High-Tech Dystopia: Internet Censorship in China | Sarah Cook | China Uncensored

The Internet in China It’s a high-tech dystopia And officials from around the world are going to China to learn how to build their own internet dystopias Welcome back to China Uncensored I’m Chris Chappell Internet censorship in China today has reached absurd levels People have been jailed for the things they say on WeChat Here’s a quick list of some of things censored on the Chinese Internet Tiananmen Square Massacre An empty chair Winnie the Pooh And even the letter N That must make the Chinese version of Sesame Street so difficult But to find out exactly how bizarre the Internet censorship in China is, I sat down with Sarah Cook She’s a senior research analyst and director of the China Media Bulletin for Freedom House— an NGO focused on research and advocacy for democracy, political freedom, and human rights Thank you for joining us today, Sarah So how bad is internet censorship in China? Well, to be honest, the Chinese Communist Party has created the most multi-faceted and sophisticated system of internet censorship in the world Actually, in Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net report for the last three years China has been designated as the worst abuser of internet Worse than Syria? Yeah, I think its different factors, so it’s worse than Syria and Iran I think it’s a different dynamic in terms of what the political situation in these countries are In Syria, it might be that you don’t have internet access because something’s been bombed out In China there’s quite a good amount of actual access to the internet, and it’s increased, but the extent to which people are able to actually do certain things on the internet, and the scale of controls that are exercised that are in place even if they’re not always activated and exercised is tremendous It goes through the entire internet system in China and it’s by far the most sophisticated and pervasive of anywhere else in the world So I know a lot of people make the mistake of thinking of internet censorship as the government preventing certain information from getting out there, but a big part of it is actually pushing a message the government wants What is the message the communist party is pushing? Well, it depends, really It depends on the topic, and it depends on the audience in some ways You have the set taboo topics so, not letting people know about June 4th or about Falun Gong or about Taiwanese and the Square Massacre Yeah, the Tiananmen Square Massacre, or about what’s really happening to Uighurs and Tibetans in different parts of China But part of that is also manipulating the message, so again, it’s this combination of censorship and propaganda that are really two sides of the same coin, and so some of it is suppressing the bad news and then part of is promoting the good news And actually, Xi Jinping talks about promoting positive- The China story Well the China story, that’s more outside of China Telling a good China story, that’s more outside of China Within China, they want to promote positivity and just to give an example, the extremes to which they go to do that, you see from lead censorship directives that they will tell websites that, let’s say the landing page of a Google News type of website has The top story has to be this In some cases I think there’s a sense that the rankings on social media platforms of what’s the hottest news now is manipulated So they’re telling you… Last year when the constitutional was changed to enable Xi jinping to become President for life, if you looked at the top ranking topics on social media, it was how to eat noodles on a high speed train This is inside China? This is inside China These are platforms that are run by Chinese companies and so- Not necessarily Google, this is Chinese- Yeah, these are Chinese, this is Chinese social media This is Weibo Sina Weibo, WeChat Yeah, these are Chinese, because the Chinese government uses the Great Firewall to block the kinds of social media applications that we all use, Facebook, Twitter, those aren’t really accessible to people in China unless they have a way of jumping the Firewall But, within China than you have these Chinese alternatives that have become extremely popular and they have whole departments of staff whose job is basically to identify and censor content, and then in some cases based on structure specifically to promote other content Wow, so when Xi Jinping became President for life, the main story was how to eat noodles? That was one of the top ranking stories on Weibo because they had censored so Because it’s a combination, because they had censored so much of the keywords in the conversations that Chinese people were trying to have about this important news topic and so you didn’t have that trending and then I think, we suppose that there was some kind of manipulation

in the trending as well So this ties into the whole Patriotic Education as well? Well “Patriotic Education” is a term that’s typically used specifically in Tibet But in general there’s a type of, yeah, just general kind of nationalistic education Very pro-Communist Party And it’s not just that, especially under Xi Jinping, it’s like promoting Xi Jinping Thought per se And certain, like, tenets of Xi Jinping Thought, and referring to him as the Core Leader That’s where under Xi you get the sense of a personality cult that you didn’t necessarily see before So in the West, the sort of original model, the internet was that it was free and it was open China is offering an alternative model to internet What is the China internet model? Well, the Chinese government would say it’s a form of cyber sovereignty It’s the idea that the internet does not cross borders It’s that the internet really stops at the border, and you create a virtual border and in China it’s the case of the Great Firewall But it’s also elements of various laws, like the cyber security law and requiring data centers to be applications, or things like iCloud to have its servers inside China, and not be able to be outside of China So that whatever happens within China is really under the Communist Party’s control There’s multiple ways in which that’s done, either technologically or also legally and administratively, but that’s, in a lot of ways, the model It’s a combination of this high-tech techno dystopia that is maybe less achievable for other countries depending on their technological caliber and resources, monetary resources, but it is also … A different model that is maybe easier to mimic and some specific kinds of legislation, arresting bloggers, sending them to prison, arresting, forcing local social media companies to do their own censorship, and then injecting this type of proactive manipulation of paid government commentators or other forms of That China’s probably called gaining the upper hand in terms of quote, guiding public opinion So it’s all of those factors combined, but ultimately it’s this idea that within China’s borders particularly, within a particular country’s borders you should have full control over what people can see and do on the internet and not allow these companies outside, like Facebook or Twitter or others to be able Or the New York Times, to produce information that your people can read and see So if you look at China’s model of internet controls it’s not just censorship, which we think of a lot It’s a combination of censorship but also extensive and pervasive surveillance and monitoring of what people are doing online Real name registration so they can That’s how they can arrest people They can trace that this person has a seemingly anonymous account, and it actually belongs to this particular individual You can’t be anonymous on the Chinese internet And increasingly with people who are on Twitter, they’re not anonymous on Twitter Somehow they Chinese government is figuring out ways to trace it back, the Twitter account, back to their phone number, and they’re getting a knock at the door for what they’re writing on Twitter Even though Twitter is banned in China? Even though Twitter is banned in China people are jumping the Firewall It’s open, and in some cases people have like, three thousand followers It’s not people with millions of followers necessarily, but they’re getting knocks on the door in some cases for just opening an account or things like that, and they’re being harassed So that’s … and even arrested I just need to make sure That’s not happening to the good people of the People’s Daily Twitter account No, of course not Right So that’s a thing That’s the … So there’s actually been a relatively recent case of some employee of Chinese Day media getting in trouble for creating a personal Twitter account, when you have Chinese Day media like Xinhua and People’s Daily, and China Daily, and CG Daily, they all have millions of followers and they’re able to access, talk to millions of people around the world, but if you’re a Chinese Human Rights lawyer, a professor- Or even an individual employee of those state run companies- Yeah, and then people are starting to get in trouble And that’s something very new A year ago that wasn’t happening That’s something relatively recent So you’ve got a combination of censorship, of surveillance, and of intimidation and harassment, and this proactive manipulation that all of it together creates a very interesting environment in China On the one hand you have a lot of information that’s censored and that’s inaccessible, but there’s still a vibrancy about it and all kinds of things that, if you think about what you do with your phone, yes, you check the New York Times, you check news that would probably be censored in China You also look up what movie is playing nearby You use Google to … Google Maps to try to navigate how to get to your friends house You look up what the ranking is on this particular restaurant All of those types of things are accessible in China, although they’re with Chinese apps and not the ones that we would usually use So it’s this illusion of choice that’s created The Chinese government can control everything It doesn’t necessarily, and the space is shrinking, but it’s created a system where it could control everything

if it wants and it’s able to knit pick and pull out and censor the things it doesn’t want people talking about while monitoring who’s writing the things they don’t want people talking about So what happens to people inside of China who get on the wrong side of the internet censors? Well, it depends It can range from having a particular post be deleted to having your entire account be canceled So there’s lots of examples of, on these parallel social media applications in China run by Chinese companies, people with millions of followers, just like that it’s gone You press a button, it’s gone All gone And in some cases it has real impact on their livelihood too, ’cause people will earn money because they’re a famous author or whatever and celebrities So, can range from those types of examples, of losing a post deleted, having your account canceled all the way through to being sentenced to prison In some cases a very long prison term, 10 years, 15 years, very long prison terms So if I were making China Uncensored inside of China what would happen to me? A few things would happen First of all you would really have no way of distributing it, so if you tried to open an account on one of the Chinese social media either they wouldn’t let you or very quickly after they saw what you were sharing they would just delete it and that would be the end of that You would try to open a website, and you wouldn’t be able to, and then you would be under liability, potentially, personally, especially if you create an episode where you were, say, mocking Xi Jinping Which I would never do Which you would never do because China Uncensored doesn’t do any mockery of Chinese officials or the communist party or So then you would potentially be liable to being arrested and getting a knock on your door in the middle of the night and be taken away and then be jailed, and have a trial that lasts for half an hour, and not being able to access a lawyer, and then, you know however long And they’ll have this so called evidence, but we’ve actually seen that We’ve seen people who have just posted things, making, just, humorous There’s a lot of people in China who have gotten in trouble for posting humorous things The memes about Xi Jinping and Winnie the Pooh? Yes So for example, I don’t know anybody who’s actually been jailed for sharing or posting a meme related Xi Jinping and Winnie the Pooh, but it’s certainly heavily censored There have been other people who have posted something that was a different kind of a mockery of Xi who had been sent to an administrative detention, I think in one case even sentenced to two years in prison Now, this internet model that China is creating, they are trying to export that around the world, right That’s got to be appealing to other authoritarian regimes Yes And I would say not always even authoritarians per se but I think what we’ve seen over time is that there were already elements, even without deliberate projection and export from China that were being adopted by other regimes, like Iran or Vietnam And then I think what we’ve seen the last two years is that the Communist Party’s been much more explicit about wanting to promote their model, and make their model not only for other countries, but even trying to set international standards And that gets into more technological stuff but that relates, say for example, to 5G standards and others so that their standards become adopted elsewhere, they even become, they even use words like the consensus internationally That’s creepy Yes But yes, you definitely, but now I think more actively you have efforts to promote the China model In some cases it’s in terms of the export of technologies In a lot of cases it’s different, it’s more about other kinds of know how One of the things we found with the latest issue of Freedom on the Net was that we looked at how many countries had sent officials to China to have some kind of training related to new media or so-called information management And after we found that out of 65 countries, 36 had sent officials And that included places like Thailand or Vietnam, say, who are very heavy internet restrictions but also places like the Philippine’s for example that doesn’t, or parts of Latin American countries that have a fairly open internet, and they were sending officials there for some kind of a training Any European countries? I don’t remember the specific list of countries I would be surprised, because one of the reasons people also go on this is also ’cause it’s kind of a nice, all expenses paid, junket to China And that can be attractive for some random Filipino official in the Ministry of Communication So this technology didn’t come out of thin air How did Western tech companies help build this system So, in some cases it was pretty direct We have reason to believe that Cisco for example played a role in helping the Chinese government build the Great Firewall and other aspects called Golden Shield which is an internet censorship and surveillance But at the same time you also have, I would say, indirect examples, where from even seemingly innocuous academic exchanges and things like that or other types of joint venture partnerships

there was a certain degree of know how that was transferred to Chinese companies or Chinese tech geniuses, and those people then applied it to systems that are actually used to suppress internet freedom in China, so that you see a little bit with certain things coming out about artificial intelligence and the like, and so I think you see that in terms of actually developing the system So besides the structural elements, on a more micro level you have Western companies who do engage in censorship for Chinese users So, for example, Apple has deleted apps from Chinese mobile app stores And that includes specific news websites like NTDTV or the New York Times, but it also has deleted and removed hundreds of the kinds of applications that let people jump the Firewall and access uncensored news And then you have, for example, LinkedIn that does some level of censorship for people in China in terms of what profile they are able to see So you definitely have also ways in which Western companies, when they’re dealing with content, have to censor on behalf of the Chinese government So it’s very disturbing to hear that companies like Microsoft or Google are doing research with Chinese military universities, then that technology might be used in Shenzhen for mass surveillance Do you think there’s any possible that this kind of censorship will be exported to a country like the United States? For instance, I know Mark Zuckerberg has talked about wanting more control over the internet Well, I think in some ways we see certain forms of Chinese censorship already coming to the west That takes the form, in some cases, of self-censorship by companies, like airlines who aren’t going to put Taiwan in the dropdown menu because they came under Chinese pressure or a case, I think it was Mercedes-Benz, where they had a post on a social media website, I think it was Instagram, that was outside China, not Chinese people, and they quoted the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government got upset and then they actually deleted it and issued this very, kind of- Official apology Yes, official apology So I think you see that kind of censorship slowly sneaking into the West, but the other thing is that you have a Chinese company called “Tencet” that once runs an instant messaging application called “WeChat” and it’s used a lot by people in the Chinese diaspora, and including Americans, Canadians, Chinese Americans, Chinese Canadians Because it’s a way to communicate with people back in China Because it’s a way to communicate with people back in China and they’re just used to it If they come out, they’re used to it and that’s how they’ll keep in touch with people here And so you’re actually starting to see examples of censorship of people here by WeChat, including, in some cases, communication between politicians and their constituents or between local news media in Chinese and Australia and how much they’re actually There’s almost no reporting that’s critical of China in a way that’s very different than what’s on their main website So you actually start to see that type, especially for the Chinese diaspora, start to see that sneaking into the west And it can have a real political impact, in terms of political candidacies For example, I don’t know the China and I don’t know if you’ve tried I’m kind of doubtful that you would be able to create a WeChat account for … You know? That’s a good idea And so you might not You could test that out You might not be able to then reach certain constituencies in the United States, even though they’re in America, you’re in America And so you see that element starting to infiltrate into the west with some level of political ramifications too And then in terms of surveillance, absolutely There was recently a report, I think that it came out that Hikvision, one of these Chinese companies that runs surveillance in China, including these facial recognition cameras in Xinjiang, had gotten the contract for the UK parliament And it wasn’t just for the UK parliament I think, it was for some of the building with some of their offices So there was suddenly concern I think it might have been put on hold now, because they were suddenly concerned about the really the national security implications of this So I think it’s really more that element of the surveillance and this kind of backdoor concerns, rather than censorship, per se, that you see from some of these Chinese technologies, but when you get to questions of Chinese technology being involved in the delivery of content, you see that more in Africa now, that’s where you do start to see censorship because they’ll favor Chinese state media channels over, say, the BBC World, in terms of the most affordable package So then you have fewer Africans who are watching BBC World, and more who are watching Chinese state media And you could see that happening in the West, but I don’t know that that’s going to happen Okay So basically, right now it seems like there’s a battle going on between the west’s free and open internet model and China’s sovereignty-based model What will it take for the free and open model to win? Well, it’s tricky because one of the problems,

and I think challenges that we’re having is that there are a lot of people even in democracies that are questioning the desirability of having as free and open an internet as we have And that’s where you get to questions of regulating Facebook and other social media companies So I think the first thing is really for democracies to give more attention to and thought to how do you maintain the open internet? How do you protect freedom of expression and privacy within their own borders so that there is a more robust model? And how do you protect against encroachments from the Chinese model, including into our own societies? So for example, starting out with really looking at WeChat in the United States or in other democracies and making sure, in situations where they’re violating the First Amendment rights of people here, that there’s some kind of repercussion, that they have to Chinese government, when they ask foreign companies to censor in China, they like to say, well, the companies like to justify, “Well, we’re working according to local laws.” Well, that should really work both ways The Tencet should be following local laws here and they should be allowing Chinese Americans a nd Chinese Canadians and Chinese Australians to have a free, open channels of communication on WeChat And if not, then they should be fined or should be sued or something like that, like any other company would be So I think that those are a few of the things, in terms of really making sure that we’re protecting our systems against Chinese government encroachment and private company encroachment and creating a more robust system of protecting internet freedom at home And then I think finding ways to support Chinese people’s desire for a free internet, because there are a lot of Chinese people who would like a free internet We see that when we publish a China media bulletin We hear from our readings and when we work with people who are circumvention tools to reach people in China and there are millions We estimated there were 20 to 30 million Chinese people who use various tools to jump the firewall in 2018 to access uncensored information Now, in the country of 1 point whatever billion, that’s not a lot, but it could probably be a lot more and there’s certainly a constituency that is interested And the more people learn about how censorship worked and how partial their information environment is, we found in our surveys and from academic studies, the more likely they are to want to seek out uncensored information So there’s still a lot more to be done, in terms of having Chinese people be granted greater access to a free and open internet So the Chinese people might be the biggest market for a free and open internet Yes And actually, I think it’s really unfortunate that companies like Facebook or Google are investing in developing ways of trying to get into the Chinese market and have a censored search engine like Dragonfly, rather than Imagine if all that money was invested in either supporting either existing circumvention tools or designing some other type of tools that would allow Chinese people to access the internet freely, because ultimately these companies would benefit They make their money off of users It doesn’t have to be the Chinese government that grants American tech companies access to the Holy Grail of the Chinese internet market They could be taking a piece of the pie themselves just by getting more people out of the firewall Well, thank you, Sarah That was incredibly enlightening Sure, I’m glad. Thanks for having me