The Road to Digital Unfreedom

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Since the internet’s arrival in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1994, digital technologies have provided a critical channel of communication for Chinese citizens. In an environment where speech and access to information are heavily restricted, the internet has enabled citizens to get uncensored news, speak their minds, and even organize protests. Over the last two decades, the use of internet and digital technologies in the PRC has been growing rapidly. According to a mid-2018 estimate by the official China Internet Network Information Center (the body in charge of the .cn country code), there were 29.7 million first-time internet users in China in the first part of that year. Altogether, the agency reported, those using the internet in China numbered approximately eight-hundred million.1

Yet as the technologies that once promised to enable a free flow of information have spread, authorities have intensified their efforts to bend these systems to their own purposes. The Chinese government has set up a series of mechanisms aimed at asserting its dominance in cyberspace. It has also increasingly combined an extensive physical infrastructure of surveillance and coercion with cutting-edge digital technologies. Censorship and propaganda have gone hand in hand: Those who express unorthodox views online may become the subjects of targeted personal attacks in the state media. Surveillance and intimidation are further supplemented by outright coercion, including police visits and arrests.

China’s current leader Xi Jinping, who ascended to the posts of PRC president and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) general secretary in 2012, has prioritized control over the information sphere in a bid to [End Page 53] forestall challenges to the CCP’s legitimacy. Xi has placed considerable emphasis on the concept of “internet sovereignty,” asserting the primacy of rules made by national governments and the authority of national-level regulators over web content and providers. Rather than limiting themselves to playing defense against opposition activity, PRC officials have employed digital technologies to monitor and control society, especially in the era of “big data,” artificial intelligence (AI), and the Internet of Things (IoT).

By leveraging information and resource asymmetries, state agencies and the companies that cooperate with them can turn these innovative technologies into tools for manipulating ordinary citizens. Big data, for instance, is an invaluable resource for making predictions. Officials can draw on this capacity to anticipate protests and even major surges in online public opinion, enabling them to act preemptively to quash opposition. In another authoritarian application of big data, PRC authorities are working to integrate information from a wide array of sources into a nationwide Social Credit System (SCS) that would assess the conduct of every person in the country, an innovation worthy of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. As Wired magazine has put it, China’s new generation of surveillance operations is indeed where “big data meets Big Brother.”2

Internet Control in Xi Jinping’s “New Era”

Under Xi Jinping, Chinese authorities have been cracking down on subversive speech on the internet while reinforcing the digital bulwark of PRC information control—the so-called Great Firewall of China—with new technology. Shortly after Xi’s November 2012 accession to the post of general secretary, Chinese authorities began honing their tools for monitoring and penalizing subversive commentary on the internet. In December of that year, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress passed regulations mandating that those wishing to use the internet via mobile phones or register social-media accounts supply their real names to internet providers. The regulations also required companies to take on a greater role in removing and reporting offending posts.3 In September 2013, a groundbreaking ruling by the Supreme People’s Court and Supreme People’s Procuratorate authorized prison terms of up to three years for the posting of comments that spread rumors and are deemed to be defamatory if these posts have been reposted more than five-hundred times or viewed by five-thousand people. Jail sentences may also be imposed over posts that organize protests or incite ethnic unrest.4 Soon after that, state media revealed that the government had hired more than two-million individuals as “microblog monitors” to report on online postings to official censors (these “monitors” do not themselves have the power to delete posts).5 [End Page 54]

The PRC government has also been developing new instruments for policing cyberspace more broadly. Early in 2014, the CCP formed a Central Leading Group for Cyberspace Affairs chaired by President Xi. In November 2016, the country adopted its first cybersecurity law. On 2 May 2017, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) issued the first comprehensive update in twelve years to regulations requiring government licenses for all websites that distribute news—including not only traditional websites, but also messaging and other apps, blogs and microblogs, and internet forums.

The 2016 cybersecurity law places a series of demands on internet companies, with the cumulative effect of facilitating state control and data access. For instance, companies must conduct increased surveillance of their networks and supply information to state investigators on request, in addition to having their equipment reviewed for security. They are also required to censor prohibited content and to reduce user anonymity by requiring real-name registration. Service providers classed as “critical information infrastructure operators” must keep certain information (including personal data) in data centers within China’s borders, and companies must undergo a security assessment if they are to transfer their data out of the country.6

  1. 1. Jon Russell, “China Reaches 800 Million Internet Users,” TechCrunch, 21 August 2018,
  2. 2. Rachel Botsman, “Big Data Meets Big Brother as China Moves to Rate Its Citizens,” Wired, 21 October 2017,
  3. 3. Keith Bradsher, “China Toughens Its Restrictions on Use of the Internet,” New York Times, 28 December 2012.
  4. 4. Keith Zhai, “Up to Three Years in Prison for Chinese Internet Users Who Spread Rumours,” South China Morning Post, 10 September 2013; “China Issues New Internet Rules That Include Jail Time,” BBC, 9 September 2013,
  5. 5. “China Employs Two Million Microblog Monitors State Media Say,” BBC, 4 October 2013,
  6. 6. Sue-Lin Wong and Michael Martina, “China Adopts Cyber Security Law in Face of Overseas Opposition,” Reuters, 6 November 2016,
  1. Jon Russell, “China Reaches 800 Million Internet Users,” TechCrunch, 21 August 2018,
  2. Rachel Botsman, “Big Data Meets Big Brother as China Moves to Rate Its Citizens,” Wired, 21 October 2017,