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Summer 2018 Vol. 38 - No. 189 Impact of New Media on the Church in China



Internet Censorship and Civil Society


Mary Yuen


        China owns the world's largest online citizenry or so-called“netizens”—about 731 million strong in December 2016, with most of them using smart phone (about 95 percent), according to the official China Internet Network Information Centre. As in the rest of the world, young people account for a majority of internet users. About 53 percent of netizens are between the ages of 20 to 39.[1]

        The invention of the internet and smart phones has affected people's daily lives tremendously, especially those living in urban areas. 72.6 percent of netizens in mainland China reside in cities in 2016. Many internet users see the internet as a global community without borders, a space for communication, free exchange of ideas and dissemination of news, sharing opinions and experiences. There are also many others who think that the internet brings entertainment and makes shopping much more convenient. It is a chance to expand mobile e-commerce and increase the market of online shopping.

        According to E.B. Weiser who studied the reasons for why people use the internet, there are basically two empirically robust dimensions of internet use. They were labeled Socio-Affective Regulation (SAR) and Goods-and-Information Acquisition (GIA). SAR may be conceptualised as a social or an affiliative orientation toward internet use, whereas GIA may be conceptualised as a utilitarian or practical orientation toward internet use.[2] These two dimensions also reflect the general functions of the internet in China.

        As Pope Francis stated in his message for the 50th World Day of Social Communications, communication, wherever and however it takes place, has opened up broader horizons for many people. He said, the internet, text messages and social networks are indeed“a gift from God.” Meanwhile, he also emphasised that the internet also imposes a great responsibility for the users.

        It is true that making good use of the internet can widen the horizons of people, especially for those who live in places with political restrictions and tight social control, such as mainland China. Through the internet, mainland Chinese can connect to the outside world and even learn news of China that they are unable to reach in their own country. That is also one of the reasons why the Chinese government has increased its efforts to censor information on social media and websites, and tighten control of mobile internet service for political or security reasons. Undeniably, it is reasonable to regulate and monitor the internet, especially to deter fake news and cheating crimes through social media. However, regulation must be proportional and appropriate. It cannot be used exclusively as a tool of suppression.

The Worst Abuser of Internet Freedom in the World

        During his opening speech at the 19th Communist Party's National Congress, Chinese President Xi Jinping emphasised that China supports an open economy and it will further liberalise its markets to foreign investors. While the leadership talks of financial liberalisation, it is ironic to see that political life and digital communication inside China are much less free.

        According to the Freedom on the Net report (2017) published by Freedom House, China was the worst abuser of internet freedom around the world for the third consecutive year, followed by Syria and Ethiopia.[3] Methods that have been used to restrict internet freedom in the past year include: employ people to monitor and censor websites or posts on the internet in order to delete distorted information; impose administrative penalty and legal punishment to those who read or disseminate illegal news or information; affect opinions on the cyber world through hiring commentators; suppressed dissent, censored target mobile connectivity, restricted live video, technical attack against news outlets and rights defenders; new restrictions on virtual private networks (VPNs), increasing physical attacks against internet users and online journalists; required users to register to online forums with their real names; and introduced laws that hold chat group administrators accountable for what is said in their spaces.

Cyberspace Sovereignty as a Top Priority

        Since Chinese President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, many signs show that censorship of all forms of media has tightened. “Cyberspace sovereignty” has became a top policy goal of his administration. In 2014, the Central Leading Group for Internet Security and Informatisation was founded to oversee the internet security issue. Members of the group, chaired by President Xi himself, include top cadres from the State Council, the nation’s chief administrative authority, and party ideology organs. Xi once said: “Cybersecurity affects state security and social stability. It's an important strategic issue of mobilising people.” He also affirmed that there will be no national security without cyber security. There will be no modernisation without digitisation.[4] In the Beijing-sponsored World Internet Conference held in Zhejiang province in December 2014, Xi called on countries to respect one another's "cyber sovereignty" and different internet governance models. He said that countries had the right to choose how to develop and regulate their internet.[5]

        In June 2015, the National People's Congress, China’s top law-making body, published a draft of the country's first cyber security law, which put great emphasis on state security. Law enforcement personnel will be authorised to cut access to the internet during times of social unrest. State security authorities will also have legal grounds to obtain information from telecom carriers. It is obvious that Beijing has expanded the realms of internet security beyond simply fighting the illegal collection of personal information online, internet fraud and the use of the internet for terrorism.

        Even before the draft of the law, according to the Southern Weekly, hundreds of internet users were punished and some detained for disseminating“rumours”on the internet in a nationwide crackdown on online rumours launched in the summer of 2013. Several influential online bloggers were convicted on various charges, including“picking quarrels and provoking trouble,”which effectively silenced others. Moreover, websites of U.S. social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram were blocked.

Crackdown Intensified Before the 19th National Congress

        Tightening controls and censorship over the domestic internet, very often, is more serious during major events, such as the National Congress of the Communist Party of China. The government employs large number of people to monitor and censor China’s media. They are responsible for reviewing internet posts using keyword searches and compiling reports for decision makers. Restrictions include publicly announced moves introduced by regulatory bodies and special measures that aimed at creating a stable online environment. However, online censorship of China’s 19th National Congress began even a year in advance of the congress, according to a study conducted by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab. The study found that keyword filtering or surveillance was far-reaching, including even positive national slogans such as“China's dream”and“socialism with Chinese characteristics.” This reflects a new level of forethought by Chinese censors.[6]

        Besides, legal changes were incorporated into the new cyber security law adopted in November 2016. The legislation, most of which took effect in June 2017, continued a trend of escalating requirements on internet companies to register their users’ real names, among other provisions.[7] It requires app providers to keep user logs for 60 days to reduce the spread of “illegal information,” and ordered news websites to “clean up” comment sections to purge views prohibited by the government, especially on sensitive topics. The cyber security law also requires foreign companies to store data on Chinese users within China by 2018, and many—including Uber, Evernote, LinkedIn, Apple, and AirBnb—have started to comply.

        Moreover, there are new regulations to license digital tools like VPNs (virtual private networks) that are used to circumvent website blocking by the centralised censorship apparatus known as the Great Firewall. Other new restrictions targeted citizen journalism, and several provisions sought to prevent websites from republishing “unverified” news from social media. Sites that are not licensed cannot provide any online news and information services. The government also shuts down online video services of three Chinese media sites and 12 life-streaming mobile apps, and hands out administrative punishments to another 20.[8] This is an effort to clean up domestic internet content. It is to make sure that all internet traffic that traverses China's internet infrastructure can be controlled and monitored.

        Even worse, government critics received sentences of up to 11 years in prison for publishing articles on overseas websites. Such penalties have occurred from time to time. However, the death of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo due to liver cancer while in custody in July 2017 reminded us the high price that people have to pay for expressing their opinions on the internet.[9]

        These rules created a great impact on civil society. A number of notable domestic websites were closed down during the past year. Some website operators in the civil society sector were arrested, including Huang Qi, founder of the human rights website 64 Tianwang, who was detained in December 2016 and later charged with providing state secrets to foreigners. The influential intellectual website Consensus, 21ccom.net, was closed down for“transmitting incorrect ideas.”[10] Dissidents and members of ethnic or religious minority groups received the heaviest penalties for online speech, but ordinary internet users also felt the impact of increasing restrictions. Multiple administrative detentions were used to punish individuals whose posts challenged local or national officials, even in closed messaging groups.[11]

        All these strategies are to avoid potential subversion of the authority of the Chinese government, in the name of exposing state secrets and endangering the country. However, the price is to sacrifice citizens’ freedom of speech and press, and even personal safety.

Media for Development, Justice and Peace

        For the Catholic Church, there is a two-fold aim in regard to the media. One aspect is to encourage their right development and right use for the sake of human development, justice, and peace—for the building of society at the local, national, and community levels in light of the common good and in a spirit of solidarity. Thus, the Church seeks honest and respectful dialogue with those responsible for the communications media—a dialogue that relates primarily to the shaping of media policy. In this way, it becomes possible for the Church to offer meaningful proposals for removing obstacles to human progress and the proclamation of the Gospel. Besides, the Church's concern also relates to communication in and by the Church herself. Communication is of the essence of the Church. The Church's practice of communication should be exemplary, reflecting the highest standards of truthfulness, accountability, sensitivity to human rights, and other relevant principles and norms.[12]

        Therefore, the internet should be used as a means to promote communication and human development rather than a tool to regulate people's ideas and thought. The internet should never be twisted as an instrument to persecute those who advocate for environmental protection, anti-corruption, social equality, rights of the marginalised, and so on through disseminating information.

        In recent years, in mainland China, we can see that the internet really helps to disseminate news and information among people, though there are incorrect and fake news that need to be alerted. People employ various ways to express their creativity, to pursue the well-being of people and common good through disclosing hidden news and sharing values. They express their viewpoints and mobilise other people to care for the vulnerable and needy of society, such as during natural disasters and the eviction of migrants in Beijing at the end of last year.

        In mainland China, some influential websites were created. News and comments from members of the universal Church can be shared. In recent years, mobile phone and other devices are popular. Members of the Catholic community also disseminate information through social media, weixin and chat groups which can facilitate communication. However, some religious websites and bloggers were banned by the government. Certain posts were censored, especially those related to the underground church. Some websites' owners or authors were even accused of creating troubles. In view of this, apart from internet users, the Chinese government should also shoulder its responsibility of promoting human development and authentic communication. It should not restrict communication and the sharing of values.

        
Endnote :

  1. Baiyang,“zhongguo wangmin yi da 7.31 Y?, 2016 nian hulianwang de zui quan fenxi zai zhel?,” ifeng.com (22 January, 2017). 白楊,〈中國網民已達7.31億,2016年互聯網的最全分析在這裡〉,鳳凰網,2017年1月22日,  http://tech.ifeng.com/a/20170122/44535194_0.shtml.
  2. E.B. Weiser,“The Functions of Internet Use and Their Social and Psychological Consequences,” Cyberpsychology and Behavior 4.6 (Dec 2001): 723-43,
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11800180.
  3. Freedom House, “Freedom on the Net 2017,”
    https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/freedom-net-2017.
  4. “Establishment of the Leadership Group on the Central Internet Security and Information, Xi Jinping as Leader,”Jingwah shibao, 28 February, 2014, in People.com (http://media.people.com.cn/BIG5/n/2014/0228/c40606-24488129.html).
  5. Jun Mai, “China uses Velvet Glove on Iron Fist as it goes on the Offensive over Internet Security,” South China Morning Post, 17 December, 2015,
    http://www.scmp.com/news/china/policies-politics/article/1892376/china-uses-velvet-glove-iron-fist-it-goes-offensive.
  6. Alyssa Abkowitz,“China's Censors Stepped Up Surveillance a Year before Party Congress, Study Finds,” The Wall Street Journal, 6 Nov., 2017,
    https://www.wsj.com/articles/chinas-censors-stepped-up-surveillance-a-year-before-party-congress-study-finds-1509976803.
  7. Cybersecurity Law of the People's Republic of China,
    http://www.lawinfochina.com/display.aspx?id=22826&lib=law.
  8. Cheang Ming and Saheli Roy Choudhury, “China has launched another crackdown on the internet,” CNBC, 26 Oct 2017,
    https://www.cnbc.com/2017/10/26/china-internet-censorship-new-crackdowns-and-rules-are-here-to-stay.html.
  9. Liu was imprisoned for advocating political reform and freedom of speech in Charter 08. Censors blocked the news of Liu in China.
  10. Human Rights Watch World Report 2017 (China),
    https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2017/country-chapters/china-and-tibet#eaa21f.
  11. Freedom House, “Freedom on the Net 2017: China,”
    https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/2017/china.
  12. Pontifical Council for Social Communications, “The Church and Internet,” no.3.


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