Internet censorship in China, which has long been pervasive, has become even greater in recent weeks, to the point that even those in China who could usually find ways to get around the imposed restrictions are struggling to view sites such as gmail.com and imdb.com.
The LA Times reports that the tech-savvy Internet users in China wishing to access social networking and other sites that are routinely blocked, such as Twitter, Facebook and also, more recently, the New York Times, could previously download VPN software that would allow them to bypass the “Great Firewall.” A VPN tool encrypts users’ web activity and ‘scal[es] the Great Firewall by logging on to a server overseas to use as a proxy to access the outside Internet’.
However, VPNs have been less effective of late. According to some reports, users are experiencing problems including ‘access denied’ messages and even software crashes after a short period of usage. Many commercial VPN services have stopped working.
This apparent crackdown on VPNs seems in contrast to what appeared to be fewer restrictions on microblogging. For instance, the largest and most significant Chinese microblogging site, Sina Weibo, began allowing users to search for top government leaders by name, a function which they had previously blocked. Sina Weibo also allowed criticism of lower-level government officials to be more specific, which led to investigations and dismissals of several officials.
However, Michael Anti, the prominent journalist and commentator on Chinese social media, told Voice of America News that these changes did not in fact signal new openness for microblogging. “CCTV, the national TV station, has already had the function of criticizing and monitoring local corruption since the 1990s. Now they’re repeating the same thing on Weibo,” he says. “I don’t regard this as progress. It just proves Weibo is now becoming a part of central media.” Anti points out that Weibo has a team of censors that filters out and rigorously monitors anything that could be classed as a threat, including any mention of China’s top leaders.
Following the legislature’s proposal on December 24 for requiring real identity registration before accessing online services (ostensibly to help prevent the occurrence of online fraud), experts suspect that Chinese censors have found a way to detect VPN connections and block them. The VPN providers claim that these issues are due to apparent changes in the firewall, with state media responding that Chinese law does not protect them if they have not taken the required step of registering with the government.
While many were hoping that the change in China’s leadership, which takes place once every ten years, would result in greater freedom for the approximately 500 million Internet users in China, it appears that Beijing authorities may be tightening the existing restrictions. Their actions suggest that the new leader, Xi Jinping, is at least as worried about online content as his predecessor.
The concern for those in power is that the publication of stories about government corruption pose a threat to government stability. “'[The powers that be] are still very paranoid about the potentially destabilising effect of the Internet,’ said Willy Lam, a politics specialist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. ‘They are on the point of losing a monopoly on information, but they still are very eager to control the dissemination of views‘”.
In addition to censoring content, regulators have proposed rules which would keep foreign companies from distributing items and material such as books, music, and news. Both companies and Chinese scientists have complained that this level of restriction does more harm than good. For example, according to the American Chamber of Commerce in China, 74% of companies said unstable Internet access “impedes their ability to do business.”
Unfortunately, Willy Lam (Chinese University of Hong Kong) says that Chinese leaders feel that the cost of Internet censorship is both sustainable and worthwhile, and that compromise the issue is unlikely to be reached any time soon.
Jean-Loup Richet, Special Herdict Contributor