China recently (November 19-21) held an international Internet conference in the city of Wuzhen. As it usually does for international conferences the government turned off most of the government firewall functions for Wuzhen for duration of the conference. Any Westerners in Wuzhen before or after the conference would find the Internet incredibly difficult to use because so many popular (and many less popular) web sites are blocked. This is normal for Chinese, who now comprise about a third of the people on the Internet. Yet Chinese officials feel their massive censorship effort serves a useful purpose (making the population easier for the ruling Communist Party to control) and that this is not in conflict with Chinese efforts to be a major player in their proposed world Internet governing body. While many Western nations would like to see the U.S. play a less dominating role in governing the Internet, there is little enthusiasm for China having a major role in running the Internet. That’s because the Chinese believe that governments should have a lot more control over Internet activity (and access) within their borders and would like to see the establishment of a worldwide organization with the power to “control” (censor) the Internet worldwide. Thus the government sponsors these international conferences in an effort to gain wider support for their goals.
Inside China the government very much practices what it preaches. In addition to monitoring and censoring the Chinese Internet to eliminate anti-government material, China has also been trying to eliminate pornography for over a decade. In the last year China has gone after the use of rumor and false information campaigns as well as sharing opinions about politics or issues of public interest. The use of rumor and false information have long (since the Internet began to be a major media force in the late 1990s) been used by businesses, and some individuals in China to attack and discredit competitors and rivals. Even government officials will use it against those they are having disputes with, as in other officials, businessmen or foreigners. This sort of thing is more common in China than elsewhere and has become a very rough and unregulated form of media manipulation and public relations. In the last year the government rolled out this new campaign to restrict such bad behavior. The government is prosecuting and making an example of celebrities and other high profile offenders, to ensure that the message gets around. The new rules only allow government approved organizations to do “public relations” work via the Internet. This includes commenting on the news.
This new program went into high gear in early 2014 when China ordered its Internet censors to crack down on what people say on Chinese social media. This quickly led to many local critics (or simply commentators) of the Chinese government disappearing from the Chinese Internet. This does not surprise most Chinese, especially since in 2013 the government finally revealed the number of people (two million) involved in Internet censorship operations. This undertaking is called Golden Shield (or “Great Firewall of China” in the West) and it’s a huge information control system that has been under construction since for over a decade.
Before the new revelations Golden Shield was believed to have at least 40,000 full time Ministry of Public Security employees dedicated to monitoring and censoring Internet use throughout the country. This was done using specialized hardware and software and lots of paid and volunteer censors. These “irregulars” were known to be numerous but it was difficult to get an accurate estimate. Now the government revealed that irregulars bring the total Internet censorship manpower up to two million. This is for keeping some 700 million Chinese Internet users under control. This is not cheap and over ten billion dollars has been spent on Golden Shield so far. While the Great Firewall cannot stop someone expert at how the Internet works, it does greatly restrict the other 90 percent of Chinese Internet users. And it provides a lot of information about what is going on inside all that Internet traffic. Year by year the Golden Shield operators learned what worked (to monitor and control news and user activity) and what didn't. Not only can Golden Shield keep news from getting out of a part of China but it can greatly limit how much contradictory (to the government version) news gets into all of China. Most of those two million Internet censors are occupied with monitoring new material showing up, especially via Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter) and blocking anything that disputes the official government line. Weibo is a particular target of the new thought police campaign. The government is quite proud of all this and would like to export more of this technology to other countries. Many foreign countries are interested, although some insist on keeping the discussions very quiet and out of the news.