Much has been made about the role social media has had on the uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa. Aided by sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and blogs, activists organize mass demonstrations, release photos and video and report what is happening on the ground.
But in China, calls for similar protests through social media have fallen short. The reason? Well, the fact that China has one of the most sophisticated and comprehensive Internet censorship systems in the world can’t hurt. Indeed, many of the websites cited as aiding in the so-called ‘Jasmine Revolution’ in the Middle East and North Africa are blocked altogether by the Chinese government.
On May 4, news broke that China had created the State Internet Information Office, a body that will centralize the government’s control of the Internet and invariably lead to even more censorship.
But increased control of Internet content is only the beginning.
In recent months, China has seen the biggest crackdown on dissent in years. At least 100 human rights activists, including some of the most high-profile players in the movement, have been closely monitored, detained, arrested or simply disappeared because of their activism. Among them is Ai Weiwei, a figure that many human rights groups have long thought was untouchable due to his status as China’s most famous artist and one of the most influential figures in international contemporary art.
The government isn’t only interested in longtime dissidents, though. They’re also going after “a whole new generation of online activists.” For Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Deputy Director Catherine Baber, this crackdown signals “that the Chinese government is rattled by the example of people’s movements abroad using the Internet to fight for their freedoms.”
On February 12, 2011, members of the Chinese politburo met to discuss the Jasmine Revolution, and ways to stop similar uprisings from happening in China. They emphasized Internet censorship. The officials called on the Propaganda Department to:
- Halt all independent reports, commentaries, and discussions (including Internet threads), whether in the print media or the Internet, on the situations in Egypt and similar places.
- Strengthen work in filtering and managing blogs, microblogs and discussion forums.
- Assure that media in all locations uniformly adhere to the standard texts of the New China News Agency in any report or commentary on the Middle East.
A few days later, on February 15, an anonymous Tweeter started to organize mass demonstrations in major Chinese cities. Chinese officials mobilized an online strategy quickly; the accompanying website was hacked and an army of government-enlisted web commentators discouraged participation in the protests. Offline, the Tweeter was questioned by police and around 100 activists were placed under house arrest. Ultimately, the protests were quashed by a heavy police presence.
On May 12, US Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Michael Posner detailed a $19 million project to break internet censorship barriers in countries like China. The project would “be redirecting information back in that governments have initially blocked.”
The announcement came after two days of meetings between the US and China. In the meeting, Chinese State Counselor Dai Bingguo downplayed the crackdown, saying that China has made made “enormous progress” on human rights issues.
But China did just centralize its censorship efforts and there are still a number of activists unaccounted for. Also, with the upcoming party leadership succession in late 2012, China has little reason to loosen its grip.
Regardless, it will be difficult for China to fully suppress dissent. After all, despite the best efforts of censorship technology and the thousands of Internet police patrolling the web, activism can still slip in through the cracks.
Indeed, the Internet “has become a forum for public activism that would be speedily suppressed, or widely ignored, if it occurred offline.”
If you’d like to take a stand against Internet censorship in China, sign the petition here.
Photo credit: IStockphoto