Dr. Jian Xu, a visiting scholar with the Center for Global Communication Studies and the Center for the Study of Contemporary China, analyzes the government’s role in China’s internet governance and law-making, with a special focus on policy developments under Xi Jinping’s ruling.
Since Xi Jiping began his presidency in November 2012, the Chinese government has tightened their control of media — rather a surprise to those who expected political and judiciary reform. In April, the New Yorker journalist Evan Osnos called Xi “the most authoritarian leader since Mao,” in regards to his treatment of internet governance, among other issues. This blog post focuses on the role of the state in governing the internet, and does not focus on the roles other actors (corporate entities and civil society) play in internet governance. It will discuss various restrictions on the internet under Xi’s leadership, including key policies, regulations, and events, as well as the impacts of such actions.
Immediately after Xi took office, China started expanding its oversight of the internet. In December 2012, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress issued the Decision on Strengthening Network Information Protection, new rules requiring internet users to provide real identity information to internet service providers (ISPs) while signing a service agreement for internet access. The Decision also requires internet service providers to work more closely with the government’s internet regulations and censorship, including deleting politically sensitive postings, reporting those who post such material to relevant authorities, and providing necessary technical support to the government. On the surface, the Decision appears to protect users’ security and information. However, because a real name (or pseudonym) is required to access the internet, netizens are afraid to post critical information online. This has largely curbed netizens’ desire to expose official malfeasance and corruption on the internet, which used to be a relatively effective way for ordinary people to supervise political power from the bottom up when official channels are blocked.
The government’s control of the internet further tightened after Xi Jinping’s speech at the National Propaganda and Ideology Work Conference on August 19, 2013. In the speech, Xi ordered the propaganda apparatus to seize the battleground of new media and make online public opinion the top priority of the Party’s publicity platform. Soon afterwards, the government started an internet campaign on the internet called “rumor-mongering.” On August 23, 2013, Beijing police detained Xue Manzi, an opinion leader known for his critical postings on Sina Weibo, the most popular microblogging site in China. The incident warned other verified accounts with millions of followers (Big Vs) on Sina Weibo to restrain their online speech. Such regulations did not only impact online celebrities—they also involved ordinary internet users. On September 9, 2013, the Supreme People’s Court and Supreme People’s Procuratorate issued a judicial interpretation, stating that if defamatory posts are viewed more than 5,000 times or reposted more than 500 times, posters be charged with defamation. A few days later, Yang Hu, a 16-year-old student in Gansu Province, became the first to fall afoul of the new rule. He was accused of “spreading rumors, inciting mass demonstrations, and seriously obstructing social order.” He was detained for a week because of his widely reposted messages challenging local police’s explanation of a recent murder case. The toughening restrictions on the online expressions of both celebrities and citizens have contributed to the drop of Weibo users, from 330 million in June 2013 to 204 million in June 2015.
In addition to controlling the domestic content of China’s internet, the Party extended its internet governance agenda to enhance China’s cybersecurity from external threats. Edward Snowden’s revelations that the U.S. was spying on China’s internet sounded an alarm for the Chinese government to strengthen its cybersecurity. In February 2014, President Xi Jinping personally headed the Central Internet Security and Informatization Leading Group. The new group endeavored to defend China’s cybersecurity and build China into a “powerful internet country” through advancing cyber technology. In November 2014, China held its first World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, Zhejiang Province. At the Summit, Xi Jinping advocated for the principle of “cyber-sovereignty” to an international audience, demonstrating the Party’s vision of internet governance: every national government has the right to regulate, control and censor the online content within border, challenging the Western notion of the freedom of speech on the internet.
Events throughout 2015 have illustrated China’s continued efforts to tighten control on the internet. On June 1, an Easter Star cruise ship carrying more than 450 people capsized in the Yangtze River, and the government, predictably, censored information about the tragedy. Social media outlets, particularly Sina Weibo, which had successfully forced the government to release otherwise blocked information in previous disasters, was strictly censored in this ship-sinking case. Similarly, in the aftermath of the Tianjin warehouse blast on August 12, 2015, critical posts about the blast were quickly deleted from Weibo and Wechat to ensure the government controlled the narrative of the disaster. In addition to cracking down on social media content, to influence narratives surrounding the disaster, the government proactively used social media platforms to publicize heroic acts of soldiers and firefighters who participated in the rescue and relief work.
In August 2015, the government further tightened internet restrictions before the most significant celebratory event of the year—the military parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II. In the weeks leading up to the parade, the government clamped down on the Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) that allow skillful internet users to circumvent the Great Firewall and view blocked websites. These efforts by the state were implemented to ensure a positive public opinion environment for the event.
Beginning September 1, 2015, the government’s toughest SIM card real-name registration system took effect. New regulations require customers to present their ID cards in order to verify their real identities when purchasing SIM cards from telecom service providers. Old cards without real-name registration will be restricted after their expiration date. By June 2015, China’s internet population reached 668 million, with the number of mobile internet users at 594 million, accounting for 88.9% of the total internet population. Users normally need to provide their mobile phone numbers to receive verification codes while registering for online forums, video-sharing sites, and social media accounts, such as QQ, Baidu Tieba, Youku, Weibo and Wechat. Though pseudonymous account names are allowed for online posting, the real-name SIM card registration system makes it easier for the government to trace the identities of those who post critical online content. This, to a great extent, will indirectly tighten the restrictions on the online expressions of ordinary internet users.
These key policies, regulations and events have illustrated China’s toughening internet governance under Xi Jinping’s leadership. The Chinese government views and uses the internet as a strategic mechanism to guide public opinion, promote socialist core values, defend the nation’s information security, and win the ideology campaign initiated by Xi Jinping. Internet control and crackdowns on the online dissidents have caused a decline of internet activism in recent years. However, as Guobin Yang argues, the internet control regime could not root out online activism completely. Internet activism will evolve in mode and practice to adapt to the new forms of control. In the meantime, the government will continue to update its control measures to deal with the emerging forms of online activism. This tension will, over a period of time, push China’s internet to be an even more contested space. The government, corporate entities, and civil society will compete, negotiate, interact, and mutually constitute each other to realize their different agendas. Nevertheless, the decisive role of the state in internet governance gives the government a likely advantage to usurp the power of other internet actors.
 Yang Guobin (2014): “Internet activism & the Party-State in China”, Daedalus, 143(2), 110-123.
About the Author
Dr. Jian Xu is a joint visiting scholar at CGCS and the Center for the Study of Contemporary China at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a researcher in the Sydney Democracy Network at the University of Sydney and recently completed postdoctoral research at the China Research Centre at the University of Technology, Sydney. Dr. Xu researches Chinese media studies with a particular interest in the mediated social-cultural-political changes. His research areas focus on China’s Internet activism, Internet governance, authoritarianism 2.0, and micro-charity. He is the author of Media Events in Web 2.0 China: Interventions of Online Activism (2016, Sussex Academic Press, in press) and a co-editor of Chinese Social Media Today: Critical Perspective (2016, Routledge, under contract).