A Grim Future for Chinese Web Freedom

The unexpected departure of China's censorship evangelist is unlikely to bring about more relaxed policies towards online speech.

TO GO WITH China-politics-Internet,FEATURE by Pascale Trouillaud  
This photo taken on May 11, 2011 shows a Chinese young woman surfing the net at an Internet bar in Beijing. China, which employs an army of censors to police the Internet, has also deployed legions of "web commentators" to get the government's message out -- in a crafty but effective way.     AFP PHOTO / GOU Yige (Photo credit should read GOU YIGE/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH China-politics-Internet,FEATURE by Pascale Trouillaud This photo taken on May 11, 2011 shows a Chinese young woman surfing the net at an Internet bar in Beijing. China, which employs an army of censors to police the Internet, has also deployed legions of "web commentators" to get the government's message out -- in a crafty but effective way. AFP PHOTO / GOU Yige (Photo credit should read GOU YIGE/AFP/Getty Images)

On June 29, state news agency Xinhua reported that Lu Wei, the often combative official known as China’s internet Czar, will step down. The unexpected announcement also named Lu’s successor, Xu Lin, a former deputy of Chinese leader Xi Jinping. The personnel change comes after several years of mounting web restrictions. The stakes are high. China has the largest number of internet users in the world, with 700 million and counting. It had also produced the world’s largest retailer, e-commerce giant Alibaba. Despite wide calls from business, policy, and human rights communities around the world, the ruling Communist Party has so far held fast to its goal of making the Chinese internet both controllable and profitable. In this ChinaFile conversation, experts reflect on changes in the internet space over the past year and on what the future may hold for the Chinese web. — The Editors

David Bandurksi, researcher at the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project:

If for no other reason, Lu will be missed for his unapologetic embrace of China’s internet control vision, and his capacity for hawking China’s authoritarian wares in language we can all understand. “The internet is like a car,” Lu said at the World Economic Forum’s 2014 Summer Davos in Tianjin. “If it has no brakes, it doesn’t matter how fast the car is capable of traveling, once it gets on the highway you can imagine what the end result will be. And so, no matter how advanced, all cars must have brakes.”

Accepting its flawed premise, who could argue with such a position? And of course, the position is China’s under Xi’s leadership — the idea that control, even high-handed control, is a necessary condition of freedom, one that we must all accept whether we live in Dalian or Denmark. Far from apologizing for China’s curbs on internet freedom, or feeling bound to global norms or values, Lu articulated a new vision of what amount to a vibrant splinternet — separate national gardens of cyber innovation and brilliance where no one dares eat the fruit of knowledge. China’s market, he told us, was “Ali Baba’s treasure cave for humankind,” full of riches for foreign internet companies so long as they agreed to play by China’s rules. “China has always been warm and hospitable, but I have a choice about who comes to be a guest at my home,” he said when asked at an Oct. 30 press conference why Facebook was blocked in China. “I can say that, I have no way of changing you, but I have a right to choose my friends. I hope all those who come to China are friends, true friends.”

In a sense, Lu might be remembered as the man who scissored the internet as a global medium into a patchwork quilt of national internets, breathing life into China’s cold vision of cyber-sovereignty — what it now calls the “socialism with Chinese characteristics internet management path.”

“We live in a common online space,” Lu told foreign dignitaries at a Spring Festival banquet last year. “This online space is made up of the internets of various countries, and each country has its own independent and autonomous interest in internet sovereignty, internet security and internet development. Only through my own proper management of my own internet, and your proper management of your own internet . . . can the online space be truly safe, more orderly, and more beautiful.”

David Wertime, co-founder of Foreign Policy magazine’s China channel Tea Leaf Nation:

Lu surely presided over a period of internet repression sufficiently effective to surprise and astonish Western experts and web evangelists who felt that the web’s decentralized architecture automatically militated against central control. And there’s no question Beijing has become increasingly savvy about wielding the tools of social media both to project its voice and to stifle others. But let’s remember that Lu’s signal accomplishment — at least, as Xi would likely define it — is Lu’s use of fear and violence to quell public opinion, not his eloquence or his technical savvy.

Before Xi took power (and shortly thereafter, appointed Lu), the Hu Jintao administration had been trying, and utterly failing, to control social media’s emergence as a social force. During the early years of Weibo’s rise in 2010 and 2011, well before Lu assumed the (newly created) post of web czar, the Party mostly dealt with social media by deleting comments en masse and pushing through a real-name registration regime apparently intended to remind particularly voluble bloggers that Beijing knew who they were. None of that was enough. Beijing’s oblique signals of paternal displeasure were insufficient to check opinion-makers who craved the sense of community that social media provided, and who perhaps felt a bit invincible in a seemingly consequence-free environment where the biggest penalty was usually post or account deletion. (Hence, now, the use of the derogatory term “jianpan xia,” or “keyboard heroes,” for some online liberalists.)

Lu’s chief insight, if it can charitably be called that, was that the communal ties between and among China’s “keyboard heroes” and “big Vs,” meaning influential Weibo bloggers, ultimately were no match for the state’s monopoly on violence. Starting in August 2013, after Lu organized an in-person sit-down with several big Vs, the Party began a campaign of arrest, detention, and prosecution directed at several influential micro-bloggers. Their backgrounds, like the charges against them, were diverse, with online hyperactivity the common red thread. Some of the targets were marched on television and made to confess, then thrown in prison. New rules made explicit that criminal prosecution would attend widely shared or read opinions posted contrary to the party line.

And with that, as so often happens, violence trumped the word. Weibo rapidly began to shed its social influence as a public square, mostly in favor of WeChat, a mobile app that encourages far more siloed conversations. Beijing began to fill the resultant void with social media-friendly content of its own, and the tenor of nationwide discussion became more tinny and synthetic.

Lu has since advanced a number of folksy similes to describe one of the most important and powerful inventions in human history. The internet is a country with borders; or a house with guests; or a car that needs brakes. Whatever. Lu and Xi simply did what their predecessors were either unwilling or too disorganized to do: they consciously marshaled the machinery of violence against the online world. Web users in China now well know they risk their livelihoods and perhaps their physical freedom if they use the social internet to shape opinions that Beijing disfavors. The threat they face is corporeal and real. That is enough.

Jeremy Goldkorn, founder and director of research firm Danwei, and co-host of the Sinica podcast:
Lu has a backpfeifengesicht or “a face crying out for a slapping” — a German word recently popularized in America as a descriptor for U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump. With any luck, we’ll see less of Lu’s oleaginous visage in the news media from now on. But aside from that, where’s China’s internet headed after Lu departs his helmsman’s seat at the Cyberspace Administration of China? Same place it’s been headed for quite some time: It will remain a dynamic marketplace of ambitious entrepreneurs and world class engineers, used by hundreds of millions of digitally engaged citizens for a million purposes.

China’s internet also will continue to be censored, controlled, and restricted. Limits on free speech, activism, and anything the government does not like will get stricter and stricter, while the government funnels ever fatter budgets into increasingly slick propaganda.

AFP/Getty Images

David Bandurski is a researcher at the University of Hong Kong's China Media Project.

David Wertime is a senior editor at Foreign Policy, where he manages its China section, Tea Leaf Nation. In 2011, he co-founded Tea Leaf Nation as a private company translating and analyzing Chinese social media, which the FP Group acquired in September 2013. David has since created two new miniseries and launched FP’s Chinese-language service. His culture-bridging work has been profiled in books including The Athena Doctrine and Digital Cosmopolitans and magazines including Psychology Today. David frequently discusses China on television and radio and has testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. In his spare time, David is an avid marathon runner, a kitchen volunteer at So Others Might Eat, and an expert mentor at 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based incubator and seed fund. Originally from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, David is a proud returned Peace Corps volunteer. He holds an English degree from Yale University and a law degree from Harvard University.

Jeremy Goldkorn is the founder and director of Danwei.