The rise of China as a digital totalitarian state


Xiao Qiang is an adjunct professor at the School of Information, University of California at Berkeley. He is also the founder and chief editor of China Digital Times. Born in China, he has been living in exile in the U.S. for 28 years.

During its recent Lunar New Year gala show, state-run Chinese Central Television spotlighted a 93-year-old engineer who participated in China’s first nuclear submarine program. The program, which broadcasts to an audience of over 1 billion national and overseas viewers, lauded this guest of honor for dedicating his life to top-secret government work and for making huge sacrifices for the Communist Party. “For 30 years, he made no contact with his family for fear of giving away his knowledge and only told his father what he did for a living when the older man was on his deathbed,” the state report declared.

Zhuo Baowei, a former lawyer in Shandong province, watched the broadcast and was disgusted by what he viewed as blatant propaganda. Using the Chinese social media platform Weibo, Zhou wrote that the nuclear engineer was “shameless” for having “not contacted his parents for 30 years.” Three days later, Zhuo was detained by local police. He was held for 10 days and fined 500 yuan, or about $79, for his public criticism of the celebrated state hero. His verified social media account was deleted by Sina, the tech company behind Weibo.

Zhou’s story is the latest example of how much stricter state control has become across the Chinese Internet, especially social media platforms. In China, censorship and propaganda go hand in hand, backed by the use of physical force, including police visits, arrests and attacks by state media on people who have expressed controversial political opinions online.

Ever since he came to power in 2012, President Xi Jinping has attempted to bolster the authority of the Communist Party in part by imposing wide-ranging policies to gain ideological and informational control over the media and Internet. In 2017, the country’s first cybersecurity law came into effect; it requires Internet companies to allow even more surveillance of their networks, submit to mandated security reviews of their equipment and provide data to government investigators when requested, among other regulations.

The University of Toronto-based Citizen Lab has identified various surveillance mechanisms used to monitor social media platforms such as WeChat, which can leave people with the sense that they have a surveillance weapon in their pockets. What’s more, these mechanisms remain in effect when individuals leave the country, as do large number of Chinese students who study abroad.

Another major development is the Chinese government’s creation of an army of Internet commentators, collectively known as the “50 Cent Army.” These commentators are organized and often paid by the government to publish online content favoring government policies, defaming public intellectuals, boosting Xi’s image and generally monitoring netizens’ activities, often using fake identities.

In 2015, an anonymous user leaked onto social media various email correspondences between propaganda officials, shedding light on the secretive work of the Fifty Cent Party. These archives include photos, directories of Internet commentators, and summaries of records of individuals’ online activities, dating to 2002. From those leaked documents, it is clear that the Chinese government has mobilized over 10 million college students through its Communist Youth League organization to take on various “online public opinion struggle” tasks.

As a critical component of the government’s information control infrastructure, the so-called “Great Firewall of China” has also been constantly updated in order to restrict transnational Internet networks and block “potentially subversive sites.” A research project of mine tracks 1,382 of the websites blocked in China, including YouTube, Google, Facebook, Flickr, Twitter and Instagram. Starting in early 2017, China stepped up its campaign against unauthorized Internet connections, including virtual private network (VPN) services that enable Internet users to bypass the Great Firewall. All VPN services not licensed by the government will be blocked starting in March 2018.

But beneath the surface of these constantly intensifying control measures, there are millions of Chinese grassroots voices, public opinion leaders and an insurgent community of circumvention practitioners who constantly push to expand the free flow of information in Chinese society. Digital activism has been and remains a vital driver of change in Chinese society.

So yes, we are witnessing China rise as a digital totalitarian state. But it may be the case that eventually resistance and critical thinking will become stronger than compliance and acceptance. And if that happens, the government’s repressive efforts on social media will be unsustainable.

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.