Half a decade later and the opposite has happened: China is in the throes of the biggest crackdown on freedom of expression and media in the internet era. Foreign companies complain of restrictions that hamstring operations and favor homegrown players. Police are shutting businesses and arresting civilians on message groups as Beijing plugs more holes in its “Great Firewall” blockade of blacklisted sites.
Xi, who’s expected to cement his leadership of the Communist Party at the congress that started Wednesday, has galvanized a nationwide machine in which corporations, cybercops and automated systems police content to preserve the party’s seven-decade rule. As global giants from Alphabet Inc.’s Google to Facebook Inc. explore entry, they have to weigh the benefits of tapping the world’s biggest internet market against the fallout from appearing to back a repressive regime.
If China’s supreme leader succeeds in shoring up his already extensive influence with another five-year term, web access won’t get any easier for internet players both local and foreign, not to mention the world’s largest populace.
“China has become far bolder and more strategic in its approach to a very old and familiar objective, which is to shore up political control through controls on information,” said David Bandurski, co-director of the China Media Project and a Richard von Weizsäcker fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. “The world of media has expanded dramatically to influence every aspect of society, and so the Party feels it must centralize and double-down on control.”
From Tencent Holdings Ltd. and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. to Baidu Inc., China has corralled its internet champions into the effort. The crackdown is necessary to preserve the stability of a vast country undergoing rapid economic and social changes, government officials and academics say.
Xi kicked off the week-long event with what’s known as the work report, seen as the party’s most significant policy document, and used it to show there will be no letting up.
“We will provide more and better online content and put in place a system for integrated internet management to ensure a clean cyberspace,” he said. “We will distinguish between matters of political principle, issues of understanding and thinking, and academic viewpoints, but we must oppose and resist various erroneous views with a clear stand.”
During his time, restrictions have already widened significantly and ventured well beyond politics to ensnare even prime-time foreign soap operas and livestreaming performers with scant audiences. Xi, who’s held top positions in the economically liberal bastions of Zhejiang and Shanghai, is now regarded as the driving force behind a rapidly tightening online regime.
“Xi Jinping has definitely been a turning point in terms of the degree of censorship that is happening in China,” said Charlie Smith, who founded Greatfire.org, an organization that finds ways around government restrictions. “He is the first Chinese leader to truly understand the power of the internet and hence, we are seeing an unprecedented crackdown on dissenting information,” said Smith, who uses a pseudonym for fear of government reprisals
In June, Weibo Corp., the Chinese equivalent to Twitter, was one of three firms fined and banned by regulators from broadcasting certain types of content without a license. In an August earnings call, its chief financial officer said current rules made it legally impossible to acquire a license without becoming “wholly state-owned or state-controlled”.
“They want to shut people up and to tighten self-censorship. They want to avoid mass incidents and prevent crises before they emerge,” said Qiao Mu, a former journalism professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University.
Away from the glare of rules and legislation, censorship in China has become increasingly granular, right down to what can be shown on streaming sites.
Virtual private networks, the technology long used to circumvent web filters, have gone from being periodically blocked by previous regimes to actively shut down under Xi. In September, authorities said they would soon punish WeChat or Weibo group administrators and members for “inappropriate” comments. Forty people at one group have reportedly been disciplined for a petition while a man was arrested for complaining about police raids.
China’s online watchdog has also slapped fines on news services run by Tencent, Baidu and Weibo. Internet regulators said they shut 3,918 websites in the second quarter for spreading information that’s violent, pornographic or a danger to national security. Even Winnie-the-Pooh was kicked out temporarily after he started popping up as a proxy for the stout Xi.
“At this rate, there will not be much left for the next leader to censor,” Greatfire’s Smith said.
That’s why several businesses have developed artificial intelligence to identify and delete content before it catches the eye of censors.
Tencent’s WeChat, with almost a billion users, has become adept at preventing sensitive messages from ever reaching their destination, as when it blocked photos of the late dissident and Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo. Baidu is building a system to allow cybercops to spot and fix “online rumors,” letting police agencies insert themselves directly into everything from its search results to discussion forums.
The tightening presents unique challenges to foreign firms navigating the legal landscape.
Services that rely on free-flowing information, such as Google and Facebook, would struggle to exist in such a regime, though they remain intent on finding a way in given the size of the potential market. WhatsApp, which operated unfettered for years, from July began experiencing intermittent disruptions that industry experts blame on government surveillance technology, especially ahead of the Party congress.
To others, China is simply too big to ignore and more than worth the cost of complying. LinkedIn censors its local subscribers’ posts. Microsoft Corp. has set up software centers where government officials can peruse source code -- though under careful scrutiny. And Apple Inc. started deleting VPN apps from its store, which Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook said in August wasn’t ideal but “we follow the law wherever we do business.”
China’s obsession with control extends to the data of its own population. Regulations enacted this year require more information to be stored domestically and made available upon request. Authorities say it’s designed to protect the privacy of citizens and intellectual property, but businesses say the rise of cloud computing -- where processing is shared with remote datacenters -- often makes that unfeasible.
“The trouble is these companies are torn between outrageous requirements like handing over source codes, which they’ve never had to do anywhere else in the world, and the reality of 1.3 billion potential customers,” said Scott Thiel, a partner at DLA Piper. “So there’s a real economic tension where you just don’t want to abandon the market.”
With assistance from David Ramli