The 'Great Firewall' grows: China toughens censorship in wake of protests

ITV News Asia Correspondent Debi Edward reports on China's social media clampdown

My walk to work takes me past the Liangma River in Beijing. Today, I noticed two police cars stationed at either side of one of the bridges.

I walked down to the next bridge, and it was the same there. I later checked and it appears the police were monitoring all crossing points and intersections in the area.

It is the kind of police presence usually only reserved for when there are big political events taking place in the city, on sensitive anniversaries or as happened recently, following displays of public dissent.

There were five police cars parked along the road, and the riverside where the recent protests took place at the Liangma Bridge.

Despite initial comparisons to the Tiananmen Square demonstrations which went on for months in 1989, those November protests have so far ended up being just a single eruption of dissent in the capital.

However, it is clear the authorities are still on edge. And that includes those policing the online environment for the whole of the country.

A new directive issued by the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) covering the Chinese New Year holiday, specifically mentions a clampdown on pandemic-related rumours and fabricated reports on virus related policies.

The CAC is monitoring social media to ensure that only images of happy families and joyful messages are shown and nothing which is deemed to exacerbate "gloomy sentiments.”

Online clean-up campaigns are not unusual during the national holiday but this year the CAC itself made all the details public, and the crackdown is clearly designed to prevent any dissent that might fuel further protests.

Xiao Qiang, the founder and editor-in-chief of China Digital Times. Credit: ITV News

In California I met Xiao Qiang, who runs the China Digital Times, which tracks Chinese censorship and online sentiment.

He has been living in exile in the United States since taking part in the Tiananmen Square protests. He believes that although things are quiet on the surface, the so-called white paper movement has changed something in China.

He says during the recent nationwide protests some of the slogans being chanted for freedom of speech, the right to vote and the end of dictatorship, echoed those he shouted in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

He felt it was reassuring to know that there are still those willing to stand up and fight for a freer society.

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He believes President Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid policy has left him facing a similar challenge from today’s young generation.

“They have just witnessed how terrifying it can be if you let one person concentrate so much power and what kind of damage he can do. The draconian zero-Covid policy and the disaster it brought on China is actually the most clear evidence, wakening people up.”

The authorities have used digital surveillance to track down and arrest dozens of those who took part in last year’s demonstrations.

They have been subjected to intimidation and police interrogations. The arrests haven’t been confirmed officially, so it is impossible to know exactly how many people are not enjoying the freedom they protested for.

One of those who has disappeared into detention in Beijing is a woman called Cao Zhixin. She left a video for friends to release, knowing officers were closing in. Four others she’d been with at the protests had already been taken away so she knew she was next.

In China, which has the most smartphone users in the world, mobiles can leave an easy trail for the police to follow. Eric Liu describes them as the spy in everyone’s pocket.

He used to work on the censorship team of one of the country’s leading messaging platforms. He now lives in Los Angeles and works raising awareness of Chinese censorship.

“On Weibo there were many Nazi, racist and sexist comments but what we censors focused on was the so-called political topics. What I worked on was pretty bad, following instructions to deprive people of their rights.”

“When speaking of China’s surveillance, the first thing we think of is an image of surveillance cameras installed everywhere in China, but it is not only cameras, worse is the thing in your pocket.

"A phone is something which carries your most private information, where you have been, who you know, who your family members are, who your friends are, who you have been in touch with, the secrets you have, where you are planning to have dinner, your future plans, all are in the phone, you can imagine how useful that is if they want to deal with you.”

Phones have been described as the 'spy' you carry around at all times by an former censorship official. Credit: ITV News

From the start of this year the government imposed a new law requiring internet companies to proofread all posts on their sites.

They already have a legal obligation to hand over the details of individual users. Xiao Qiang thinks we will see further controls imposed in the coming months.

“I think the Chinese Communist Party are going to dramatically increase control between China and the rest of the world. We’re going to see the upgrade of the Great Firewall in many many different levels.

"Not only just how vast they are blocking and filtering the information inside of China but their ability to track down people, crackdown on actual users, limit VPN usage etc. That will be one of the keys for the Chinese Communist Party to control the information environment in China.

"Because no matter how strict the domestic information environment can be, if the Great Firewall is leaking then they do not have real control over the information space.”

At this annual time of reflection, the Chinese government is working harder than ever to make sure this doesn’t become a new year of rebellion.

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