues, which in many cases requires critique of officials in power. While criticism is allowed, issues regarding the corruption of officials or any actions that might incite the anger of the populace are often silenced. However, harsh criticisms of foreign governments, especially those of the United States and Japan, are usually left unchecked, which some observers believe contribute to xenophobic and nationalist sentiments among Chinese netizens.[45] Spiritual groups such as the Falun Gong have also been thoroughly blocked.[46]

Possibly the most famous example of censorship in China is the coverage of Protests in Tiananmen Square which began on April 15, 1989. The Chinese military reacted on June 4, 1989 with People's Liberation Army (PLA) tanks and troops clearing Tiananmen Square, killing between several hundreds and thousands of protesters. The incident is now known as the Tiananmen Massacre. If a citizen were to search “June 4” on Chinese Internet search engines, the results would be highly filtered to exclude everything related to the tragedy.[47] Print media that references the events must be consistent with the government’s stance that the actions taken were “to calm the political storm of 1989, and enable[d] China to enjoy a stable development.”[48] In 2006, FRONTLINE aired a documentary on the Tiananmen Square protests in which journalists traveled to Beijing University and interviewed students. FRONTLINE reported, “…We passed out copies of that famous picture (Tank Man) to undergraduates at Beijing University -- the hub where the first activism started -- and these undergraduates were genuinely mystified. One of them said, ‘I don't know; maybe it's a parade or something,’ and another one said very politely, ‘May I ask if this is a piece of your artwork?’”[49], demonstrating that China has been able to effectively censor events like the Tiananmen Square Massacre through education. Without adequate knowledge of such controversial events, the Chinese public is unable to understand and address the issues surrounding them.



The Chinese population is aware that censorship occurs[7], and attitudes range from outspoken support to subversive opposition. Many Chinese view the system as a protection, and Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan said during a press conference, "Without censorship, then any person could on television or online vilify others. This should not be allowed in any country. As long as it is not contrary to the true facts, it should not be censored. Any disinformation, vilification, rumors or insults should be censored."[50] Activists in China such as Ai Weiwei have resisted censorship and called for use of censorship circumvention methods. A nontechnical reaction somewhat unique to China is the use of homophones and alternative spellings to avoid keyword filters. One of the most common examples of the latter involves the "Grass Mud Horse," a fictional creature whose name is a homophone for a vulgar phrase. Because the name itself is innocuous, governmental keyword sensors did not filter it from appearing in web pages across China. The Chinese public popularized an image of the fictional animal, and adopted the creature as a symbol of revolution against the oppressive censorship, referred to as "river crabs" by another homophone. The Grass Mud Horse has been incorporated in modern Chinese art and literature, including several fake children's songs.[51]


International human rights organizations have expressed concerns over China's Internet censorship[52], and many note a conflict with Article 35 of the Constitution of the People's Republic of China, which supposedly guarantees freedom of speech.[53][54] Some groups attempt to provide means for Chinese to exercise their rights through circumvention methods.[55] U.S. technology companies also formed the Global Network Initiative (GNI) in 2008 to formulate industry guidelines for protecting privacy and free expression in countries with authoritarian governments.

China's Internet censorship has also raised several U.S. Congressional concerns related to human rights, trade, and cybersecurity. Since the beginning of the Bush administration, the U.S. has funded many Internet freedom programs in China, including circumvention technology and privacy protection.[56] In 2012, following an incident when access to the Bloomberg website was blocked, the State Department urged China to respect Internet freedom.[57] However, because the U.S. does not have full understanding of China's Internet restrictions it has been unsuccessful in pressuring China while respecting its authority.


Internet censorship in China involves a complex traversal of the social interface of technology. China's government, citizens, and political activists have all employed both social and technical means of advancing their agendas. As soon as one side succeeds over the others, they are quickly overcome by their opponents. Because the Chinese Internet environment is constantly changing, one wishing to do business in China must understand these policies lest they face the same difficulties as Google. It is clear from these cases that societal and cultural factors both shape and are shaped by technology. While censorship is motivated primarily by politics, its effects are far reaching, affecting also business and society. Many technologies have arisen to both support and circumvent a government policy, and they have created a new set of social groups which compete for position on this issue. While the Chinese government attempted to create a "harmonious society," it instead incited a complicated battle at the social interface of technology.


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External LinksEdit

Michael Anti: Behind the Great Firewall of China