When it comes to free speech, China’s new boss is even worse than the old boss. China has routinely cracked down on anti-government speech during the days leading up to the June 4 anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square violence against pro-democracy protesters, but newly elected President Xi Jinping has responded to Internet growth with even stricter censorship and intimidation to silence dissent.
Former Chinese President Hu Jintao served between 2005 and 2013, during the rise of social media. Hu’s administration saw China build a vast online censorship system, often nicknamed “the Great Firewall of China.” But in response to the growing power of social media Xi has been more aggressive suppressing critics since becoming president in March 2013 by increasing intimidation and arrests, says Mi Ling Tsui , communications director for Human Rights in China, an advocacy group. Since mid-April at least 91 writers, activists and lawyers have been arrested or forced to travel away from Beijing as part of a “communications lockdown” to prevent activism ahead of the June 4 anniversary, she says.
“Xi’s administration is stricter all across the board on speech,” she says. “They specifically declare, ‘we have to clean up the Internet.’”
China censors keywords associated with the 1989 protests, and according to traffic reports from Google, the country apparently slows access to the site each year leading up to the June anniversary to restrict search and online speech. This year the government on Monday restricted access to Google search but also the company’s other services including Gmail, Calendar and Translate, China-based blog GreatFire.org reports.
Google does not operate in China because it refuses to comply with government censorship requests, but it redirects traffic from that country to Google Hong Kong where there are greater economic and speech freedoms, allowing the company to offer unfiltered search in simplified Chinese. In response to question about the disturbance in traffic a Google spokeswoman says “there are no technical problems on our side.”
Human Rights in China was initially hopeful that Xi Jinping would loosen government repression, Tsui says, because his father, former party official Xi Zhongxun, was jailed during the Cultural Revolution, an often violently purge of capitalism between 1966 and 1976. The president’s father also condemned the use of force against protesters during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
Instead Xi has used arrests and threats to make examples of government critics, says Sarah Cook, a senior research analyst for East Asia at Freedom House, an advocacy group. Internet users in China who knowingly make or share information considered defamatory or false by the government could face up to three years in jail, according to a law that took effect in 2013.
Chinese authorities made such an example of businessman Charles Xue Biqun last August when they arrested him on suspicion of soliciting prostitutes and pressured him to apologize on state TV for making anti-government posts to his 12 million followers on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter alternative. Sina Weibo itself was made an example of in April when the Xi administration stated it could have licenses revoked due to lewd content posted on its site, sending a warning to other Internet content providers to censor their services, Cook says.
As a result of its goal to maintain strict control of the Internet, and thus stifle criticism of corrupt business leaders or poor regulation, China scored the third worst worldwide in the 2013 Freedom on the Net report of nations that repress online free speech. It was bested by Iran and Cuba in the Freedom House rankings.
Domestic alternatives to Western free speech platforms have emerged to meet the Internet appetites of Chinese citizens, including Weibo and Baidu, which is a search alternative to Google. Iran has also sought domestic alternatives to Western websites to prop up its censorship regime, but China has been more successful despite its people’s growing appetite for online information, Cook says.
“Day to day these tech companies have struggled to deal with both customer requests and government requests,” she says.
This escalating crackdown on free speech under Xi ironically comes as China is poised to be the dominant global economy in the 2020s. China has 618 million Internet users, approximately 45.8 percent of its population, according to the latest record from the China Internet Network Information Center, a government nonprofit. By comparison, the Pew Research Center estimates nearly 267 million Americans, or 85 percent of the population, are regular Internet users.
While the Communist Party shows no sign of liberalizing free speech China’s economic growth might force its hand, Cook says. China’s growing middle class is becoming more savvy evading censors using proxy servers – network tools that allow access the global Internet while evading domestic surveillance – to bypass government firewalls, she says. As the Chinese economy grows, its growing consumer appetites for international goods, culture and free speech might eventually prove too strong for the government to control.
“Chinese people who are not political still get angry when China blocks programs like the ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ which it blocked in April,” Cook says. “They are becoming more and more innovative about sharing information. That’s become something very difficult for the Communist Party to suppress.”