Building the (Fire) Wall: Internet Censorship in the United States and China

Building the (Fire) Wall: Internet Censorship in the United States and China

. 9 min read

In a time of ever-increasing wealth of information on the internet, China has become notorious for having the most stringent internet censorship policies and surveillance systems in the world. Search engines and social media platforms that are ubiquitous in the United States and much of the world—like Google, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter—are blocked from China’s internet. In response, the US government, US technology companies, non-profit activist groups, and think tanks have publicly criticized and taken action against China’s restrictive policies. However, the newly instituted “Clean Network Initiative” in the United States strikes eerie parallels with China’s “Great Firewall,” leading to concerns about the state of internet freedom in the United States and abroad. As governments limit what citizens can and can’t see on the web, internet freedom and accessibility is threatened, limiting conduits for democratic thought, innovation and research, and global communication.

A Brief History of China’s Internet Censorship

Before President Xi Jinping’s rise to power in China, the internet was a relatively transparent and open platform for discussion. Although the Chinese government implemented restrictions on the internet almost as soon as its inception with a national network security and content blocking project, the Golden Shield, it had few restrictions and was easily circumvented by citizens. At the turn of the millennium, popular bloggers and influencers were able to advocate for social and political reforms by organizing protests and exposing political corruption through the internet. In the late 1990s, the China Democracy Party grew from twelve members in one region to hundreds of members across the country, primarily through email communication. Around the same time, the spiritual group Falun Gong used mobile phones and email to organize a silent protest against the Chinese government’s suppression of their religious practices. As more people gained access to the internet, the use of bulletin board systems (BBS) and chat rooms became critical for publicizing sensitive political topics and creating discussion forums for underground organizations.

However, dissenting groups and protests quickly drew harsh responses from Chinese authorities. Leaders of the China Democracy Party and Falun Gong were traced and imprisoned. Government paranoia surrounding the internet was further heightened by the introduction of modern social media platforms, such as Sina Weibo. By 2013, over 2 million citizens were employed as “public opinion analysts” to monitor user activity and social media, while other officials blocked posts that were deemed threatening to the party and published party propaganda masked as ordinary citizens.

The election of President Xi Jinping ushered in a new era of the China Communist Party’s (CCP) control over the internet; in 2016, Xi demanded that “all the work by the party’s media … reflect the [China Communist Party]’s will, safeguard the party’s authority, and safeguard the party’s unity.” His efforts to strengthen the Golden Shield and the “Great Firewall of China” involve collaboration between “the government and the domestic technology and telecommunications companies compelled to enforce the state’s rules.” These projects aim to ensure complete social and political conformity in the real and virtual world.

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Photo by D. Thompson, Public domain, accessed via Wikimedia Commons

Consequences of Censorship

In response to domestic and international criticism, Chinese authorities argue that internet regulation is necessary for national security, social stability, and the protection of Chinese culture. However, this comes at a high cost; China faces serious repercussions in its economic development, scientific advancement, and creative innovation. China’s internet is “notoriously unreliable” and “ranks 91st in the world for speed” due to its large network of censors and restrictions, despite its general improvement in internet infrastructure.

This lack of efficiency can significantly slow economic growth, especially for corporations who struggle to keep their websites online due to China’s commercial censorship aimed specifically at foreign industries. Many in the global trade community claim that “China’s internet controls constitute a barrier to market access and are therefore a violation of China’s global trade obligations.”

Although scientific innovation is particularly valued by the Chinese government and in Chinese culture, the Chinese government continues to ban access to valuable internet resources such as Google Scholar, which are crucial for international scientific collaboration. Before 2015, many Chinese scientists and citizens used virtual private networks (VPNs) to route their internet traffic through foreign servers, bypassing the firewalls on Chinese servers and staying hidden from government surveillance. However, President Xi’s 2015 crackdown on VPNs made it nearly impossible to use them within China’s cyber-borders. In response, one Chinese biologist lamented the inefficiency of internet research in China in an essay entitled “Why Do Scientists Need Google?” He wrote: “If a country wants to make this many scientists take out time from the short duration of their professional lives to research technology for climbing over the Great Firewall and to install and to continually upgrade every kind of software for routers, computers, tablets and mobile devices, no matter that this behaviour wastes a great amount of time; it is all completely ridiculous.”

Illegal flower tribute in January 2010. Photo by Xhacker, CC BY-SA 3.0, accessed via Wikimedia Commons

US Policy and Industry Intervention

The United States has traditionally been a major supporter of global free speech and internet accessibility, and has advocated for policies to “promote internet freedom in China’s increasingly restrictive environment and to mitigate the global impact of Chinese government censorship.” In 2000 for example, Congress established the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) “to monitor China’s compliance with international human rights standards, to encourage the development of the rule of law in the PRC, and to establish and maintain a list of victims of human rights abuses in China.”

The US Agency for Global Media (USAGM), formerly the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), is an independent agency of the US government that aims to “inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.” The USAGM sponsors Radio Free Asia, a non-profit news corporation, that connects with in-country sources and journalists to provide censored information to the Chinese public.

Private US information and communications industry interests in promoting free internet access in China are represented through the Global Network Initiative (GNI); members of the GNI include high-profile companies like Google, Microsoft, Verizon, and Facebook. Like many others in the global trade community, these corporations cite that China’s restrictions are unjustly discriminatory towards foreign industry.

Photo by Kyra / Unsplash

US Clean Network Initiative

At the same time that US initiatives attempt to promote internet freedom in China, domestic policies threaten that same ideal at home. On August 5, 2020, the Trump administration, under Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s direction, announced its expansion of the Clean Network Initiative, which builds upon the 5G Clean Path Initiative.  The Clean Network initiative aims to guard “citizens’ privacy and [US] companies’ most sensitive information from aggressive intrusions by malign actors, such as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).”

Pompeo’s press statement delineates five principles of a “clean network”:

  1. Clean Carrier: Ban untrusted People’s Republic of China (PRC) cell carriers from connecting to US networks.
  2. Clean Store: Remove untrusted PRC apps from US app stores to prevent spread of viruses, propaganda, and violation of privacy.
  3. Clean Apps: Block untrusted PRC smartphone manufacturers, such as Huawei, from pre-installing trusted apps (from the United States or abroad) on their app store.
  4. Clean Cloud: Prevent US personal information and intellectual property (ex. COVID-19 vaccine research) from being stored in cloud-based systems that can be accessed by foreign adversaries, such as the PRC (ex. Alibaba, Baidu, Tencent).
  5. Clean Cable: Protect undersea cables from intelligence gathering by the PRC.

The justification for these restrictive, China-centered policies are summed up in Pompeo’s concluding sentence: “building a Clean fortress around our citizens’ data will ensure all of our nations’ security.” Ironically, the Chinese government similarly often cites national security to justify its harsh restrictions, even when empirical evidence does not support their claims. Both the Clean Network Initiative and the Great Firewall require concessions of internet freedoms from their citizens in return for vague promises of national security and privacy. They also paint foreign influences as “intruders” upon the nation’s internet (though the internet was not created with state borders or separations), with China’s policies warding against almost all foreign nations while the Clean Network specifically targets China. The United States and China are essentially waging an “internet sovereignty” war, where each side employs the tactics of the other.

Photo by visuals / Unsplash

The day after the introduction of the Clean Network Initiative, President Donald Trump published an executive order imposing sanctions on the Chinese-owned apps TikTok and WeChat, which aims to remove them from US app stores and prohibit transactions between consumers and the apps. While US citizens would still be able access TikTok and WeChat if the apps are already on their device, they would not receive new software updates, effectively resulting in the apps becoming unusable over time.

During one of the many preliminary injunctions against Trump’s executive order, a judge blocked the order due to a lack of specific evidence regarding the presumed insecurity of WeChat. Another federal judge questioned “whether the order would harm First Amendment rights,” arguing that “it would shut down the primary means of communication for the Chinese community.” WeChat is one of the only social media platforms available to users in China, so users abroad rely on WeChat to stay connected with their families, friends, and business partners in China.

While Trump and Pompeo claim that these measures are necessary to our national security, the lack of concrete evidence behind their claims and singular focus on Chinese media point to other geopolitical motivations. The Clean Network Initiative doesn’t specify exactly which Chinese-owned applications will be removed; for example, it is unclear whether Chinese-owned entertainment platforms such as League of Legends are banned, since League of Legends is owned by TENCENT, one of the companies mentioned in the Initiative under “Clean Cloud.” However, it is abundantly clear that the Clean Network Initiative and Trump’s executive order specifically target Chinese-controlled social media platforms, telecommunications providers, and cell phone manufacturers, which disproportionately impact Chinese American communities (compared to League of Legends, which has a much more diverse user base). These policies exhibit a degree of xenophobia and racism against Chinese American citizens and discourages any ties, whether professional, familial, or (rarely) political, with China.

In the Clean Network Initiative, Pompeo emphasizes that “more than thirty countries and territories are now Clean Countries,” and urges other US allies to join this pact. By turning other countries against Chinese media and the CCP, the Trump administration may be attempting to assert US dominance in the international cybersphere and promote a pro-American internet free of Chinese influence.

Upon the introduction of these policies, Beijing has expressed outrage at the clear distrust of Chinese companies and government. In an interview, the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi claimed that this is a “textbook case of bullying,” since he believes the United States is acting to “keep its monopoly in science and technology but deny other countries the legitimate right to development.” He also accuses the United States of conducting its own mass surveillance around the world and domestically, contradicting the principles delineated in Pompeo’s press release. While Wang Yi claims that China promotes open business environments and international exchanges in science and technology, it is clear that neither China nor the United States is accomplishing those goals with their mutual censorship and foreign internet policy.

International Implications

Global internet freedom has declined as countries have imposed stricter censorship policies and weaponized social media as a tool to advance state agendas. Chinese development of more advanced censorship software and social media surveillance tools have often been seen by many in the international community as the inspiration in the development of their own censorship programs. Chinese firms reportedly connected to the Chinese government, such as Semptian and Knowlesys, advertise their surveillance products at international trade shows, demonstrating features such as “monitoring your targets’ messages, profiles, locations, behaviors, relationships, and more” as well as how to “monitor public opinion for election.” Authoritarian regimes can easily purchase these systems to find and block dissident users, creating an environment of fear and self-censorship in cyberspace.

The downward spiral of internet freedom threatens the very values the Internet was founded on: quite literally named the “world wide web,” it aimed to enable open and free access to information across the globe. This vision of a globally connected network is at risk of crumbling under increasing internet censorship within individual countries. This push towards a divided internet limits global conversations and collaboration, while further polarizing each nation by creating echo chambers in which we can only hear our own voices. At a time when global cooperation is needed more than ever, we are building more walls than we are tearing down.

Photo by rishi / Unsplash

Cover photo: President Donald J. Trump joins Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China, at the start of their bilateral meeting Saturday, June 29, 2019, at the G20 Japan Summit in Osaka, Japan. Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead, Public domain, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.