Can we talk of free speech under an Authoritarian Internet ? —— China’s internet censorship

"Free Speech" by mellowbox is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Since the free internet also gives more space for hateful speech, most governments realize it is necessary to regulate and review content on the internet. Some countries, such as China and Russia, have adopted the authoritarian Internet model to maintain social stability (O’Hara & Hall, 2018). However, the legality and presentation of free speech on the authoritarian internet are still controversial. On the one hand, in order to maintain social stability, Internet censorship is clearly defined in the legislation; on the other hand, the specific content that needs to be examined and banned is indistinct. Users on the authoritarian internet also desire the rights of free speech, despite their rights of free speech in the legislation being ambiguous.

Threats from the internet

The internet’s role as a catalyst for revolution is not overstated, especially after the event of Arab Spring, internet’s power of mobilizing and coordinating collective action has been aptly demonstrated. In particular, Social media platforms can induce emotional mobilization by transmitting information from sources other than official propaganda (Chang & Lin, 2020). When the public realizes that the distinction between the fact they gain from social media, and official propaganda, their discontent will be enhanced. Internet will facilitate the protest activities by enhancing pre-existing social issues and connecting potential protesters (Ruijgrok, 2017).

Arab Spring – after Friday prayers in Amman” by CharlesFred is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

In terms of authoritarian regimes, loss of control over the media and public opinion will put them at risk of downfall (Kuang, 2018). Therefore, almost all authoritarian regimes will control the media and censor the internet.

However, in particular the Chinese propaganda authorities, the Chinese government did not ban all the potential reactionary content online. Such as the event of Urumqi fire during the pandemic. This can be considered as Chinese internet censors have no capacity to censor all negative content because internet news can spread at a viral rate and a vast number of users will keep publishing. However, according to some research about the content of Chinese censorship (Chang & Lin, 2020; Kuang, 2018), using censorship negligence to understand negative news within the framework of an authoritarian internet is overly conjectural, which fails to account for the complete absence of information refers to the “Blank Paper Movement”, within the Chinese internet during the same period as “Urumqi fire”.

HKU student white paper protest by (Tang Huiwen(汤惠芸) is marked with CC0 1.0 

Chinese censors seemed to intentionally ignore the information referring to the “Urumqi fire”, they were afraid that banning this news may lead to more serious rebellion. Concurrently, they deleted all the information related to the “Blank Paper Movement”. Chang and Lin (2020) point out that the Chinese government allows political criticism but does not allow messages related to the coordination of collective actions. Thus, the intention of the Chinese government is clear, they allow citizens feeling dissatisfied and say it, but they cannot allow any action that may affect the governance. Therefore, they create an illusion of freedom for the public.

The illusion of free speech

The reason why this kind of freedom is an illusion is because this kind of freedom of speech in authoritarian internet needs ‘permission’. In essence, users on the authoritarian internet can only have freedom when their opinions align with the dominant ideology.

Journalism in China is very. In China, there are news organizations that are owned by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) and many nonparty outlets that are nominally not owned by the CCP. Despite this, the news organizations in China are all censored by the censorship and need to follow a united ideology, called mainstream values, socialist core values or Xi Jinping Thought. Journalistic endeavours are ostensibly supported by the government but often at the cost of independence, rendering the government the sole arbiter of information dissemination. Nonparty outlets are ostensibly independent but still limited by legislation. Nonparty outlets, on the other hand, may appear ostensibly independent, but they are nonetheless constrained by legislation.

For example, Douyin, as one of the mainstream media platforms, plays an important role in guiding public opinion and propagandising mainstream values. Since 2018, there have been over 500 Chinese governmental accounts on Douyin. In order to support mainstream values propaganda, Douyin developed a separate Positive Energy (zheng neng liang) section (Chen et al., 2021). Furthermore, other mainstream media platforms also have community codes stipulating that content posted by users should not violate mainstream values, such as BiliBili.

As for the fact that the Chinese government did not completely ban negative news and political criticism, some proponents of an authoritarian Internet argue that there is free speech to some extent on an authoritarian internet. However, as demonstrated above, this kind of freedom is a freedom that needs to be “permitted”. Users have the right to express their dissatisfied emotions rather than clear opposition to government policy. With mainstream value legislation, media cannot legally be free and independent, users always need permission to be “free”. The core argument of the “Blank paper movement’ is that “a blank paper does not say anything, but it also says everything”. The blank paper is a symbol of silenced dissent. This is ironic, people use keeping silence to voice against internet censorship. Therefore, this form of freedom needs permission, is not considered as free.

Turn to outside.

Despite the challenges posed by authoritarian internet regimes, individuals and groups continue to seek ways to voice their opinions. However, due to technical issues, it is impossible to avoid Chinese internet censorship on Chinese internet. Almost all attempts occurred outside of the environment of the Chinese authoritarian internet. People found many strategies to circumvent online censorship imposed by the Chinese government, including using posters and some offline functions.

For example, some people left China, and resorted to the most traditional behaviors, such as posters and leaflets, to resist China’s authoritarian politics.

Anti Xi Jinping slogans in Stanford University © 2022 by Suiren2022 is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 

Besides, some people use the AirDrop function to convey messages, these actions made the Chinese government exert pressure on Apple company, leading to Apple limiting the AirDrop function on iPhones in China. In addition, most people have turned to using VPNs or establishing websites outside the mainland of China as a way to circumvent the Great Firewall.

In conclusion, the predominant pattern observed in attempts to challenge Chinese internet censorship occurred beyond the confines of China itself. This phenomenon underscores a critical point: the absence of genuine freedom of speech within the Chinese authoritarian internet ecosystem.

The need for individuals and groups to seek protection in offshore or offline platforms, utilize VPNs, and establish digital footholds beyond China’s borders reveals the enduring limitations on free expression within the country’s online sphere. Even though these activities may happen inside the realm of China, essentially, they have got rid of an authoritarian internet environment. While the Chinese government may contend that it promotes an environment conducive to discourse, the prevailing reality, as exemplified by these extraterritorial endeavours, paints a contrasting picture of a constrained digital landscape where the true exercise of free speech remains a challenge.

Reference List:

Chang, C.-C., & Lin, T.-H. (2020). Autocracy login: Internet censorship and civil society in the digital age. Democratization, 27(5), 874–895.

Chen, X., Valdovinos Kaye, D. B., & Zeng, J. (2021). #PositiveEnergy Douyin: Constructing “playful patriotism” in a Chinese short-video application. Chinese Journal of Communication, 14(1), 97–117.

Kuang, X. (2018). Central State vs. Local Levels of Government: Understanding News Media Censorship in China. Chinese Political Science Review, 3(2), 154–171.

O’Hara, K., & Hall, W. (2018, December 7). Four Internets: The Geopolitics of Digital Governance. Centre for International Governance Innovation.

Ruijgrok, K. (2017). From the web to the streets: Internet and protests under authoritarian regimes. Democratization, 24(3), 498–520.