China, world’s worst abuser of internet freedom, pushes censorship and surveillance to unprecedented levels

New Delhi: Unlike democracies that try to advance the cause of freedom and equality, China’s ruling Communist Party does not permit its citizens the same freedoms as other nations. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is extremely self-conscious about its status and preserving its monopoly of power, it believes that giving the Chinese citizens any sort of freedom will threaten that monopoly on power. Over the last year, China has been on the receiving end of a lot of backlashes, both domestically and internationally. The world is finally waking up to China’s ambitious plans and crooked method used to gain prominence in the world order.

The only thing China can do about the international backlash is to try to change the narrative or deflect blame, China has much more wicked options when it comes to stifling domestic criticisms. Sarah Cook, the research director on China at Freedom House recently released a report on their predictions on how China could stifle internet freedoms in 2021.

In its Freedom of the Net 2020 report, published by Freedom House on December 15, 2020, states that during the COVID-19 pandemic the Chinese government has taken an extremely aggressive approach to control unfavourable information. China was deemed the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom for the sixth consecutive year by Freedom House. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the persistent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, China pushed censorship and surveillance to unprecedented levels. The CCP has made the use of low-and high tech tools to not only manage the outbreak but also use it as an excuse to deter internet users from sharing information from unofficial sources.

Some of the key findings from Freedom House’s report were that- China scored an abysmal 10 out of 100 in terms of internet freedom and was termed ‘Not Free’. The Chinese government increased digital repression during the pandemic. Any online expression that went against the official narrative was met with harsh reprisals from the Chinese Government. The increasing government controls diminished the online presence of independent civil society and human rights activists, however, nationalist voices gained prominence. Another key finding was the revelation that private Chinese companies helped facilitate government surveillance. With these restrictions already in place, Freedom House made its predictions for 2021; these are trends that one must watch out for in the future.

The continued censorship and surveillance surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine. China in the past months has received a fair amount of criticism for its handling of the COVID-19 outbreak. One of the main reasons that the pandemic spread across the globe was China’s attempts to silence medical professionals like Li Wenliang when they tried to warn their colleagues and the world about a new SARS-like disease. China is now attempting something called ‘vaccine diplomacy’ and has promised free COVID-19 vaccines to many developing countries. China’s apparent generosity stems from its need to deflect the blame for its initial handling of the outbreak, Thus, China desperately needs its gambit to succeed. This desperation will ultimately lead to China targeting vaccine information to be heavily censored and will attempt to suppress any discussion of problems with the vaccine.

One must also look out for punishments meted out to outspoken political and economic elites. While China in the past has suppressed a wide array of internet users, 2020 stood out, especially because it suppressed Hong Kong’s democracy movement, as well as the arbitrary detention faced by religious minorities like the Uighurs. Even China’s economic and political elites were not spared in 2020. Ren Zhiqiang, a real estate tycoon and a member of the CCP, was stripped of his party membership just hours after publishing an online critique of Xi Jinping’s handling of the pandemic. Ren in September 2020 was sentenced to 18 years in prison. Former deputy party secretary of Xiangshan County, Ye Fuxing, was purged for sharing content online that slandered Xi as well as other prominent party leaders.

December 23, 2020, also saw media tycoon Jimmy Lai’s bail revoked. Lai has been charged with fraud and endangering national security by the Chinese government. These are just some of the few cases in which Chinese elites have had their titles and positions stripped for critiquing the CCP.

In 2020, China suppressed expression and support for human rights, justice and fundamental freedoms online. This absence of activists online also resulted in the CCP promoting and encouraging nationalistic voices. This further skewed online debates about the CCP’s actions as people began to self-sensor themselves to avoid being hounded by nationalistic mobs online. In 2021, China’s continued aggressive foreign policy could marshal these nationalistic mobs and reinforce official narratives. Major tech giants in 2020 faced increasing pressure from the Chinese government, and especially the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) to aid in state surveillance as well as to moderate and censor user content. In 2020, the CAC launched multiple “rectification” campaigns that involved tighter security over content as well as deletions of dozens of user accounts. The CAC forced Weibo to stop updating its trending topics list for one week in June and also fined NetEase because commenters had posted “inappropriate” content. The CAC also ordered China’s most used mobile browser to “self-sensor” its content to ensure that its content adhered to socialist values. The Chinese government has also recently begun to pressure Alibaba and its founder Jack Ma who has been missing for several weeks. Such regulatory actions by the Chinese Government do not allow private Chinese tech companies to have any semblance of autonomy.

As per the Freedom House report, monitoring of internet and mobile communications in China has only expanded in 2020. As of 2020, China was home to 18 of the 20 most monitored cities in the world. During the pandemic, the Chinese government introduced several that could track the movements of its citizens. 2020 provided additional evidence that Chinese equipment designed to prevent terrorism and crime was being used to track citizens. China used these systems to track, and arbitrarily detain human rights activists and minorities like Uighurs, Falun Gong practitioners and Christians. These activities further reinforce concerns that big-data advancements will be used to track human rights activists and silence CCP, critics.

While the people are getting more and more connected digitally and the world has entered into an era of freedom of knowledge and expression, the Chinese Government still tries to restrict its citizens freedoms. However, there is a deep desire brewing within the Chinese people for credible and independent information. Such desire was expressed when citizen journalists and activists made an appearance in 2020. In the early weeks of the coronavirus, citizen journalists and video bloggers tried hard to document the truth of the virus and disprove the CCP narrative. Zhang Zhen was one such citizen journalist who tried to show the truth but she was prevented from doing so by the Chinese government. The CCP sentenced Zhan to four years in prison for documenting the pandemic in Wuhan. In February 2020, following the death of whistleblowing doctor Li Wenliang, the hashtag “I want free speech” began trending on Weibo. These activities serve as a reminder that while the Chinese Government has expanded its efforts to censor online expression, the Chinese people will always find ways to resist.

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