Call for Narrower Internet Control Echoes

The Two Sessions in Beijing offer an annual chance for delegates to China’s top legislative and advisory political assemblies to present their own policy suggestions. On March 1, Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference vice-chairman Luo Fuhe issued a proposal, translated in full at CDT, for speeding up access to foreign websites. “While we agree that the monitoring and blocking of foreign websites cannot be neglected as part of government efforts to protect the nation’s peace and stability,” Luo wrote, “we must also note that many foreign sites are not political.” He complained of the scientific and economic cost of current internet controls, citing long load times for some valuable sites and the unreliable VPNs or even foreign travel to which many researchers resort. His suggested remedies included a general unblocking of academic and scientific resources, and greater clarity around remaining controls with the compilation of an authoritative list of “negative foreign sites.” Even in the case of news, he added, information should not be blocked simply because it is “contested.”

Reports on Luo’s call for more selective censorship were themselves swiftly targeted, as a leaked directive published by CDT illustrated. But Luo was not the only delegate to criticize the current intensity of information restrictions. Former state TV host Cui Yongyuan argued that censors “simply block everything they don’t like in a way I would call rude and barbarian […] I don’t think they’re helping the Communist Party or the government at all. They are only causing more trouble.” South China Morning Post’s Nectar Gan reported another proposal by a Hong Kong delegate who focused on the commercial, scientific, and political costs of China’s current online controls, including blocks on Facebook and Pinterest as well as academic resources:

Caroline Cheng Yi, a political adviser for 10 years and renowned sculptor, said a judge who was also a delegate was about to show her a WeChat post about [Luo’s] proposal during a panel discussion but they discovered it had been deleted.

[…] “Xi Jinping has reiterated many times that China must insist on ‘opening up’ and welcome the internet age, but when he’s talking about all this, the country’s [] is becoming more and more like that of North Korea,” she said. “It’s way too strict.”

[…] “[The censorship] has indeed hindered the progress of scientific . We can’t get the latest information or the most accurate[,” said Tsinghua University cancer expert Luo Yongzhang.]

He said he agreed with the government that politically sensitive information should be blocked, because “the common folks do not have the ability to tell [right from wrong]”, but access to Scholar, a search engine for academic literature, should be allowed for the sake of academics, researchers and scientists. [Source]

At Global Voices, Oiwan Lam wrote that Luo’s proposal was “not one man speaking out, but rather another coordinated effort by scientists who are pushing the authorities to grant access to overseas Internet”:

On May 30, 2016, after Chinese President Xi Jinping urged scientists to turn China into a strong country with leading technological development during the country’s National and Technology Conference, an old scientist from the Academy of asked Xi to grant scientists access to overseas websites.

[…] Control over the Internet is too strict and it affects scientists. Accessing overseas websites can help scientists to learn more about how advanced countries have converted knowledge from their scientific findings into technological products. Is it possible to grant special access for scientists and researchers [to overseas websites]?

According to China Science Magazine’s report, after this speech, the conference hall was silent for a second before loud applause broke out.

[…] Later, about 78 scientists from the China Academy of Science submitted a joint statement to Xi urging the authorities to loosen control over the web and grant them expanded access. [Source]

The authorities may place similar importance on access to scientific information, but they show little sign of willingness to facilitate it by unilaterally relaxing their grip without concessions or guarantees. Instead, SCMP’s Gan reports in a separate article, they have been holding negotiations on Scholar and other Google services since 2014:

“China has been in touch with Google through various channels. Last year, leaders of our country’s important department had further communication with Google,” said Liu Binjie, a standing committee member of the National People’s Congress and former head of the General Administration of Press and Publication.

Google Scholar, a search engine for scholarly literature, was among the services on Beijing’s priority list for re-entry, according to Liu, who was speaking to the Sunday Morning Post on the sidelines of the China’s annual plenary sessions in Beijing on Friday.

[…] “The academic sector will be the first to get through,” Liu said. “China’s focus is on [making] academic progress, such as academic exchanges as well as [exchanges in] science and culture, instead of news, information or politics.”

Other Google functions under negotiation included “service functions that do not involve [politically] sensitive information,” according to the lawmaker.

But no timetable had yet been set for Google’s return, he said. [Source]

The Economist focused on Luo’s membership of the Chinese Association for Promoting Democracy, one of the eight largely decorative political parties that China recognizes beside the CCP:

Like the other “democratic” parties, as the non-Communist ones are officially described, Mr Luo’s was founded before 1949 when the Communists seized power. One of them is called the Revolutionary Committee of the Chinese Kuomintang, a pro-Communist spin-off of the party that ruled China before Mao Zedong took over and which then fled to Taiwan. At first, Mao kept these groups alive as a way to win over people who were not hard-core Communists yet who sympathised with Mao’s goals. But he lost patience with them during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Many of their members were jailed. Deng Xiaoping revived the parties in the 1980s to show that China was becoming more tolerant again.

As Mr Luo is doubtless aware, that tolerance is extremely limited. A Communist Party website says the eight parties are “neither parties out of office nor opposition parties”, and all of them support the Communists. They are funded by the Communist Party and do not contest any elections. New members must be recommended by existing ones and there is no open recruitment. In some cases they also belong to the Communist Party. They often speak with even greater caution than Communists, says a member of the Peasants and Workers Democratic Party, because they know their groups exist only with the Communist Party’s assent. [Source]

Former SCMP editor-in-chief Wang Xiangwei commented sympathetically on Luo’s proposal:

By Chinese official protocols, this is heavy stuff. After all, Luo, as a vice-chairman of the CPPCC, enjoys a ranking as a state leader even though he has no real power. Still, this has made him the first senior official in recent years to speak up on a very sensitive policy which the government has strongly defended, at a politically sensitive time.

[…] Since Xi came to power in late 2012, the authorities have strengthened internet restrictions by passing laws and dismissing criticisms from the West by declaring internet security as one of the core interests of the country. In this context, the decision by Luo’s party to speak up on this sensitive matter is all the more interesting as it is apparently aimed at rallying public opinion to put pressure on the government to act. Otherwise, it could have used the traditional approach of submitting its proposal without making it public.

[…] Judging by the reaction from the authorities, Luo’s suggestion stands little chance of gaining traction.

[…] It would really be a shame if the authorities summarily dismissed the proposal by Luo’s party without seriously considering its merits. [Source]

Last year, China was described by Freedom House as “the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom,” and by The Washington Post as the builder of “the world’s largest online thought prison.”