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China's tightening grasp on social media: A potent tool of repression?

  • Published at 04:00 am March 14th, 2018
China's tightening grasp on social media: A potent tool of repression?
With an increasing array of technological, legal, and ideological tools at the Chinese government’s disposal, Beijing is ever more able and willing to systematically erase expressions of dissent and calls for social change. China is more than capable of silencing internet users who dare cross ever-shifting red lines, and shutting off channels of circumvention under the banner of cyber sovereignty. A detailed analysis of issue was discussed in a report titled "Forbidden Feeds: Government Controls on Social Media in China," published by leading US free expression organization PEN America on Tuesday. The original research report demonstrates how the Chinese government’s grip on social media constricts free expression in China, and how the scope and severity of censorship has expanded under President Xi Jinping. The report also takes a particular look into how these constraints burden writers and other creative professionals, as Beijing wields its power to ensure no one becomes so popular and nothing goes so viral on social media as to slip beyond the state’s control. “China has managed to offer its citizens a lively social media universe that is heavily policed and has successfully choked off social media’s promise as a vehicle for free social, political, and creative expression,” said PEN America Chief Executive Officer Suzanne Nossel. She further said: “Chinese authorities have managed to prove wrong the hopeful notion that the rise of a vibrant digital realm would inevitably herald greater ideological and political freedom. “Despite the ceaseless and inventive efforts of Chinese netizens to evade government censors, the systematic erasure of sensitive subjects and dissenting views, and the targeting of those who express them ultimately leaves those who speak truth to power forced to self-censor and withdraw from conversation, if not leave the country entirely.” The Pen America CEO pointed out that Chinese social media companies have no choice but to play an active role in enabling this system of repression, something that American social media companies weighing entry into the Chinese market should bear in mind.

China’s firm control on the Internet

The report also includes an Appendix that documents 80 cases of Chinese citizens warned, threatened, detained, interrogated, fined, and even imprisoned for online posts over the past six years. In Forbidden Feeds, PEN America argues that the Chinese government engages in political censorship under the guise of countering so-called “online rumors.” Beijing promotes a definition of fake news driven more by political control than regard for the truth. Online censorship is also used to protect the reputations of powerful individuals, as well as to ensure no social media figures gain so great a following as to pose a threat. As Xi Jinping extends and consolidates his rule, China offers a chilling blueprint to other authoritarian governments aspiring to implement total information control. The report also notes, however, that China’s foresight about the risks social media would pose to the party’s hegemony has allowed them to construct a unique system of control that may prove alarmingly sustainable. As well as analyzing the impact of China’s sophisticated surveillance and censorship mechanisms on Chinese social media companies and their users, Forbidden Feeds considers the trade-offs facing foreign social media and technology companies as they consider entry into the Chinese market. PEN America argues that, should foreign social media companies choose to enter, the government’s uncompromising policies would inevitably render these companies complicit in surveillance and censorship.
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