China’s Internet Crackdown Is Another Step Toward ‘Digital Totalitarian State’

President Bill Clinton once mocked attempts by China to limit free speech online.

“Good luck,” he said. “That’s sort of like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.”

But 17 years later, Beijing is taking steps to isolate the Chinese internet from the outside world, while drastically stepping up digital surveillance of those within and cracking down on online anonymity.

Image: Bill Clinton in 1998
President Bill Clinton during a 1998 visit to Shanghai, China. J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press, file

Chinese authorities are targeting virtual private networks (VPNs) and other tools that are used to circumvent the so-called Great Firewall, the country’s system of strict internet censorship. VPNs provide anonymity and access to banned or blocked websites, such as Facebook and Twitter, and until recently have been used widely in China.

And from Oct. 1, users posting comments on web platforms or other internet forums will have to use their real identities. Forbidden content includes damaging the nation’s honor, endangering national security, spreading rumors and disrupting social order. The list encompasses just about anything the authorities decide they don’t like.

China’s cyber-regulator has banned any VPNs it has not approved, leading to shutdowns across the country. Apple has removed VPNs from its China app store, in a move that Amnesty International described as a “deplorable decision.”

‘Distract the Public and Change the Subject’

Until now, the Great Firewall, though formidable, has been porous. That’s partly because of VPNs, but also as a result of the ingenuity of internet users themselves, playing cat-and-mouse with the authorities. Previous attempts at real-name registration have not been widely enforced.

The firewall has operated by blocking specific websites and by the use of key word filters, preventing searches of sensitive words or phrases, like “democracy,” “Tiananmen” or “June 4,” the date of the 1989 massacre in and around Tiananmen Square. This automated element is complemented by an estimated 100,000 internet police who check content.

Image: A Chinese man in Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989
A Chinese man stands alone to block a line of tanks in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989. He was calling for an end to bloodshed against pro-democracy demonstrators and was pulled away by bystanders before the military vehicles continued on their way. JEFF WIDENER / AP, file

The system has become increasingly sophisticated, employing up to 2 million additional loyalists to join and steer conversations and debates, according to China’s state-sponsored media, where this is seen as more effective than simply blocking them. These loyalists have been dubbed the “50 Cent Army,” since each member is allegedly paid that sum each time they post in favor of the Communist Party.

The system was analyzed earlier this year by three American academics: Gary King of Harvard University, Jennifer Pan of Stanford University and Margaret Roberts of the University of California at San Diego.

They estimate the Chinese government “fabricates and posts about 448 million social media comments a year.” They say the operation is massive and secretive, the goal being to “distract the public and change the subject.”

Winnie the Pooh

Even before the VPN ban, China’s President Xi Jinping had been progressively tightening controls, re-enforcing the firewall as users have found ways of circumventing censorship through the use of symbols, images or acronyms to comment on events or mock their leaders. One of the most popular images for Xi, a picture of Winnie the Pooh, who appears to share the president’s physique, was recently outlawed by the censors.