Chongqing Unveils Penalties for Climbing Great Firewall

At South China Morning Post, Eva Li reports that authorities in have released details of penalties including disconnection and fines for accessing blocked foreign websites. Their appearance follows tightened restrictions on circumvention tools in January, and a proposal by Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference vice-chairman Luo Fuhe to substantially narrow the scope of restrictions on foreign web content. Luo’s call resonated, despite being targeted by Chinese censors.

The regulation, called the Administrative Punishment Benchmarks of Internet Security Management of Chongqing, came into effect in July 2016 but was only published on the government website of Chongqing on Monday. It provides a detailed manual for the city’s police to punish minor offences, namely those activities not serious enough for criminal charges, relating to internet connections.

[…] The Chongqing regulations banned unauthorised individuals and organisations who establish and use channels such as cable connections or to connect to international networks, or who run a business helping internet users to connect.

The non-profit internet users who violate the rule will be ordered to disconnect from the internet and receive a warning and anyone who used such channels to make a profit of more than 5,000 yuan (US$730) would be fined 5,000 to 15,000 yuan. Any ill-gotten gains would also be seized, the regulation states. [Source]

One of Luo’s complaints was the difficulty involved in accessing scientific and educational resources. In a recent post at Inside Higher Ed, eduFair China’s Derrik L. Karst provided an example in the challenges faced by Western universities in reaching prospective Chinese students:

Because of internet censorship, it is tricky to know what content can be seen by prospective Chinese students. Western staples like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are banned in China.

Meanwhile, outside the consulate, the students stand in line imagining their lives abroad. Often, if they navigate to a university’s admission website, their browser will return, “Unable to open page.”

Even institutions with long track records of recruiting Chinese students struggle to provide accessible content. For example, of the top-25 universities in America enrolling the most international students, 68 percent had admissions content that was blocked in China. While some schools were missing secondary content, such as student interviews or campus photos, other schools had entire admissions pages that were inaccessible. [Source]

The situation for some other countries is even worse: 90% of the British universities included in the survey, 87% of those in Australia, and 80% of those in Canada had some blocked admissions content.

While Luo and others stressed the economic toll of censorship on Chinese parties, Bloomberg View’s Adam Minter highlights its role as a trade barrier to Western companies and a shelter for Chinese companies spared foreign competition:

The idea of dragging China before the WTO to argue that represents a trade barrier isn’t a new idea. The European Union has contemplated such an approach since at least the late 2000s. And late last year, in a move that could lay the groundwork for a case, the Obama administration argued that China’s worsening censorship posed a “significant burden” on foreign internet service providers. The next step, though – a formal complaint and case before the WTO – is up to the Trump Administration.

Such a case wouldn’t be a slam dunk. China has long cited WTO clauses that give countries room to impose measures to protect public morality and order. Even if it lost the WTO case, the Chinese government would be highly unlikely to abide by the decision in full.

But the WTO recently ruled against a Chinese attempt to invoke public morality as an excuse to restrict the import and distribution of American books, magazines, films and other published material. And any Chinese attempt to ignore WTO rulings would undermine its recent posturing as a champion of free trade. A negotiated settlement – perhaps integrated into a long-delayed U.S.-China investment treaty – that opens China to U.S. internet companies while acknowledging China’s right to censor selectively (not wholesale) for morality and public order, might be the best outcome for all sides. [Source]

In the meantime, Global Voices’ Oiwan Lam summarizes a report by the Hong Kong-based Initium Media on the “information smugglers” cashing in on appetites for blocked foreign content—accurate or otherwise.

One woman interviewed by The Initium works for a media outlet that runs official public accounts on Weibo and WeChat. Ms. Yu described her daily routine to the Initium: She uses circumvention tools to access Buzzfeed, Reddit, and Tumblr, and to search for news that mainland Chinese readers may find interesting. She copies the stories and re-writes them in Chinese, adds attractive headlines for local audiences, and then publishes the stories to the outlets’ official accounts.

[…] One of the most popular social media public accounts that “smuggles” overseas content is called “British News Sister” or @uktimes (@英國報姐). Launched in late 2013, the news outlet publishes mainly entertainment and sensational stories from overseas. Even official media outlets like Global Times and People Daily’s social media accounts have republished their posts. By early 2017, @uktimes had 13.35 million followers on Weibo and 580 thousand subscribers on WeChat. Its average post garners more than 10 million views.

[…] Despite the spread of and distorted information, the information smuggling sector will continue to grow, thanks to the Great Firewall, the thirst for information outside the wall and capital investors who appear to see the flow of information as a profit-making endeavor rather than a public good. [Source]