Pre-Congress Pressure Mounts on Tech Firms, Users

At this year’s Two Sessions legislative and political advisory meetings in Beijing in February, delegate Luo Fuhe issued a striking public call for relaxation of China’s notoriously tight internet controls. Instead, 2017 has seen only further constriction, including the passage of a new cybersecurity law, a sustained crackdown on the VPNs used to circumvent controls, an expansion of real name registration requirements, and the recent introduction of rules placing personal legal responsibility on the founders and administrators of online chat groups. China Media Project’s David Bandurski has described these moves as part of a shift from a “Great Firewall” dividing China’s internet from the global web, to a “Great Hive” of controls reaching right down to the individual level. Simon Denyer provided an overview of this trend at The Washington Post last week:

Since passing its broad new Law in June, the Communist Party has rolled out new regulations — and steps to enforce existing ones — that reflect its desire to control and exploit every inch of the digital world, experts say.

Today, the Great Firewall is being built not just around the country, to keep foreign ideas and uncomfortable truths out, but around every individual, computer and smartphone, in a society that has become the most digitally connected in the world.

[…] The latest chat rules deal another major blow to citizens’ already diminished rights to express opinions online, said David Bandurski, co-director of the China Media Project and a fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. He called it one of the strongest indications yet of the party’s “atomization and personalization of censorship.”

[…] “Each of the regulations we see coming out in recent months, in the wake of the overarching Cybersecurity Law, is about extending political and administrative authority to every aspect of cyberspace,” he said.

[…] “All may share in the collective illusion that they are part of a thriving humming space, but all are joined in the party’s re-engineered project of guidance and managed cohesion — and all are buzzing at more or less the same frequency,” he wrote in a China Media Project piece. [Source]

Another recent development is the Cyberspace Administration of China’s imposition last week of apparently token but nevertheless ominous fines on domestic tech giants Tencent, Weibo, and Baidu for their failures in policing content on their platforms. From Reuters’ Cate Cadell:

Notices posted by the on Monday said the firms would receive the “maximum penalty” for failing to remove fake news and as well as content that “incites ethic tension” and “threatens social order”.

[…] The notices did not detail the exact sum of the penalties, but under the rules cited in the notice individuals in charge of the platforms and others directly involved face a maximum penalty of 100,000 yuan ($15,110) each.

The law also stipulates that offending platforms can have their licenses revoked and their services suspended for failing to comply.

The measures are the result of an investigation launched last month by the CAC, and target the country’s most popular services, including ’s WeChat and ’s microblogging service, whose combined registered users exceed 1 billion.

[…] In a recent notice the CAC said illegal content includes articles that “misinterpret government policy”, “twist the history of the Chinese Communist Party” and “flaunt excessive wealth.” [Source]

Tech firms have been moving to meet the government’s long-evident demands with their own control and enforcement measures. Search giant Baidu, for example, has announced new moves to combat online rumors. From Ni Dandan at Sixth Tone:

Search results for popular online hearsay, such as the false claim propagated by a series of viral videos early this year that certain kinds of edible seaweed contained plastic, will now come with a “rumor” label. The feature currently only works on phones.

At a press conference held in Beijing, Zhang Tao, responsible for content on Baidu search, said that the company’s ultimate goals are to build the country’s largest rumor database and openly share the data it contains. Cybersecurity departments from some 372 police forces around the country will help to keep the platform up to date.

The country’s cyber police will take on the task of dispelling false information about natural disasters, social stability, breaking news, and food safety. The latter topic accounts for nearly half of all online , Party newspaper People’s Daily reported in April. Experts will also be invited to contribute and eventually help bring the number of topics the platform can identify as up to one million, Zhang told media. [Source]

Reuters, which interviewed several of Weibo’s in-house censors in 2013, focused last week on current content monitoring efforts by news platform Toutiao. From Cate Cadell and Pei Li:

“We had about 30-40 employees two years ago; now we have nearly a thousand reviewing and auditing,” said the Toutiao censor, who, like other censors Reuters spoke to, asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the topic.

[…] ”There is a lot of evil and pollution on the internet that people don’t see, and we are helping protect people, a third Toutiao censor said in Tianjin.

[…] An advertisement Toutiao posted on Tianjin Foreign Studies University’s career page for students this month sought 100 fresh graduates to work in “content audit”, earning between 4,000-6,000 yuan (£447-£670) per month.

Successful candidates need to “love news and current affairs” but also be “politically savvy” and “understand the laws and regulations governing Internet supervision”.

[…] “People who have just graduated from college are clean like a white piece of paper, and will accept our corporate culture more easily,” said one Tianjin censor. [Source]

Elsewhere, Cadell reported on Weibo’s plans to outsource some of this work to 1,000 (at first) part-time “supervisors,” who would flag at least 200 posts per month in exchange for a small stipend and prizes such as iPhones for top performers. Citizen Lab’s Lotus Ruan commented on the scheme on her blog:

There are so many things that do not seem right in this mechanism. To begin with, since these Weibo supervisors are only working part-time, I doubt that Sina Weibo will provide any kind of guidelines or systematic training to streamline the practice. Meanwhile, because Chinese laws and regulations on sensitive content are often vague, it is hard to imagine these part-time reviewers would spend time pondering upon the definition of each regulation, which almost guarantees inconsistencies and arbitrary decisions on the reporting. Secondly, setting a quota for work assessment is merely incentivizing users to surveil on each other. (I guess that’s part of the point anyway.) Crowdsourcing information controls to average users remind me of the Mass Line (群众路线, qunzhong luxian) method developed by Chairman Mao.

[…] In 2002, Perry Link used “The Anaconda in the Chandelier” to describe the phenomenon of self-censorship and over-censorship in China because anything can fit into the vaguely defined laws and regulations. Sina Weibo’s latest move seems to be telling us that even self-censorship and over-censorship by Internet companies is not enough to catch up with the tightening Internet environment in China. [Source]

As pressure mounts on domestic platforms, the authorities are also further obstructing access to foreign alternatives over which they lack direct control. The campaign against VPNs was followed last week with new blocks on the Facebook-owned encrypted messaging platform WhatsApp, as Keith Bradsher reported for The New York Times:

In mid-July, Chinese censors began blocking video chats and the sending of photographs and other files using WhatsApp, and they stopped many voice chats, as well. But most text messages on the app continued to go through normally. The restrictions on video, audio chats and file sharing were at least temporarily lifted after a few weeks.

WhatsApp now appears to have been broadly disrupted in China, even for text messages, Nadim Kobeissi, an applied cryptographer at Symbolic Software, a Paris-based research start-up, said on Monday. The blocking of WhatsApp text messages suggests that China’s censors may have developed specialized software to interfere with such messages, which rely on an encryption technology that is used by few services other than WhatsApp, he said.

[…] When China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, it agreed to open online data services and other enhanced telecommunications services to international competition. But it obtained the assent of other W.T.O. members to retain restrictions on the media. Technology multinationals, heavily dependent on the Chinese market, have been reluctant to accuse Beijing of falling short of its W.T.O. commitments.

[…] By blocking the heavily encrypted WhatsApp service while making less secure applications like WeChat available to the public, the Chinese government has herded its internet users toward methods of communication that it can reliably monitor. [Source]

Bloomberg reported the CAC’s response to overseas coverage of the intensified blocking:

WhatsApp should take proactive measures to intercept information to do with violence and terror, the Cyberspace Administration of China said in a statement in response to questions from Bloomberg News.

China has the authority to tell institutions to take these measures, said the agency, without specifying details of content it considered illegal.

“A country’s cyberspace sovereignty should be protected,” it added.

A spokesman for WhatsApp, which is owned by , declined to comment.

[…] “China’s internet is fully open,” the administration said. “We welcome internet companies from various countries to provide Chinese internet users with good information services.” [Source]

As the citations against Tencent, Weibo, and Baidu indicate, controls are not limited to content that directly confronts the government, nor to that involving violence or terrorism. Potential sources of social, ethnic, or religious tension or supposed moral degradation are also in the crosshairs. At What’s On Weibo, for example, Manya Koetse describes tightening controls on the use of Islamophobic terms online:

On Chinese social media, is often referred to as the “peaceful religion” (和平教) or the “green religion” (绿教). While the first is mostly meant sarcastically, the second comes from the importance of the color green in and is meant to refer to the religion in a negative way.

In the same type of derisive, derogatory online speak, Muslims are often referred to as “the greens” (绿绿) on Weibo. ‘Greenification’ (绿化) is another online word, meaning ‘Islamization.’

At the time of writing, abovementioned online terms such as “green religion” or “peaceful religion” were all banned from Weibo’s search function and showed no results. [Source]

The New York Times’ Steven Lee Myers and Amy Cheng covered a 68-point set of guidelines issued this summer by the China Netcasting Services Association:

The guidelines ban material that depicts excessive drinking or gambling; that sensationalizes “bizarre or grotesque” criminal cases; that ridicules China’s historical revolutionary leaders, or current members of the army, police or judiciary; or that “publicizes the luxury life.”

“Detailed” plots involving prostitution, rape and masturbation are also forbidden. So are displays of “unhealthy marital values,” which the guidelines catalog as affairs, one-night stands, partner swapping and, simply but vaguely, “sexual liberation.”

[…] Writers, filmmakers, podcasters and others attributed the guidelines and other measures to a new prim and paternalistic ideology taking shape under Mr. Xi, who has called on party members to be “paragons of morality” in pursuit of what he calls the “China Dream.”

[…] The country’s leading scholar of sexuality, Li Yinhe, wrote in a scathing commentary on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, that the new regulations violated two basic freedoms. “The first is a citizen’s constitutionally protected right to freedom of creativity; the second is the constitutionally protected right to sexual freedom of sexual minorities.”

When Ms. Li called on people to “work toward abolishing screening and censorship rules,” her posts were deleted, too.

[…] Critics say the rules are meant to be so vague that the authorities can justify blocking anything, as circumstances dictate. [Source]

As Myers and Cheng’s interviews indicate, one driver of the wave of online controls is broader stability maintenance in preparation for this month’s 19th Party Congress. The quinquennial CCP gatherings are always politically sensitive, but speculation about Xi Jinping’s possible departure from the conventions supposedly governing leadership terms—together, perhaps, with the specter of rogue billionaire Guo Wengui’s promised exposés of corruption among Party elites—have heightened this still further. Reuters’ Ben Blanchard and Christian Shepherd report on the authorities’ intense preparations, the online crackdown’s part in them, and the resulting chilling effect:

Thousands of policemen from other provinces have been sent to the Chinese capital to reinforce, a source with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters. A second source, with ties to the country’s security forces and citing conversations with senior police officers, said all police leave in Beijing had been canceled starting from early September.

Beijing Communist Party chief Cai Qi on Wednesday asked the city for “120 percent” effort to ensure safety for the congress, the official Beijing Daily said.

“We must hold the line for social control, eliminate all destabilizing factors, hold the line for cyber security and resolutely crack down on political rumors and harmful news,” Cai said.

[…] Many of the tightened security measures target migrants, with ID checks at metro stations and patrols outside government ministries to ensure any petitioners from out of town are rounded up immediately should they attempt to make a scene. [Source]

At the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Fergus Ryan, citing Bandurski’s “Great Hive” concept, suggested that the cumulative effect of recent restrictions risked compromising the value of social media to the government itself:

Shifting from the Great Firewall to the Great Hive runs the risk of killing off the feedback loop function that social media has served for the Chinese state in recent years.

Social media platforms like Weibo have acted as a pressure valve whenever public opinion boils over. Chinese officials themselves have recognised the importance of social media’s ability to expose low-level corruption and malfeasance. But that supervisory role will be neutered if Chinese internet users are too scared to post what they really think.

For China’s hammer-wielding censors, everything looks like a nail. They should be careful they don’t knock it all to bits. [Source]

Few believe that the end of the Congress will bring much relaxation. The controls form part of a grand strategy to establish China as a “Cyber Superpower” that was recently detailed in the Party journal Seeking Truth by “a previously unknown entity under the Cyberspace Administration of China.” The underlying vision of this “theoretical refinement of the path to socialist governing of the Internet with Chinese characteristics” is attributed to Xi Jinping, whom a Xinhua commentary last year described as an incomparable “Internet sage.” The Seeking Truth article was translated at the New America’s Cybersecurity Initiative by a group including Paul Triolo and Graham Webster, who also wrote a summary and introduction:

The article, which a team of analysts has translated in full below, outlines the major elements of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s strategic thinking on one of Chinese cyberspace policy’s watchwords: 网络强国 (wǎngluò qiángguó). It’s a pithy formulation in Chinese that can be translated as “cyber superpower,” or “building China into a national power in cyberspace,” and the strategic concept attached to it ties together a series of concepts and initiatives that Xi has pushed in major speeches and the Chinese government has moved to enact.

[…] According to the CAC authors, China’s strategy calls for developing capabilities and governance capacity in four major baskets: managing Internet content and creating “positive energy” online; ensuring general cybersecurity, including protecting critical information infrastructure; developing an independent, domestic technological base for the hardware and software that undergird of the Internet in China; and increasing China’s role in building, governing, and operating the Internet globally. The essay’s authors outline this wide-reaching set of goals under the unifying banner of that four-character phrase, wǎngluò qiángguó. [Source]

From the translation itself:

work has become the most important task of propaganda and ideological work. The online and offline worlds must form concentric circles, and, under the leadership of the Party, mobilize the people of all nationalities, mobilize all aspects of enthusiasm, to jointly realize the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and the struggle for the China Dream. We are resolute that positive energy is the overall requirement, and keeping things under control is the last word (管得住是硬道理). Online positive publicity must become bigger and stronger, so that the Party’s ideas always become the strongest voice in cyberspace. [Source]