Beijing’s Authoritarian Internet: The Landscape of Regulation and Evolving Freedoms
Beijing’s Authoritarian Internet is China’s internet. China is an authoritarian state, and the People’s Republic of China controls the authoritarian political system (Ali, 2023). This has lead a global stereotype that the Chinese government has strict control over the internet and limits the freedom of speech (de Kloet et al., 2019). International media often report on Internet censorship in China, which further reinforces the impression of the intensity of Beijing’s Authoritarian Internet regulation.
The Chinese government employed a significant number of people to monitor and censor Chinese media (Xu & Albert, 2017). Over a dozen government agencies are responsible for censorship and enforcement of laws related to the flow of information within, into, and out of China. The Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Department, in collaboration with the General Administration of Press and Publication and State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television to coordinate to ensure that content aligns party doctrine (Xu & Albert, 2017). Censorship is restricted by them if the content is not in line with China’s ideology. Additionally, China uses advanced technological tools such as Great Firewall as a way to monitor and filter information on the internet and restrict freedom of speech in order to maintain the ideological consistency of the state (Inkster, 2015).
In an environment where individual rights and interests are not adequately legally guaranteed, measures taken by the state to safeguard its sovereignty may put netizens at a disadvantage, as well as deflecting international criticism and interference (Jiang, 2010). However, it is also inaccurate to conclude that Chinese Internet users do not have freedom (Jiang, 2010). Compared to the pre-Internet era, there is more co-operation and win-win situation between the government and citizens nowadays (Jiang, 2010). Internet users now enjoy more freedom and benefits from the Internet, and sometimes they are even able to influence policy making (Jiang, 2010). But the boundaries regarding political speech and action are largely set by the state and enforced with the co-operation of Internet companies (Jiang, 2010). Compared to classic counterparts, modern authoritarianism utilised more advanced censorship techniques and also provided greater freedom for citizens (Jiang, 2010). This helped to reduce radical opposition and strengthen its rule (Jiang, 2010).
Beijing’s Authoritarian Internet and Social Media: Google’s Exit and Global Perspectives on Censorship
The Chinese government shapes and manages the social media platforms through deep involvement (de Kloet et al., 2019)，aiming to stabilise the society.The Chinese government tends to set conditions(O’Hara & Hall, 2018)，which results in some social media platforms being unavailable in China because they refuse to cooperate with government censorship (O’Hara & Hall, 2018). This stereotype deepens when international companies, like Google, face challenges in the Chinese market due to censorship. In 2006, Google entered China and followed the its censorship. However, by 2010, Google announced its withdrawal from the Chinese market. Google is a product of the United States, and the most fundamental reason for its withdrawal from China is the difference in ideology between China and the United States, which in turn leads to the difference in censorship. Google’s mission is to organise the world’s useful information and make it accessible to all without hindrance (Thompson, 2022). However, the Chinese government imposes strong censorship and regulation, and these policies limit search results. Google did not follow the Chinese government’s requirements for filtering search results (Waddell, 2016),because the American ideology made them reluctant to adhere to Chinese policies. This movement of Google is against the Chinese government’s censorship because people can search some politically sensitive topics（Waddell，2016）.The official ideology of China’s ruling party is “harmonious society” (Jiang, 2010). Therefore, China restricts public searches to politically sensitive content because such information may lead to negative public perceptions of social issues and cause public dissatisfaction, thus harming political order and social harmony (Fu & Cooper, 2022).
However, such blockades and restrictions not only limit speech but also business (Jiang, 2010). In response to the censorship of Beijing’s Authoritarian Internet, the U.S. State Department expressed concern and made a series of recommendations to enhance Internet freedom (Jiang, 2010). The suggestions can be broadly categorised into four main groups: “technical”, “legislative”, “trade” and “research, education and community of practice”. These proposals reflect the multi-layered thinking behind Internet freedom that aims to balance the various interests of users, businesses, social groups and governments (Jiang, 2010). Yet, for Chinese policy, these recommendations might have a limited impact. This is because the recommendations are mainly technical and external solutions, while the core of the problem is internal and political (Jiang, 2010).
Baidu’s Role in Beijing’s Authoritarian Internet: Balancing Stability and Information Access
Baidu’s alignment with national censorship policies not only emphasises the necessity of censorship, but also reinforces the global stereotype that Beijing’s Authoritarian Internet is heavily regulated and restricted. In 2015, China suffered huge stock market volatility. the Shanghai Composite Index, China’s benchmark stock index, fell 8.5 percent, the decline was the largest since 2007 (Allen-Ebrahimian, 2015). With the decline of the stock market, various rumours about equities nosedive spread quickly on the Internet (Allen-Ebrahimian, 2015). Baidu quickly censored and removed rumours and inaccurate information from the stock market during this period (Allen-Ebrahimian, 2015). When users try to search for these keywords, they get selective results, the search results are mainly government or official statements and reports, and content involving rumours and negativity is blocked drastically (Allen-Ebrahimian, 2015).
Regulation can certainly bring benefits (Xu et al., 2021). It ensures social stability to a certain extent, prevents volatility due to rumours and panic (Best, 2023), and strengthens public trust in the state (Xu et al., 2021). Moreover, based on the need to guarantee security, uphold the law and maintain social order, the Chinese Government has legalised restrictions on online expression or dissent. The state also believes that this practice is not only in the interest of the majority of its citizens, but also serves the greater good of Chinese society (Jiang, 2010).
However, in the authoritarian network environment, the censorship of the Internet will also bring some drawbacks. It not only restricts the accessibility of information but also limits the freedom speech (Reddy, 2020). People may self-censorship their speech and behaviour to align with social norms, limiting the free flow of speech and ideas (Day, 2021). And long-term information control and censorship may lead to a decline in public trust in government and mainstream media(Reddy, 2020), and also strengthening the stereotype that information is censored.
Adapting to Beijing’s Authoritarian Internet: The Normalization of Censorship and Global Stereotyping
With the development of the Internet, an increasing number of users have become familiar Beijing’s Authoritarian Internet and its censorship system. Over time, users have been Over time, users have become used to facing censorship and restrictions. Users began to view Internet censorship as a “normal” part of their online experience, rather than an additional intervention or restriction (Wang & Mark, 2015). Although there may initially be dissenting voices or protests against certain censorship policies, over time people may be more inclined to accept and become accustomed to the model (Wang & Mark, 2015). This adaptation and acceptance may be related to a variety of factors, such as trust in official information and the value placed on social stability (Wang & Mark, 2015).
For external observers, while censorship is seen as normal, it may also be considered an inherent feature of China’s Internet environment. This can further reinforce the outside world’s stereotype of Beijing’s Authoritarian Internet as a tightly controlled, restricted speech.
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