The long read: Before Xi Jinping, the internet was becoming a more vibrant political space for Chinese citizens. But today the country has the largest and most sophisticated online censorship operation in the world
In December 2015, thousands of tech entrepreneurs and analysts, along with a fewinternational heads of state, gathered in Wuzhen, in southern China, for the countrys second World Internet Conference. At the opening ceremony the Chinese president, XiJinping, set out his vision for the future ofChinas internet. We should respect the rightof individual countries to independently choosetheir own path of cyber-development, said Xi,warning against foreign interference in other countries internal affairs.
No one was surprised by what they heard. Xi had already established that the Chinese internet would be aworld unto itself, with its content closely monitored and managed by the Communist party. In recent years, the Chinese leadership has devoted more and more resources to controlling content online. Government policies have contributed to a dramatic fall in the number of postings on the Chinese blogging platform Sina Weibo (similar to Twitter), and have silenced manyof Chinas most important voices advocating reform and opening up the internet.
It wasnt always like this. In the years before Xi became president in 2012, the internet had begun to afford the Chinese people an unprecedented level of transparency and power to communicate. Popular bloggers, some of whom advocated bold social and political reforms, commanded tens of millions of followers. Chinese citizens used virtual private networks (VPNs) to access blocked websites. Citizens banded together online to hold authorities accountable for their actions, through virtual petitions and organising physical protests. In 2010, a survey of 300Chinese officials revealed that 70% were anxious about whether mistakes or details about their private life might be leaked online. Of the almost 6,000 Chinesecitizens also surveyed, 88% believed it wasgood for officials to feel this anxiety.
For Xi Jinping, however, there is no distinction between the virtual world and the real world: both should reflect the same political values, ideals, and standards. To this end, the government has invested intechnological upgrades to monitor and censor content. It has passed new laws on acceptable content, and aggressively punished those who defy the new restrictions. Under Xi, foreign content providers havefound their access to China shrinking. They are being pushed out by both Xis ideological war and hisdesire that Chinese companies dominate the countrys rapidly growing online economy.
At home, Xi paints the wests version of the internet, which prioritises freedom of information flow, as anathema to the values of the Chinese government. Abroad, he asserts Chinas sovereign right to determine what constitutes harmful content. Rather than acknowledging that efforts to control the internet areasource of embarrassment a sign of potential authoritarian fragility Xi is trying to turn his vision ofaChinanet (to use blogger Michael Antis phrase) into a model for other countries.
The challenge for Chinas leadership is to maintain what it perceives as the benefits of the internet advancing commerce and innovation without letting technology accelerate political change. To maintain his Chinanet, Xi seems willing to accept the costs in terms of economic development, creative expression, government credibility, and the development of civil society. But the internet continues to serve as a powerful tool for citizens seeking to advance social change and human rights. The game of cat-and-mouse continues, and there are many more mice than cats.
The very first email in China was sent in September 1987 16 years after Ray Tomlinson sent the first email in the US. It broadcast a triumphal message: Across the Great Wall we can reach every corner in the world. Forthe first few years, the government reserved the internet for academics and officials. Then, in 1995, it was opened to the general public. In 1996, although onlyabout 150,000 Chinese people were connected tothe internet, the government deemed it the Year of the Internet, and internet clubs and cafes appeared all over Chinas largest cities.
Yet as enthusiastically as the government proclaimed its support for the internet, it also took steps to control it. Rogier Creemers, a China expert at Oxford University, has noted that As the internet became a publicly accessible information and communication platform, there was no debate about whether it should fall under government supervision only about how such control would be implemented in practice. By 1997, Beijing had enacted its first laws criminalising online postings that it believed were designed to hurt national security or the interests of the state.
Chinas leaders were right to be worried. Their citizens quickly realised the political potential inherent in the internet. In 1998, a 30-year-old software engineer called Lin Hai forwarded 30,000 Chinese email addresses to aUS-based pro-democracy magazine. Lin was arrested, tried and ultimately sent to prison in the countrys first known trial for a political violation committed completely online. The following year, the spiritual organisation Falun Gong used email and mobile phones to organise a silent demonstration of more than 10,000 followers around the Communist partys central compound, Zhongnanhai, to protest their inability topractise freely. The gathering, which had been arranged without the knowledge of the government, precipitated an ongoing persecution of Falun Gong practitioners and a new determination to exercise control over the internet.
The man who emerged to lead the governments technological efforts was Fang Binxing. In the late 1990s, Fang worked on developing the Golden Shield transformative software that enabled the government toinspect any data being received or sent, and to block destination IP addresses and domain names. His work was rewarded by a swift political rise. By the 2000s, he had earned the moniker Father of the Great Firewall and, eventually, the enmity of hundreds of thousands ofChinese web users.