World Internet Conference: Has China overcome paranoia?

  • 20 November 2014
  • From the section China
Media captionChina: "Most sophisticated censorship in the world"

The slogan at China's first World Internet Conference:

"An interconnected world shared and governed by all."

By which China means not dominated by American companies, governance or worldview.

If the internet is the biggest revolution in information technology for 500 years and the rise of China is the biggest transfer of global economic power in the same period, then China's first global internet conference is the signal that Beijing intends to put these world-changing forces in harness together.

The setting is improbable.

We're only an hour from Shanghai, but the conference is being held in an ancient town of willow-fringed canals, curving eaves and sleepy stone alleys.

Image caption Chinese internet chief Lu Wei proposed building a 'peaceful, safe and co-operative' cyberspace
Image caption The internet conference also drew foreign representatives like Facebook Vice President Vaughan Smith

Here in Wuzhen, China's internet tsars have gathered home-grown tech giants Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent and multinationals like Apple, Microsoft and Google.

"Join us in building up a peaceful, safe, open and co-operative cyberspace," urged internet chief Lu Wei.

But the cyberspace experience at the conference was frustrating, not just for the BBC but also for the local journalists.

"This is a doll's house! A propaganda effort in a doll's house," complained one.

"The internet sucks here. Next time let's do the thing in a real city."

'Extreme control and suppression'

Logistics aside, with a quarter of the world's internet users and a world-beating team of internet companies, China now feels able to claim a stake in governing international cyberspace.

But on the eve of the internet conference, human rights organisation Amnesty International said Beijing's internet model was one of extreme control and suppression:

"Now China appears eager to promote its own domestic internet rules as a model for global regulation. This should send a chill down the spine of anyone that values online freedom."

The problem for those who cherish the ideal of a free internet is that China does not share their enthusiasm.

Image caption Human rights group Amnesty International has slammed China's heavy-handed internet practices
Image caption Google's Eric Schmidt: "You can’t build a high-end, sophisticated economy with active censorship"

For 20 years, would-be democrats have been hoping that the internet would be the force to liberate China.

Nobel Peace Prize-winning dissident Liu Xiaobo who is currently serving an 11-year prison sentence for subversion called it "God's gift to China".

Eric Schmidt of Google once said: "You can't build a high-end, very sophisticated economy… with this kind of active censorship"

And Rupert Murdoch of News Corp warned that advances in communications technology pose "an unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere".

Image caption At one point, not even rubber ducks were spared from Chinese web censors
Image caption Images like this one from the Hong Kong protests, were also banned from Chinese servers

Has the Chinese Communist Party proved them all wrong?

It has certainly adapted to the internet age better than many imagined possible.

As recently as last month, the rest of the world watched dramatic images of democracy protesters shielding themselves with umbrellas against riot police firing tear gas on the streets of Hong Kong.

But in mainland China, online propaganda and censorship were so effective that the public heard almost nothing of the students' message and instead saw only frustrated taxi drivers and residents complaining about disruption.

Image caption Chinese Vice-Premier Ma Kai called for mutual respect among nations towards online security

China's view is that the web can and must be controlled.

At the opening ceremony of the internet conference, Vice-Premier Ma Kai said: "All countries should strengthen co-operation and fully respect the different concerns that each nation has towards internet security."

Other governments like Cuba and Iran conduct censorship, but China is the only country in the world which is so wired and yet so tightly controlled in real time.

China has 632 million internet users, which means it has nearly twice as many people online as the US has in total. It is also the world's biggest smartphone market.

E-commerce behemoth Alibaba recently staged the biggest stock market launch in history, and along with Baidu and Tencent, all of them prominent at this week's internet conference, it gives China a trio of giants able to take on the world whether in internet search, e-commerce or social media.

Media captionChina's internet curbs - explained in 60 seconds

China sees the value of the internet - even politically.

Snooping on social media provides a direct feedback loop to the one-party state in the absence of elections, a form of instant opinion polling and a good pressure valve.

If it's such a good thing, why does China bother censoring the internet?

The Communist Party is no longer communist in ideology but it remains Leninist in organisation.

Rigorous control of information is in its DNA. It worries about real-time communication tools which have both the scale and the capacity to mobilise the Chinese public.

It watched with alarm as Facebook and Twitter helped bring people onto the streets during the Arab Spring.

Even with its army of censors, many Chinese protests about demolitions, or pollution, have been organised on social media. How much worse would that be, wonders Beijing, if it had no "great firewall of China"?

Image caption Many of China's tech savvy internet users are aware of the suppression online

Do those inside the firewall know or care?

A hairdressing salon in Beijing. A middle-aged man with a comb-over is playing a game on his smartphone. When they're not attending to clients, the hairdressers in Doc Martens and edgy black uniforms are scrolling through their messages.

A 25-year-old make up artist is getting her hair dyed blue while watching a Michael Jackson concert on her tablet.

But do any of them know that they're not getting the same internet as the rest of the world? And if they do know, would they care?

"I know we're being suppressed but it doesn't really affect me," said the girl with the blue hair.

"Sometimes I feel bad for people, but there's nothing I can do to change things."

Image caption China has deployed an online 'army' to scour the internet for terms and images it deems sensitive
Image caption Events surrounding the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy protests have always been heavily censored in China

So how does it work?

China's Great Firewall is a combination of humans and computer algorithms.

An army of humans, perhaps two million strong, scour the internet deleting what has somehow got past the machine screening.

They play cat-and-mouse games with internet users who use clever tricks to get round the censorship.

For example, 25 years after the bloody crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests, "4 June 1989" is a search term that is censored. But people try to get around the censors by using different combinations of the date: 6-4, 64, 63+1, 65-1, and 35 (shorthand for May 35th).

Image caption Alibaba founder Jack Ma has managed to successfully dominate China's internet
Image caption Twitter and Facebook may be banned but that has not stopped users from airing their views on sites like Weibo

Censorship is much easier in the absence of western social media.

Facebook, Twitter and Youtube are all barred from China. Google left in 2010.

The absence of the foreign giants is a triple blessing.

It has given space for China's equivalents to grow into huge companies, it has allowed government to develop firm control of those companies, and it has habituated Chinese users to social media whose content is politically much tamer.

Never having known anything else, China's citizens by and large accept what they're given, which is social media focused on entertainment and chat.

The public is spectacularly unaware of the extent to which it is censored and spied on.

In a recent poll for the BBC, 76% of those questioned said they felt free from government surveillance. This was the highest of 17 countries polled.

Image caption China's leader Xi Jinping personally heads his party's internet committee

It's getting worse

Internet optimists may say it's a matter of time. If so, it may be quite a long time.

China's leader Xi Jinping has made it very clear he takes the internet extremely seriously. It's one of only four committees he chairs personally.

A year ago, he said the Party must "build a strong army to seize the territory of the new media".

Almost immediately, a crackdown began.

There were new offences for spreading online rumours, arrests of celebrity bloggers, a determined campaign to ensure real-name registration so that no one could hide behind anonymity.

Image caption Is the ruling Communist Party transmitting its power through the internet?

The Chinese Communist Party has been refining its censorship tools for the best part of a century and is now sharpening them in cyberspace.

There's an element of hypocrisy in this.

For example, all China's propaganda organs have Twitter accounts. And many Chinese companies make a living by designing Twitter apps. All while Twitter is blocked inside the country.

China sees this not as hypocrisy but fair game. It regards American companies as part of a US geopolitical hegemony, and saw revelations from the former CIA contractor Edward Snowden of extensive internet surveillance by US intelligence as vindication.

For the sake of market access, some American companies choose to comply with Chinese rules.

Inside China, Apple blocks apps on Tibet and Xinjiang. Microsoft filters its Bing search engine, and Cisco has supplied equipment which critics say could be used for surveillance.

Going global

Is there a moral difference between what the US government does and what the Chinese government does?

Is there a moral difference between the filtering systems of the big internet companies and the manipulation of internet results through censorship?

Not questions under discussion at this week's internet conference.

But the scale of China's cyber economy and the momentum of its big internet players means that people all over the world may soon have to start asking themselves these questions.

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