China has long been home to the world’s most sophisticated system of internet controls. Indeed, in Freedom House’s “Freedom on the Net 2020” report, published in October, it was ranked the lowest among the 65 countries assessed for the sixth year in a row.
But even by China’s own standards, censorship and surveillance were pushed to unprecedented extremes this year as the government tightened its grip on the activities of hundreds of millions of internet users. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) also extended its repression and disinformation into Hong Kong and around the world in ways that dramatically increase the stakes for foreign governments, technology firms, and ordinary citizens.
This raises the question: What is 2021 likely to bring in the country that is defining the contours of 21st century digital authoritarianism?
In light of both the Freedom on the Net findings and more recent events, these are five trends to watch for in the coming year:
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1. Spiking Censorship and Surveillance Surrounding COVID-19 Vaccines and Outbreaks
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At the center of the official cover-up that enabled COVID-19 to spread globally in early 2020 were the regime’s restrictions on internet freedom, particularly police interrogations of and forced retractions by medical professionals who shared early reports on social media of a SARS-like illness in the city of Wuhan. Other repressive measures followed, including restrictions on the use of virtual private networks, the removal of massive amounts of online content, the deletion of social media accounts and mobile phone applications, and the arrest of hundreds of internet users for their online speech. A number of these practices have receded in certain locales as infection rates drop, but the prosecutions of some detainees – like citizen journalist Zhang Zhan – continue to make their way through the court system. With the government now testing and distributing COVID-19 vaccines within China and to several developing countries, the political pressure to declare success is enormous. Given this reality and past censorship surrounding tainted vaccines, there are likely to be targeted deletions of and reprisals for any discussion of problems with the vaccination drive in 2021. And if new outbreaks occur in certain parts of the country, tightened censorship and surveillance are sure to follow.
2. Punishments for Outspoken Political and Economic Elites
A wide array of internet users in China, ranging from supporters of Hong Kong’s democracy movement to members of ethnic and religious minorities, routinely face arbitrary detention, torture, and draconian prison terms for their online activity. The past year stood out, however, for the number of harsh sentences and other reprisals that were meted out to members of China’s political and economic elite – including CCP members – for expressions of dissent. For example, within months of publishing an online critique of party leader Xi Jinping’s response to the pandemic, real estate tycoon Ren Zhiqiang was stripped of his CCP membership and sentenced to 18 years in prison in September. A few weeks later, a party committee in Fujian province purged the deputy party secretary of Xiangshan county, Ye Fuxing, and began criminal procedures against him for spreading material online that “vilified and slandered party and national leaders,” including Xi. In November, two entrepreneurs were targeted: Sun Dawu in Hubei was detained after speaking out in support of lawyer and democracy advocate Xu Zhiyong and philanthropist Li Huaiqing in Chongqing was sentenced to 20 years in prison after sharing articles in a private WeChat group concerning atrocities committed by the People’s Liberation Army. These cases were remarkable not just because such individuals were airing critiques of CCP rule and in some cases, supporting visions for a more democratic China, but also because of the speed and harshness with which they were punished. As the CCP prepares to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding in 1921, further reflections on the poor quality of its current governance are likely to bubble up from within the party, and fresh crackdowns will indubitably ensue.
3. Amplification of Nationalist Voices
Intensifying information controls in China have suppressed online expressions of support for human rights, justice, and fundamental freedoms, but they also encouraged and promoted aggressive nationalistic voices throughout 2020. The result was an even deeper distortion of public online debate, and heightened self-censorship among users hoping to avoid intimidation and verbal abuse by nationalistic netizens. In April, for example, there was an eruption of nationalist vitriol aimed at Wuhan author Fang Fang over the publication in English of online diaries documenting the city’s coronavirus lockdown. Should the Chinese government continue to pursue an aggressive foreign policy in the new year, groups of nationalist netizens could be marshalled to reinforce official rhetoric and participate in trolling attacks on both foreign and domestic “enemies.”
4. A Tighter Leash on Tech Giants
Major Chinese technology companies faced especially intense pressure from agencies like the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) to aid state surveillance and police user content during 2020. The CAC launched multiple “rectification” campaigns involving tighter scrutiny of content and large-scale deletions of posts and accounts. It forced Sina Weibo to impose a one-week suspension of its trending topics feature in June, and paused NetEase’s comment functions for a week in October, fining the company an unspecified amount because censors found that commenters had posted “inappropriate” content. The effort to tighten control over big tech firms appeared to gain steam toward the end of the year. On October 26, the CAC ordered the country’s most prevalent mobile internet browsers to undergo a “self-examination,” during which they had to remove rumors, sensational headlines, and other material deemed to violate “socialist values.” On November 2, the government abruptly suspended the highly anticipated initial public stock offering of Jack Ma’s Ant Group. Observers speculate it was due to Ma – himself a CCP member – having criticized excessive government regulation. Later in the month, the National Radio and Television Administration issued new regulations covering the country’s massive live-streaming sector, requiring companies to take stronger measures to proactively promote “positive” content in line with “socialist core values” and shutter accounts that fail to comply with real-name registration and requirements that they provide advance notice of appearances by celebrities or foreigners. These regulatory actions tend to undermine the efforts of Chinese tech giants to convince foreign markets that they have some independence from the CCP. It remains to be seen how the government and tech entrepreneurs will cope with this tension in 2021, but observers should watch for new examples of the firms proactively doing the bidding of the CCP and Chinese security forces.
5. More Big Data Surveillance and Its Use for Political Persecution
Government monitoring of internet and mobile communications in China is already pervasive and technologically advanced. Nevertheless, the party-state’s surveillance reach expanded further during 2020, whether through health code apps that purported to track COVID-19 exposure, improved facial recognition systems meant to identify individuals wearing masks, or a massive police-led DNA collection scheme. As of July, China was home to 18 of the 20 most monitored cities in the world. Moreover, government agencies and security services are increasingly moving in the direction of more data integration across platforms, sources, and locations. The year brought additional evidence that monitoring equipment supposedly designed to prevent crime and terrorism was being used to identify, track, detain, or even prosecute rights activists and religious believers, including Uyghur Muslims, Christians, and Falun Gong practitioners. Chinese technology firms have begun to specialize in the types of programs that facilitate such politicized and persecutory uses of surveillance. These developments reinforce concerns that broader big data advancements – like social credit initiatives or a nationwide digital currency – will be used to further marginalize rights activists, CCP critics, and minority communities. The new year will reveal the next steps in this progression and could include revelations on the potential complicity by foreign companies that operate in or export equipment to China.
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Despite the tight constraints and the risk of criminal penalties, bright spots in the struggle for internet freedom in China remain and made an appearance in 2020. In the early weeks of the coronavirus outbreak, investigative journalists, video bloggers, and their sources worked to trace the origins of the pandemic, identify those responsible for the initial cover-up, and report from within the quarantined city of Wuhan. Even after the reporting was censored, internet users devised creative methods to preserve it – including replacing Chinese characters with emojis, translating into Korean, or using Ethereum blockchain transactions. Netizens openly criticized the authorities’ cover-up efforts and their stifling of open discussion of the government response to the crisis, while citizen journalists posted unvarnished videos of events on the ground. In early February, as news of the death of whistleblowing doctor Li Wenliang spread, the hashtag “I want free speech” began to trend on Weibo, garnering millions of views in the hours before it was censored.
These activities served as a reminder of the deep desire for credible, independent information and the competency of Chinese journalists and citizens to provide it when given the chance. While such defiance of information controls will be especially difficult in 2021, as the CCP tries to avoid any embarrassments during its centennial year, new examples of effective grassroots resistance may still break through. Given the dangers involved, they deserve the outside world’s attention.
Sarah Cook is research director for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan at Freedom House and director of its China Media Bulletin.