Tea Leaf Nation
Sorry, China, the Internet You’re Looking for Does Not Exist
The government must loosen its stranglehold on the web to truly enter the 21st century.
The long arm of China’s massive internal security apparatus just reached further into the heart of the country’s web. On Aug. 4, China’s Ministry of Public Security announced that it would embed law enforcement officers at major Internet companies, which appear to include China Mobile, U.S.-listed Alibaba, and Tencent, which owns WeChat, the country’s largest social network. The online press release did not specify a time frame, but emphasized that creating rooms for “web police” in each company’s offices would aid the timely discovery and prevention of evils like terrorism, fraud, the theft of personal information, and, of course, “rumors,” meaning whatever the government decides is a speech crime. In a paternalistic flourish, the ministry reminded companies they must be “a model of self discipline in the industry,” and refrain from publishing “vulgar [or] harmful information.”
It’s yet another brick in the ever-higher, ever-longer wall that Chinese authorities are building in the name of stability, one that simultaneously pulls its citizens away from one another and isolates them from citizens elsewhere in the world. That doesn’t just augur ill for China’s economy, which the government recognizes needs a wave of innovation to create jobs and juice flagging internal consumption. The result will ultimately hamper the country’s ability to participate in global civic life, to be understood abroad, and to facilitate meaningful and fruitful connections among its own, increasingly diverse and individualistic citizenry.
The latest announcement is one part of a broad crackdown on the Chinese Internet, now entering its second year in earnest, one that has injected fear and doubt into virtually every corner of the country’s web. Major offensives against online speech during that time include a Sept. 2013 judicial interpretation vastly extending defamation law to online “rumors” with more than 5,000 views or 500 retweets, and the blocking of, or cyberattacks on, many significant Western platforms used by Chinese, including Instagram, Gmail, and GitHub. Those who “internationalize” domestic problems by doing things like running a blog about internal ethnic tensions have been severely punished. It’s also become ever more dangerous to communicate internally; a July crackdown on rights lawyers that has so far led to the questioning, detention, summoning, or arrest of 288 people was rooted in a massively expanded definition of cybercrime, with a People’s Daily article primarily accusing the suspects of “hype” and “creating a disturbance,” partly for using social media to try to rally citizens to support their clients. The result is a new class of ill-defined media crimes — created mostly from the ether — that include “hype,” “rumors,” and “causing trouble” in digital spaces.
Putting aside the rightness of this approach or its implications for the rest of the world, the problem for China is that its authorities have criminalized behaviors that are not just normal for digital citizens, but practically required by the nature of the modern Internet. From a technical perspective, it is nearly impossible not to “internationalize” something posted online. Neither can web users control the number of views or shares a post receives, or the degree of local, national, or international media pickup a post or online campaign receives. This means almost all conduct on the Internet can be potentially deemed illegal in China, as the authorities will it — even as the Internet becomes more deeply embedded in the everyday lives of an increasingly large number of Chinese citizens, and even as China’s government avowedly targets e-commerce and online innovation as a major future driver of economic growth.
China’s government says it wants to harness the power of the Internet to move its economy firmly into the 21st century. But it cannot have it both ways. By casting a pall over what should be a dynamic space, China risks creating a generation of youth ill-equipped to deal with the realities of international digital existence. They will lack crucial access to information and tools that allow them to participate in global professional and civic life. Significantly to China’s government — which bemoans the lack of mutual understanding between China and other nations while actively working to frustrate it — the country’s youth will also find themselves unable to act as digital ambassadors able to explain the Chinese perspective to the rest of the world.
In my work, which sources online sentiment and involves the voices of young Chinese eager to be heard internationally, I have seen firsthand the effects of these misguided policies. A once-vibrant digital public square powered by social media has been largely emptied out — although users still occasionally stream in from the sidelines to comment on major news events. Young Chinese are increasingly fearful of sharing even relatively innocuous information or opinions with the West, or each other. An ongoing Foreign Policy survey of Chinese students in the United States, the results of which will be published early this academic year, shows that the vast majority of several dozen respondents think Internet censorship has affected their lives — at last count, 47.5 percent said it did “somewhat,” and 44 percent said it did “a lot.”
In effect, China’s government is revoking the international digital passports that the Internet naturally confers on its participants. The effects of this decision on a generation of youth — one largely silent on this topic, for obvious reasons — won’t be seen immediately. But in the long run, they are likely to hamper China’s ability to grow into a prosperous and truly modern country.
It’s not too late for China to change course. The country has done much good work in pushing the benefits of the Internet out to an increasing number of citizens. Just last year, 31 million more people came online for the first time, raising the total number of Chinese netizens to 649 million. China’s State Council plans to have invested $323 billion in broadband infrastructure by 2020. While much work remains, those gains aren’t going away. But at the very least, China should provide its growing ranks of netizens with clearer definitions of what’s legal and what isn’t. If every piece of online speech is potentially an act of legal trespass, users will attempt to seek safe harbor by staying silent, and staying home.
Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images