Since 2013 China has been describing its multi-trillion dollar effort to build roads, pipelines, fiber optic networks, ports and railroads throughout Asia as Obor (One Belt, One Road) as a way to enhance local economies at little cost to the locals. China will not only provide construction loans but will also supply Chinese managers and workers to see that the work gets done properly and on time. China needs international trade and Obor is the Chinese plan to control as much of it as possible. For many nations where Obor projects are built, there are other, less publicized, benefits for local governments. First, China is not opposed to paying bribes to local rulers as needed. Many of the nations Obor projects pass through are run by corrupt or dictatorial governments that are always seeking new methods to keep them in power. China has something for that as well. Part of the Obor package is the construction of fiber optic lines to carry communications, especially Internet, traffic. China also offers a wide variety of tested (in China) tools for controlling what locals can use their Internet access for. For many nations Obor is being built in this Internet control option is a very attractive feature. The fiber optic cables are easily built as part of new pipelines, roads or railroads. Chinese firms are major worldwide providers of cell phones and all manner of Internet-related hardware and software. Many of the Chinese censorship tools are unwelcome or even illegal in the West but most of the nations in Central Asia, Southeast Asia and Africa that are part of the Obor network have rulers who are eager to gain more control over what local phone and Internet users are up to. China has lots of apps for that. China will also help install and manage these new “content controlled” networks and give local rulers the benefit of Chinese experience and new developments. One of those new developments is particularly popular; reliable facial recognition systems. Another dictator-friendly new app measures and tracks enough Internet and other activity by locals to come up with a “Social Credit” ranking for every person and enterprise in the country. For dictators, this is an easy way to monitor emerging threats (widespread lower social credit scores) and determine how best to deal with these problems. This, coupled with the more effective Chinese Internet monitoring, eavesdropping and censorship tools makes unelected governments more confident about their ability to stay in power.
The Chinese, as they like to put it, have always been more flexible and respectful of local customs. In other words, the Chinese never saw bribes and corruption as a defect but an opportunity. This is great for the foreign political and business leaders but less so with most of the others and that can cause problems. Africans and Asians living near many Chinese foreign operations complain that China is the major investor in illegal extraction of raw materials and keeping local gangsters and corrupt politicians in business. The Chinese also violate local labor laws with impunity and often hire their own armed security personnel who will shoot to kill if threatened by angry workers or local residents. Keeping local tyrants in power serves Chinese interests when it comes to things like establishing new military bases or preventing other nations from doing so. Corrupt locals also make it easier to carry out espionage operations (locally or in nearby areas). Helping to keep unelected leaders in power also serves to maintain the legitimacy of the current Chinese government which is basically a communist police state and the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) wants to keep it that way. Many Asian and African governments Obor is being built in are eager to adopt the Chinese censorship and monitoring systems.
Chinese leaders regularly demonstrate that they practice what they preach. Chinese leaders will often criticize, in public, their own censorship and media controlled organizations for not doing their jobs effectively. For example the Chinese Propaganda Department is the several hundred people who direct the vast censorship operation that is supposed to block “inappropriate messages” (that make the Communist Party look bad) and encourage approved ideas. When there is a problem with the effectiveness of this media control the government will not hesitate to order state-controlled mass media to criticize the Propaganda Department.
In addition to controlling most mass media in China, the Propaganda Department supervises how more than $10 billion a year is spent on pro-China publicity outside the country. Inside China, this media manipulation effort employs millions of full time and part time personnel who, since the 1990s, have concentrated more on the Internet. Over a decade ago the rulers of China (which remains a communist police state) noted that they were losing control of their media, which had long been a key component of maintaining a dictatorship. The effort to regain the pre-Internet media monopoly has not been going well and until recently received little official notice. China has developed methods as well as software and hardware to make this all work and now they are exporting it.
Some recent criticisms concentrated on failures to keep the traditional mass media (radio, TV, newspapers) in line. This is not unexpected because the massive efforts to censor the Internet have only been partially successful and the disturbing (to the Communist Chinese Party) new ideas that began spreading on the Internet have spread to the traditional mass media, despite the fact that most media personnel in China are government employees.
You could see this crisis coming. In 2013 (the same year Obor was officially announced) China revealed the number of people involved in Internet censorship operations: two million. This operation 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 for 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 over two million. This is for keeping over 700 million Chinese Internet users (52 percent of the population) under control.
Over five 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 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 control news) 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 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.
In 2011 China created a new organization to handle just Internet censorship. Called the State Internet Information Office, it consolidated all Internet censorship activity. This was done, in part, to halt the fragmentation of Internet censorship activity. This was happening because over a dozen government agencies engage in censorship (of films, TV, radio, newspapers, books, advertising, text books, and so on). Most of these agencies have expanded their efforts to include similar material that shows up on the Internet. This was leading to turf wars or Internet sites getting an okay from one censorship authority and a shutdown notice from another. This sort of activity is typical of government bureaucracies, no matter where they are.
China has also created more laws for “misbehavior” on the Internet. This means it is easier to prosecute anyone (in China) who says anything on the Internet the government does not like. Several successful Internet-based commentators have since been silenced because of the new rules. The Internet censors have tools to measure how popular Internet-based commentators are and how many people they are reaching. Commentators on Weibo are particularly vulnerable, especially if they have a lot of followers. Twitter has long been banned inside China. Weibo is considered too popular to shut down but not immune from increased censorship efforts.
Meanwhile, Internet security companies outside China are discovering, documenting, and publicizing more and more Chinese hacker groups and the large campaigns these groups wage on the rest of the world. China denies everything and criticizes its censors for not doing enough. China is also offering its censorship, content management and social credit systems to interested governments. A growing number of governments are very interested despite the fact that China has access (granted or otherwise) to information gathered locally. When dealing with a government so obsessed with controlling media everything they offer comes with strings (some of them invisible) attached.