With the development of internet technology, the right to create and publish has been further delegated to users, leading to the internet becoming a huge information flow (Lee & Liu, 2012, p.126). The harmful content in these information flows not only has a huge impact on the online world but may even have a negative impact on the real society. To address this issue, many governments have begun to regulate internet content. However, some countries seem to have started to deviate from their original intention of maintaining social security and stability in regulating internet content. This essay will argue that the Chinese government’s control of online content tends to further infringe on the freedom of speech of Chinese internet users. It will focus on the background and the function of the Great Firewall, further content control measures and the final impact on Chinese Internet users.
How did Chinese government control the internet?
Maintain National Stability
The main method used for internet content moderation in China is the Great Firewall. However, the term ‘Great Firewall’ was not invented by the Chinese government but was proposed by people (Nadeau & Murray, 2016, p.232). The Great Wall is one of the most famous tourist attractions in China, built in ancient China to resist foreign invaders. The Great Firewall directly demonstrates the role of the Chinese government in preventing Chinese netizens from accessing harmful content (Lee & Liu, 2012, p.133). Chinese government’s control of information is not a rare occurrence in China, which can be traced back to before the invention of the internet (Griffiths, 2019, p.26). At that time, censors would organize the import of foreign books and movies into China, or remove offensive articles from newspapers (Griffiths, 2019, p.26). In 1994, China achieved its first internet connection (Nadeau & Murray, 2016, p.233). As early as then, the government had already begun to worry about the potential risks of social instability and national security issues caused by the information explosion brought by the Internet (Nadeau & Murray, 2016, p.233). As a result, the government attaches great importance to the potential risks of the information revolution that the internet may bring, and has taken a series of measures, led by the Great Firewall, to regulate and filter internet content (Nadeau & Murray, 2016, p.233). In fact, China is not the only country that adopts such measures to filter internet content. Many countries also implement regulations on politically sensitive content on the internet, such as Iran, Singapore, Thailand, etc. (Lee & Liu, 2012, p.132).
Protect Local Businesses
In addition to helping maintain national stability, the Great Firewall can also protect local businesses from foreign competition in China (Nadeau & Murray, 2016, p.233). For example, when Google was blocked by the Great Firewall, Baidu, as a local search engine company in China, undoubtedly became the biggest beneficiary. Baidu’s current position as the top search engine in China is closely related to it. Similar beneficiaries include Sina Weibo, Bilibili Video, and more. Interestingly, they almost correspond to mainstream platforms around the world, such as Baidu and Google, Weibo and Twitter, Bilibili and YouTube. The Great Firewall has established a comfortable circle for local internet companies in China, resembling two parallel worlds outside the wall.
The Information Cocoon Created By The Chinese Government
The principle of the Great Firewall is very simple, and it is essentially the same as a regular firewall. It will block certain content and allow other types of content (Griffiths, 2019, p.27). But the Great Firewall is larger than a regular firewall. It has transformed the entire China into a huge internal network. It will check every flow or data packet it processes and determine whether it needs to organize users to access prohibited content (Griffiths, 2019, p.27). For example, if a user tries to load a blocked website, like Twitter in China, the firewall will disconnect the link and the user will only see an incorrect page. In addition to directly blocking a certain website or app, the Great Firewall also selectively blocks content on specific websites. Before Wikipedia was banned by the Chinese government in 2015, most of its content was accessible in China, with only a small number of specific pages discussing sensitive topics being censored (Griffiths, 2019, p.27). Most Chinese internet users have had the experience of school or work firewalls preventing them from accessing web pages deemed inappropriate.
However, in recent years, the Chinese government has become increasingly strict in controlling internet content. In China’s political culture, the difference between censorship and regulation is very small, and the demands of the authorities often prevail over media rights and freedom of speech (Nadeau & Murray, 2016, p.233). Any content that challenges or opposes government authority will be reviewed and blocked. The results have shown that in an environment where information is ubiquitous, technology is indeed the most efficient means of government control (Lee & Liu, 2012, p.126). In China, netizens can almost only hear voices praising the Communist Party and communism. This behavior actually shapes a huge information cocoon. Its essence is very similar to the tendency of big data to push content that users like. But its service target is not Chinese netizens, but the Chinese government. In other words, Chinese netizens can only see what the Chinese government wants them to see. It is not entirely impossible to bypass the obstruction of the Great Wall, and the most common method is through VPN. But the firewall has indeed successfully prevented most Chinese internet users from accessing content that has been blocked by the Chinese government. Because most users will attempt to open an alternative webpage instead of waiting for the initial webpage to appear on their screen (Lee & Liu, 2012, p.144). And this type of internet filtering and regulation has also successfully influenced the online habits of Chinese netizens. According to research, Chinese netizens are more interested in online entertainment than in political discussions (Lee & Liu, 2012, p.146).
June Fourth Incident
Apart from shaping the information cocoon, the Chinese government’s control over certain politically sensitive content has seriously violated the freedom of speech of netizens. June Fourth Incident is one of the most strictly controlled politically sensitive issues by the Chinese government. Firstly, Chinese netizens cannot find any information of it on Chinese search engines, including Baidu, 360 Browser, and Sogou. In real-life books and history education, this content has also been completely deleted. Secondly, in recent years, the Chinese government has become more stringent in controlling the incident. Nowadays, almost all social media platforms in China prohibit users from changing their avatars, signatures, and personal information at the beginning of June each year. Due to the existence of information cocoons, most netizens only know that they cannot change their personal information on social media during this time period but are unaware of the underlying reasons. Coupled with the impact of blocking technology on the behavior of netizens, they not only do not know the reasons, but also largely lose their desire to learn about the reasons. And the Chinese government’s control over the incident is far from over. On June 3rd, 2022, during a live broadcast, Chinese internet celebrity Jiaqi Li displayed a tank shaped ice cream during the process of selling ice cream, causing the live broadcast to be immediately shut down and absent for several days. Many netizens are also completely unaware of this, and Jiaqi Li’s social media response to it only includes the phrase “a system malfunction occurred”. Therefore, when the Chinese government began to use technology to control information and graft its own ideology onto the internet, the purpose of setting up online filtering by the government had shifted from serving the country at the beginning to serving its own party and government (Lee & Liu, 2012, p.125).
In conclusion, this essay has argued that the Chinese government’s increasingly strict control over online content has begun to infringe on the freedom of speech and other rights of netizens. At the beginning, the purpose of establishing the Great Firewall was indeed to serve the entire country, and it made significant contributions to maintaining national stability, protecting, and supporting the development of local Chinese internet enterprises. However, in recent years, China’s Great Firewall and other shielding methods have been constantly upgrading. The Chinese government’s sensitivity and information control over June Fourth Incident have exceeded its due scope. In order to achieve complete control, in addition to shaping information cocoons, the government may even punish Chinese netizens who are completely unaware of this. The Chinese government’s control of online information has gradually shifted to serving the interests of its own political party.
Griffiths, J. (2019). The great firewall of China: how to build and control an alternative version of the internet. Zed Books.
Lee, J.-A., & Liu, C.-Y. (2012). Forbidden City Enclosed by the Great Firewall: The Law and Power of Internet Filtering in China. Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, 13(1), 125. https://scholarship.law.umn.edu/mjlst/vol13/iss1/6/
Nadeau, K. M., & Murray, J. A. (2016). Pop culture in Asia and Oceania. Abc-Clio.
Sumlokkei[@sumlokkei]. (2022, June 6). funniest thing abt Chinese streamer Li Jiaqi being censored for “showing…. [Twitter]. https://twitter.com/sumlokkei/status/1533748117614383105
WION. (2022, June 14). Did China silence Austin Li Jiaqi, a social media influencer over an ice cream? | World News | WION. Www.youtube.com. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GK6MTx297ks