Report Outlines Mechanisms of China’s Censorship Apparatus

This week, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) released a report titled “Censorship Practices of the People’s Republic of China.” The report outlines the nature and reach of China’s censorship apparatus, the methods and technologies that underpin it, the international activities it conducts, and the implications for the U.S. What emerges is a picture of “the world’s most elaborate and pervasive censorship apparatus,” along with its human components and inefficiencies, at a time of contracting information flows both inside and outside of China.

The USCC was established by the U.S. Congress in 2000 as a bipartisan initiative to monitor and investigate national security implications of the bilateral trade and economic relationship between the U.S. and China. Its report was commissioned to the Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis at Exovera, an intelligence and security company. Here is an excerpt from the report’s summary and main findings:

Censorship in the PRC is not enacted unilaterally by any one entity but rather is coordinated among a host of Party and state institutions. Under this framework, guidelines for ideological and thought work are drawn up by the Central Party Committee and conveyed down to the lower echelons of the CCP. Collectively, this control apparatus encompasses three broad layers: (1) the physical infrastructure used to disseminate information; (2) the regulatory measures that modulate the content of information; and (3) the normative factors that shape culture, beliefs, and cognition.

[…] Under the leadership of General Secretary Xi, the PRC has dramatically expanded its censorship apparatus. This undertaking has entailed bureaucratic reforms aimed at streamlining Party control over internet content, operational reforms to improve the technical acumen of CCP censors, and legal reforms intended to broaden state supervision over all forms of media.

[…] In the past ten years, China has intensified efforts to combat the international spread of ideas and narratives it deems to threaten PRC “core interests.” […] Concurrently, the PRC has exported censorship tools to other authoritarian states while also advancing its preferred vision of “cyber sovereignty,” actions that undermine existing U.S.-supported norms and accords that have heretofore facilitated the global free flow of information. [Source]

On a global level, the Chinese Party-state repurposes tactics of domestic censorship to pursue “international public opinion guidance,” often by “flooding the zone” on foreign social media platforms with content designed to hijack discussions on sensitive topics, according to the report. But while China’s censorship practices extend beyond its borders, they have also been enhanced by foreign actors. U.S. firms such as Apple have a long history of bowing to pressure from Chinese authorities. As Didi Kirsten Tatlow highlighted in Newsweek, the report described how U.S. companies are facilitating the development of China’s censorship system:

U.S. companies are helping the party grow its censorship system, the authors said, while noting that there was only limited evidence to suggest that any such help from U.S. firms was deliberate.

“The PRC is devoting considerable resources toward the development and fielding of advanced AI and big data analysis technologies for online content monitoring,” they said.

“Crucially, many of these AI-enabled “public opinion guidance” tools rely on off-the-shelf components imported from the United States, such as general processing units (GPUs) and cloud computing infrastructure,” the authors write, adding, “Chinese firms that produce censorship and surveillance technology have allegedly instrumentalized partnerships with companies such as Google and IBM to refine and improve their products.”

[…] While some U.S. firms are only indirectly implicated, “in many cases, foreign companies working in China deliberately conceal their connections to China’s security services, which complicates due diligence to avoid contributing to the PRC’s censorship apparatus,” the authors warned. [Source]

At The Register, Laura Dobberstein focused on some of the report’s assessments of the limitations of China’s censorship apparatus, notably its uneven development and insufficient funding, which overburdens human censors:

A lack of skilled staff is another problem, and as a consequence the organizations that implement censorship sometimes use part-time workers or volunteers.

The report suggests inefficiencies lead to gaps in censorship that undermine Chinese authorities’ ability to control information in local jurisdictions – and can even contribute to social unrest.

Even when censorship at the local level can be accomplished, it’s undermined by human error and mismanagement. Some regions have been criticized for being overly reactive and likely to exacerbate public opinion crises. One such example occurred during the 2022 COVID anti-lockdown protests.

But even though resources remain uneven – propaganda orgs can have annual budgets anywhere between 10 million and 50 million renminbi ($1.4 million to $9.5 million) and can have ten employees or 50 – they are all expected to have the same functions and achieve the same results.

The result is that in less funded and more rural areas, those responsible for censorship are, frankly, overworked. [Source]

Some of these issues stem from the decentralized features of China’s censorship apparatus. Censorship is overseen jointly by the Central Propaganda Department, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the Ministry of Public Security, and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. As the report states, “day-to-day online content management is not enacted directly by the Party-state but rather is undertaken proactively by publishers, internet service providers (ISPs), website owners, and mobile application platforms seeking to avoid incurring penalties.” By assigning legal liability to these actors, the Party-state has driven them to “maintain their own network content management systems or subcontract that work to third-party moderators” in order to censor content on their platforms. In Foreign Policy, Minxin Pei explained other ways that the Party-state distributes responsibility to different actors in controlling the Chinese internet:

Local outlets of the Cyberspace Affairs Commission—which I’ll refer to as “cyber agencies”—lack the workforce and technological capabilities to conduct sophisticated surveillance. Instead, their main tasks are routine censorship and promulgating disinformation. For instance, the municipal cyber agency of the city of Longnan, with just under 3 million people, reported that, by the late 2010s, it used big data and cloud computing to monitor online public opinion; in 2019, the agency monitored 515,000 pieces of online information about Longnan, 8,000 of which were deemed to be negative. Local cyber agencies also recruit internet commentators to conduct online campaigns to manipulate public opinion and spread disinformation.

Cyber police units, on the other hand, take charge of enforcement and surveillance. Cyber police were first organized in public security bureaus, or PSBs, throughout China in the early 2000s. The city of Yanan’s cyber police unit has reported that its main missions include “monitoring and controlling harmful information; collecting, analyzing, and reporting developments on the internet; enforcing regulations on internet cafes; and investigating and dealing with cybercrimes.” The cyber police units in local PSBs are relatively small even though they perform such duties. A typical county cyber police unit has about five to six officers.

[… I]t appears that cyber agencies determine which content to delete and block and then instruct police to execute it. The cyber police unit of the city of Ergun’s municipal PSB, for example, has stated that it is responsible for “organizing and implementing the ‘routine work’ of Ergun’s cyber agency.” (“Routine work” almost certainly refers to censoring online content.) Reports of cyber police taking bribes from businesspeople to delete critical posts also indicate that cyber police are tasked with enforcement. And when cyber agencies discover online materials requiring investigation, they alert the cyber police. [Source]

Some of these censorship-related actors are not visibly linked to the state. Referencing Minxin Pei’s latest book, “The Sentinel State: Surveillance and the Survival of Dictatorship in China,” The Economist recently highlighted the important role of local informants in helping the state stifle dissent:

Mr Pei suggests that gadgets cannot explain China’s success in suppressing dissent. That, he argues, is mostly explained by overlapping networks of thoroughly analogue human beings. Most of these are not full-time spooks. 

[…] All of that involves a second pillar of the surveillance state: informants. Mr Pei quotes documents in which city governments and police districts boast of recruiting express couriers, shopkeepers, security guards, hotel clerks and building managers as informants. Xi’an, a western city, once reported one in 12 city taxi drivers working for police. Universities report that foreign faculty and Uyghur students are under close watch, thanks to students recruited to spy on teachers and classmates alike. Millions more party members and community volunteers are asked to report suspicious acts as well as colleagues and neighbours unhappy with the authorities. The system fights crime and defends the party’s monopoly on power: no clear line separates these two tasks.

This complexity suits the party. It has eyes and ears everywhere, while avoiding a stand-alone Chinese KGB or Stasi that might alarm the public or grow too mighty to control. China’s surveillance state, it turns out, is hiding in plain sight. [Source]

However, not everyone involved with China’s censorship apparatus conforms to its ideological tenets. Those working inside Chinese digital media publications, such as Natalie Xu, described a “chilling” and “Orwellian atmosphere” when editors would often share censorship instructions from the CAC. (Xu recently wrote about the logic behind inconsistent censorship of feminist issues in China, in a piece for the Index on Censorship.) And censors themselves have criticized the “evil” nature of their work and “wish[ed] this censorship system would be abandoned soon.”

In related news, covered by Erin Hale in Al Jazeera, Google recently confirmed that its internet archiving feature has been retired, to the ire of China researchers battling censorship:

Late last year, Google began quietly removing links to cached pages from its search results, a function that had allowed Internet users to view old versions of web pages.

Danny Sullivan, Google’s public liaison for search, confirmed earlier this month that the function had been discontinued.

[…] Academics, journalists and others used cached pages to view past incarnations of websites and deleted content – a particularly useful tool for China’s internet, which Beijing carefully edits to avoid embarrassment and ward off potential dissent.

“The loss of the Google cache function will be a blow to China researchers who have long leaned on this function to preserve access to information that may later be removed, particularly in research citations,” Kendra Schaefer, the head of tech policy research at Trivium China, told Al Jazeera. [Source]


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