Thirty years ago, Beijing’s Tiananmen Square became a symbol of pro-democracy protests the world over as the site of several important events in Chinese history witnessed a deadly military crackdown. It crushed the protests led by students, eventually costing more than 10,000 lives.
The crackdown became one of the most censored topics on the Chinese internet. Around this time of the year, certain websites, including Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and some Google services, are either fully blocked or temporarily “blacked out”.
The government aims to prevent discussion of the crackdown and also to erase the event from Chinese history, particularly among the younger generation, according to journalist and author James Griffiths.
“Chinese authorities are afraid of collective action against the government,” said Griffiths, the author of The Great Firewall of China: How to Build and Control an Alternate Version of the Internet.
Since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012, China has launched an unprecedented crackdown on online freedom, submerging the internet in propaganda and punishing journalists who post the “wrong” content.
Under Xi, China has blocked about 26,000 Google search terms and 880 Wikipedia pages.
Hundreds of thousands of articles and more than 100,000 social media accounts have been removed in enhanced efforts to “cleanse the country’s cyber environment”.
Meanwhile, demand for online censoring services has soared.
China has the world’s largest number of internet users, around 829 million according to the government – that is more than two-and-a-half times the population of the United States.
For the third year in a row, a US-based NGO Freedom House called China the “the worst abuser of internet freedom” in its Freedom on the Net report.
The “Great Firewall” is the term widely used to describe China’s largest and most sophisticated system of online censorship in the world.
“The goal is not a closed internet, but a controlled one,” said Griffiths, adding that Chinese authorities are not only strengthening it but also exporting their model of cyber-sovereignty to other authoritarian-leaning countries, including Russia and Uganda.
“Things were very different in 2011. We felt that the situation would change for the better – less censorship, not more. We were all wrong,” said Charlie Smith (not his real name), a cofounder of Great Fire – a China-based organisation that monitors and challenges internet censorship.
“The severity of the crackdown on the free flow of information has been so intense and so widespread,” he added.
The government’s general response to social unrest has been more censorship, according to Griffiths.
In 2009, after a series of violent riots in Urumqi in the country’s far northwest, Chinese authorities cut off internet access to the region for 10 months.
Oxford University Professor Rana Mitter said there is a strong historical precedent for the government’s fear of social unrest, predating the Communist Party, which used censorship in an effort to enforce political conformity.
Journalists and activists say the state’s control over the internet is set to intensify.
In June 2017, a new cybersecurity law came into effect, increasing censorship requirements, mandating data localisation and requiring internet companies to assist security agencies with investigations.
Foreign technology companies have begun to comply with the new restrictions.
Apple removed hundreds of VPNs from its online app store adhering to a new ban on circumvention tools.
The move in June 2017 sparked widespread criticism.
By complying with increasing internet restrictions, Apple showed it will not protect users from censorship, according to Griffiths.
“When Xi says jump, Apple says ‘how high’,” said Smith.
Apple CEO Tim Cook defended the move.
“We follow the law wherever we do business … we strongly believe participating in markets and bringing benefits to customers is in the best interest of the folks there and in other countries as well.”
FreeWeibo, created by Great Fire, is a social media network that restores and integrates censored and deleted posts, which currently number more than 300,000.
While it’s difficult to estimate how many people bypass internet restrictions in China, Smith said a ‘realistic assessment’ showed 0.5 percent of the online population use circumvention tools.
‘Less freedom for action’
Despite the fact that China’s online population of almost 829 million is growing, he says it is increasingly difficult to circumvent the restrictions.
“Society, for the most part, has largely had to obey the new rules. There’s much less freedom for action. People have become much more cautious about posting,” said Mitter.
Since 2016, the Chinese government has imprisoned founders and key members of human rights and anti-censorship movements, according to Human Right Watch.
In August 2017, a Yunnan court sentenced journalist Lu Yuyu to four years in prison on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”.
Yuyu has chronicled China’s history of protests, helped human rights abuse survivors use the internet to promote their cases and taught university students about methods of circumventing internet censorship.
In October 2017, President Xi announced plans to transform China into a “cyber superpower”. But despite efforts to shed light on China’s censorship practices, it is trending in the wrong direction, according to Smith.
Breaking the Great Firewall would have far-reaching benefits not just for Chinese people but for the rest of the world too. Smith said only one person would suffer if information controls were lifted: “his name is Xi Jinping”.