The 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party is just beginning, but it is already apparent that censorship in the country will be taking a great leap forward in the coming years. Reporters Without Borders released a report this week outlining the continuing slide China is making into Orwellian territory, adding new mortar and blocks to the gaps of the already formidable "Great Firewall."
The report noted that within China, the WhatsApp messaging application has begun malfunctioning over the past few weeks preceding the 19th Congress. It has also been reported that the internet surveillance apparatus in China now employs nearly 2 million people, with one estimated mole for every 374 internet users in the country. There is however, no reported number of agents active on sites or networks based outside of the country.
All of this is of course very troubling, but it is not surprising. State control and monitoring of the internet has been a hallmark of the PRC since the internet was first introduced. From the perspective of the party, managing the benefits of modern IT technology against the danger of unrestrained free speech and potential criticism, has been a significant balancing act. To the consternation of many, and to the Party's credit, they have managed the task quite successfully. So far.
As Reporters With Borders notes, the campaign to stifle internet freedoms for Chinese netizens looks like it is preparing to lurch into high gear. Over the past week, the Chinese Cybersecurity Administration has been contacting and questioning moderators of various groups and networks, like those on WeChat, in an effort to reduce content that "distorts the history of China and the Party, misinterprets policy directives and promotes abnormal values.”
Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index for 2017. China is ranked 176th out of 180 countries.
This is essentially a psychological prod intended to promote self-censorship among netizens while the "Firewall" is further reinforced. For now, the most worrying long-term directive appears to be the State's intention to completely abolish the use of VPNs (virtual private networks) before February 2018, by ordering compliance of all Chinese telecom companies.
VPNs are the means by which foreigners and Chinese alike are able to access sites like Google, YouTube, Facebook and many others. Should such a policy succeed, then the restrictions on freedom of movement between online communities, as well as freedom of thought, opinion and conscience on the internet, will become de facto as well as de jure for the nearly 1.4 billion residents of China.
In the digital age, such a massive firewalling should raise serious questions about human rights, and what, if any legal framework exists for addressing their potential violation. The UN Declaration of Human Rights specifically mentions such rights in Articles 12 through 21, but it remains to be seen how those articles would be interpreted in the context of digital space.
Despite the worrying pace of internet censorship in China, there is an exciting prospect of seeing how the United Nations, or the international community in general will respond to these pressing questions moving forward in the globalized age of information technology.
Chinese Netizens pictured in Fuyang China. (AP Image)
If the Chinese state does successfully insulate its digital territory from "unhealthy" influences, and successfully abolishes digital anonymity, it will mark a new period in the development of the internet. And in state-regulated Chinese cyberspace, projects like the "Sesame Credit" system will soon be compulsory and unavoidable for any Chinese person that wants to maintain an online presence.
Sesame Credit is a pilot program for a system that will register and integrate every Chinese citizen's credit score, financial and personal information, along with an assessment of how good a citizen they are. By making online posts and real-world purchases that the state deems beneficial and "healthy," one's score can be improved, which will then provide certain perks and access to other features. For example, there is speculation that a state approved matchmaking service will be integrated into the program eventually.
It is an ingenious initiative designed to gamify citizenship and loyalty to the state. A pilot version has been in use and under development since 2015, and it is expected to be mandatory for all online citizens by 2020. The implications for such a system are as terrifying as they are fascinating, and all the more reason not to ignore the serious blow that internet freedoms are suffering in the most populous country of the world.
China's Great Firewall (Creative Commons)
Unfortunately in the short term, it appears that Chinese netizens, and a large portion of the internet itself are about to be severed from the rest of the net. In the long term, the world may have a front row seat and a valuable opportunity to witness an unprecedented dystopian social engineering project of the modern internet age.
In light of the current culture wars and debate about "Freedom of Speech" in the West, along with the related concerns about fake news, bots, shills, and political agents paid to influence public opinion via online social networks, China should be a giant red flag for us all. A warning of how dire things may yet become, and a reminder of why political freedoms (on and off-line) must be defended.
The "Great Firewall" is beginning to resemble a digital Berlin Wall more and more with each passing year, and it is time for the world to take notice. If there are no actors within the international community that can apply positive pressure to redirect the CCP's course within China, then at the very least, let this be a lesson for the internet users of the world. A lesson in what to avoid.