promoting access for the purposes of economic advancement on the one hand, while attempting to secure control over content, especially political communication, on the other.1 The Chinese authorities thus maintain a sophisticated and multilayered system for censoring, monitoring, and manipulating activities on the internet and mobile phones. This system has been enhanced, institutionalized, and decentralized in recent years, while the ability of citizens to communicate anonymously has been further constrained. Rights campaigners and some ordinary users continue to face prison time for their internet-related activities. Taken together, these controls have contributed to the Chinese internet increasingly resembling an intranet. Many average users, isolated from international social media platforms and primarily exposed to a manipulated online information landscape, may have limited knowledge of key events related to their own country, even when these make headlines around the world.
The Chinese public was first granted access to the internet in 1996, and the number of users has grown exponentially, from 20 million in 2001 to over 400 million2 in 2010.
Lena L. Zhang, “Behind the ‘Great Firewall’: Decoding China’s Internet media policies from the inside,” The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, Volume 12(3), 2006, 271-291.
Tang Liang, “Guan Zhu Bo Ke De Zhen Mian Ying Dao Zuo Yong” [Pay Attention to the Positive Effect of Blogging], CNNIC, July 22, 2010, http://research.cnnic.cn/html/1279785162d2372.html (in Chinese).
CHINA FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net Since it was first introduced, however, the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has consistently sought to assert its authority over the new medium. The underlying system of infrastructural control and filtering technology has been more or less complete since 2003,while more sophisticated forms of censorship and manipulation—particularly those targeting user-generated content—have gained prominence only recently. Nevertheless, due to the egalitarian nature and technical flexibility of the internet, the online environment remains freer and Chinese citizens more empowered than what is possible in the traditional media sector. The country’s growing community of bloggers, online commentators, and human rights defenders has played an increasingly prominent role in uncovering official corruption, exposing rights abuses, and mobilizing citizens to protest against censorship itself.
OBSTACLES TO ACCESS While the role and presence of information and communication technologies (ICTs) has continued to grow rapidly in recent years, users still face key obstacles to full and free access. These include centralized control over international gateways, more permanent blocks on international applications like the Facebook social-networking site and the Twitter microblogging service, and a complete shutdown of internet access in the western region of Xinjiang for several months in 2009 and 2010.
The government-linked China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) reported in December 2010 that there were a total of 446 million users in the country (this number is an estimation based on previous annual surveys), an increase of over 126 million since the end of 2008.4 Given the country’s large population and uneven pattern of economic development, however, the overall penetration rate remains just 33.4 percent, slightly higher than the global average.5 Moreover, the average penetration rate in urban areas (72.6 percent) is over 40 points higher than that in rural areas (27.4 percent); in 2007, the gap was approximately 20 percentage points, suggesting a widening divide.6 While most users access the internet from home or work, an estimated 33.6 percent use cybercafes.The vast majority of internet connections are via broadband rather than dial-up,8 although Zhang Jing, “Wang Luo Shen Cha Xi Tong Yan Zhi Chen Gong, Fan Dong Xin Xi Zi Dong Guo Lv” [Internet Monitor System Auto-Filters Reactionary Messages], (Jing Hua Daily, February 26, 2003, http://www.people.com.cn/GB/it/53/142/20030226/931430.html (in Chinese).
CNNIC, Information and Updates on the Development of the Internet in China, Issue 61 (Beijing: CNNIC, 2010), http://research.cnnic.cn/img/h000/h12/attach201012061454440.pdf (in Chinese).
CNNIC, 2009 Report on the Development of the Internet in Rural Areas (Beijing: CNNIC, 2010), http://www.cnnic.cn/html/Dir/2010/04/15/5810.htm (in Chinese).
CNNIC, The 26th Report on the Development of the Internet in China (Beijing: CNNIC, 2010), 22.
CNNIC, The 26th Report on the Development of the Internet in China, 11.
CHINA FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net access to international websites may be slow due to the burden placed on speed by the nationwide content filtering and monitoring system.9 Use of mobile phones has also spread quickly. According to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), there were 850.3 million mobile-phone users in China by November 2010, giving the country a penetration rate of over 62.5 percent and the world’s largest population of mobile users.Access to the internet via mobile phones is rapidly gaining popularity. By June 2010, million people used this service, more than double the figure from the previous year.11 All of these trends may be attributed in part to a gradual decrease in the cost of access and concerted government efforts to connect each township.
There is widespread access to internet technology and applications, such as videosharing websites, social-networking tools, and e-mail services, but extensive restrictions remain in place, particularly on systems whose providers are based outside the country.
Applications such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, and international blog-hosting services like WordPress and Blogspot, have been sporadically blocked in the periods surrounding politically sensitive events in recent years. However, since being cut off during the 20th anniversary of the June 4, 1989, military crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protest movement, they have remained blocked most of the time in China.12 Chinese equivalents—such as Kaixin001.com, Xiaonei.com, Tudou.com, and Youku.com—have emerged and attracted millions of users, but they are more susceptible to government control, and in 2009 some were also inaccessible surrounding sensitive dates.13 In the days ahead of June 4, 2009, applications including the microblogging platform Fanfou and the file-sharing platform VeryCD were put out of commission due to “technical maintenance.”In December 2010, MIIT issued new regulations banning phone calls from computers to land lines, except for those made over the state-owned networks of China Unicom and James Fallows, “The Connection has been Reset,” The Atlantic, March 2008, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/03/-ldquo-the-connection-has-been-reset-rdquo/6650/.
MIIT, “April 2010 Informational Technology Industry Monthly Report, [2010 Nian 11 Yue Tong Xin Ye Yun Xing Zhuang Kuang],” December 21, 2010, http://www.miit.gov.cn/n11293472/n11293832/n11294132/n12858447/13542227.html.
CNNIC, The 26th Report on the Development of the Internet in China, 12.
Tania Branigan, “Internet Censorship in China,” Guardian, January 14, 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/jan/14/internet-censorship-china; Rebecca MacKinnon, “China Blocks Twitter, Flickr, Bing, Hotmail, Windows Live, etc. Ahead of Tiananmen 20th Anniversary,” CircleID, June 2, 2009, http://www.circleid.com/posts/20090602_china_blocks_twitter_flickr_bing_hotmail_windows_live/; Google, “Mainland China Service Availability,” http://www.google.com/prc/report.html#hl=en, accessed July 22, 2010, Michael Wines and Andrew Jacobs, “To Shut Off Tiananmen Talk, China Disrupts Sites,” New York Times, June 2, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/03/world/asia/03china.html.
Tien Lo, “Guang Dian Zong Ju: Shi Ping Wang Zhan Guo You Hua Jin Zhen Due Xin Sheng Qi Ye” [State Administration of Radio Film and Television: Only New Privately-Owned Audiovisual Websites Will Be Nationalized], Beijing Business Today, February 5, 2008, http://tech.163.com/08/0205/02/43TG2FVB000915BF.html (in Chinese).
Alice Xin Liu, “Chinese Websites ‘Under Maintenance,’” Danwei, June 3, 2009, http://www.danwei.org/net_nanny_follies/chinese_websites_under_mainten.php; Sky Canaves, “Closed for Business: More Chinese Web Sites,” China Real Time Report, June 3, 2009, http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2009/06/03/closed-forbusiness-more-chinese-web-sites/.
CHINA FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net China Telecom. This fueled speculation that Skype could be blocked, though its Chinese partner TOM Online claimed that the company was continuing to operate as usual.In some instances, the government has shut down access to entire communications systems in response to specific events. The most dramatic such incident occurred in Xinjiang in the latter half of 2009. In July, following ethnic violence in the region’s capital, Urumqi, the authorities initiated a complete shutdown of internet services and restrictions on international calls and mobile-phone access. The move was part of a broader strategy aimed at preventing the spread of unofficial accounts of events in the region; 16 normal access was not restored until May 2010.Managers of sophisticated circumvention tools like Freegate and TOR reported greater government efforts to block access to them in June and September 2009. Also targeted for blocking were previously available free virtual private network (VPN) providers like Blacklogic.Internet access service, once monopolized by China Telecom, has been liberalized and decentralized, and users can now choose from among scores of private internet-service providers (ISPs). The government has been willing to liberalize the ISP market in part because of the centralization of the country’s connection to the international internet, which is controlled by six to eight state-run operators that maintain advanced international gateways in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou.19 This arrangement remains the primary infrastructural limitation on open internet access in the country, as all ISPs must subscribe via the gateway operators and obtain a license from the MIIT. The system essentially creates a national intranet and gives the authorities the ability to cut off any cross-border information requests that are deemed undesirable. Mobile-phone communication is dominated by three state-owned operators: China Mobile, China Telecom, and China Unicom. Under the oversight of the MIIT, connection to the internet via mobile phones is also monitored by the international gateway operators.
The authorities have sought to exercise fairly tight control over the cybercafe business. The issuance of cybercafe licenses is managed by the Ministry of Culture and its local departments, although to obtain a license, a proprietor typically must also Malcolm Moore, “China Makes Skype Illegal,” The Telegraph, December 30, 2010, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/internet/8231444/China-makes-Skype-illegal.html.
Michael Wines, “In Latest Upheaval, China Applies New Strategies to Control Flow of Information,” New York Times, July 6, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/07/world/asia/07beijing.html; Rebecca MacKinnon, “Google and Internet Control in China” (testimony, U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China, Washington, DC, March 24, 2010), http://www.cecc.gov/pages/hearings/2010/20100324/mackinnonTestimony.pdf.
Chris Hogg, “China Restores Xinjiang Internet,” British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), May 14, 2010, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/8682145.stm.
Owen Fletcher, “China Clamps Down on Internet Ahead of 60th Anniversary,” PCWorld, September 25, 2009, http://www.pcworld.com/article/172627/china_clamps_down_on_internet_ahead_of_60th_anniversary.html.
CNNIC, “Zhong Guo Hu Lian Wang Luo Fa Zhan Zhuang Kuang Tong Ji Diao Cha” [Statistical Reports on the Internet Development in China], list of documents: http://www.cnnic.cn/index/0E/00/11/index.htm (in Chinese); Actual document used: http://www.cnnic.cn/uploadfiles/doc/2009/1/13/92209.doc, accessed March 23, 2009.
CHINA FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net communicate with the Public Security Bureau, State Administration for Industry and Commerce, and other state entities.20 Beginning in March 2007, the Ministry of Culture indefinitely suspended the issuance of new licenses. However, reports in early indicated that a limited number of licenses for new cafes would be granted in some cities, such as Chongqing in Sichuan, Nanjing in Jiangsu, and Zengzhou in Henan.21 In Guangdong province, several licenses were reportedly issued, though these were primarily to cafes that are part of national chains, which are perceived by the government as easier to control than individual businesses.LIMITS ON CONTENT The Chinese authorities continue to employ the most elaborate system for internet content control in the world. Government agencies and private companies together employ hundreds of thousands of people to monitor, censor, and manipulate online content. In an indication of the scale of efforts to control online content, according to a top Chinese official, throughout 2010, some 60,000 websites containing “harmful materials” were forcibly shut down, and an estimated 350 million articles, photographs, and videos were deleted.23 In recent years, additional layers have been added to this apparatus, particularly as the CCP seeks to restrict the use of social-networking and similar applications for political mobilization. Even this heavily censored and manipulated online environment, however, provides more space for average citizens to express themselves and air their grievances against the state than any other medium in China.
The CCP’s content-control strategy consists of three primary techniques: automated technical filtering, forced self-censorship by service providers, and proactive manipulation.
The purported goal is to limit the spread of pornography, gambling, and other harmful practices, but web content related to sensitive political or social topics is usually targeted at “Yi Kan Jiu Mingbai Quan Cheng Tu Jie Wang Ba Pai Zhao Shen Qing Liu Cheng” [A look at an illustration of the whole course of the cybercafe license application process], Zol.com, http://detail.zol.com.cn/picture_index_100/index997401.shtml (in Chinese).