China's Newest Export: Internet Censorship

China is teaching other countries how to control the Internet.


Computer users sit near a display with a message from the Chinese police on the proper use of the internet.

By + More

Iran's Ministry of Communications and Information Technology has announced that China will help Iran to implement its closed "National Information Network" or "clean Internet." This announcement follows meetings between Iran's head of Internet and communications technology Nasrollah Jahangard and officials from China's Information Council earlier this month.

Praising China for its "four decades of good experiences in the application development services for information technology," Jahangard said. "We hope to use these experiences." Jahangard added that Iran welcomes "the activities of the strong Chinese Internet companies to implement and enforce the National Information Network in Iran," and expressed hope that "Chinese companies would strengthen their presence in Iran."

For advocates of global Internet freedom, this is international cooperation of the worst kind imaginable.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Iran.]

Iran already exercises strict Internet control, including censoring and filtering websites, limiting Internet speed, surveillance of Internet users and state-sponsored hacking. Unsatisfied even with this level of control over Internet use, however, Iran seeks to implement its own closed "national Internet" or "clean Internet." Such a system already exists in North Korea, almost certainly developed with Chinese help given North Korea's dependence on China.

The Chinese government has also sought to extend the reach of Chinese censorship beyond China's borders. As detailed in a recent report by the Center for International Media Assistance, Chinese efforts to restrict international media coverage of China have included political and economic pressure on foreign news organizations, harassment of foreign journalists in China and cyber-attacks on foreign news websites. Chinese authorities have also used "threats, intimidation and disruption" to interfere with literary and film festivals abroad featuring Chinese dissident authors and filmmakers.

Beyond protecting itself from criticism, China appears to see an interest for itself — including a profit interest — in exporting Chinese censorship technology to other countries. In 2013 it was revealed that a pornography filtering system promoted by the British government was controlled by Chinese telecommunications company Huawei, raising security concerns as well as concerns of Chinese-style censorship being imposed on British internet users. Huawei's founder is a former People's Liberation Army officer with close ties to the Chinese government. China's assistance to Iran's Internet censors and its Internet presence in Iran will certainly also be profitable for firms with Chinese government ties.

China's rulers may also see a political interest for themselves in promoting censorship internationally. The events of the Arab Spring terrified Chinese leaders, who feared that unrest in the Middle East might "infect China," and who certainly noted the important role played by the Internet and social media in those events. "The Arab Spring reaffirmed the importance of controlling the media" for Chinese leaders, according to Zachary Keck at The Diplomat, and "demonstrated the value of imposing an international media blackout."

[See a collection of political cartoons on Chinese hacking.]

China also seeks to project Chinese influence and to counter U.S. and Western influence in countries it deems important to China's interests. Iran, given its geopolitical position, would very likely be a country in which China would see an interest for itself in promoting information control. Neither a free press nor a free Internet anywhere in the world appears to be in China's interests.

Combating Internet censorship in countries like China and Iran has been identified as an important foreign policy goal for United States. The Congressional Research Service published detailed reports on this matter in 2010 and 2012. In 2010 a group of five U.S. senators publicly urged the State Department to step up support of organizations working to help users in those countries circumvent Internet restrictions. In 2013 the Broadcasting Board of Governors published an anti-censorship fact sheet outlining various tools for circumventing internet censorship, and Freedom House published a report on methods of internet control used by the Chinese government and a review of censorship circumvention tools available to users in China and other countries.

China has assumed a global role for itself as an opponent of media and Internet freedom and as an exporter of Chinese censorship. America should set the opposite example, both at home and abroad, and should strongly and sincerely promote freedom of information and freedom from government surveillance.

Mark C. Eades is a writer for the Foreign Policy Association and an educator based in Shanghai. You can follow him on Twitter: @mceades.