History of Chinese Internet Regulations
As many of you know, the Chinese government has a number of regulations on telecommunications like the internet and media, colloquial known as The Great Firewall, its official name is “The Golden Shield Project” also known as the “National Public Security Work Informational Project” which The Great Firewall is only a section of. Often people who see news about The Great Firewall say a simple answer on why they set that up, and that is that the evil Chinese government needs to “controlling opinion and/or “brainwashing its people”. In reality, the reason why the firewall was setup is actually much more complicated than that.
The first public connections to the world wide web in China came in 1994. Since its arrival and the gradual rise of availability, the Internet has become a fundamental communication platform and an important tool for sharing information. But as the Chinese government’s core drive is all about order and social stability/harmony as well as being acutely aware of foreign imperialism and the threats it faces from it, the internet on its own is the antithesis to this mentality where the internet is more about decentralized anarchism. Deng Xiaoping famously said about the internet “If you open a window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in.” The Golden Shield Project was designed to bring order to this chaos and prevent another Cultural Revolution.
A repeat of the Cultural Revolution which the Post-reform Chinese government condemns as a great tragedy was their greatest fear with the advent of the Internet in the late 1990s. And elements of this around the turn of the century had already started appearing. Initial internet regulations established in 1994 from the Ministry of Public Security stated:
Individuals are prohibited from using the Internet to: harm national security; or disclose Classified Information; or injure the interests of the state or society. Users are prohibited from using the Internet to create, replicate, retrieve, or transmit information that incites resistance to the PRC Constitution, laws, or administrative regulations; promotes the overthrow of the government or socialist system; promotes separatist movements; distorts the truth, spreads rumors, or destroys social order; or provides sexually suggestive material or encourages gambling, violence, or murder. Users are prohibited from engaging in activities that harm the security of computer information networks and from using networks or changing network resources without prior approval.
I would like to point out that there is nothing nefarious or unreasonable in that law. It wouldn’t be out of place as a US law, with the obvious exclusion of the socialism part. This article can be summed up as:
- Don’t harm National Security or incite violence.
- Don’t spread misinformation or hate speech.
- Don’t break the law in regard to prostitution, gambling or murder.
- Don’t hack or manipulate computer systems or networks.
In 1997, more detailed Internet regulations were established particularly in regard to what the government defines as “harmful information” and “harmful activities” on the internet. Which is stated in Section 5 of the Computer Information Network and Internet Security, Protection, and Management Regulations:
No unit or individual may use the Internet to create, replicate, retrieve, or transmit the following kinds of information:
- Inciting to resist or obstruct the implementation of the Constitution, legislation or administrative regulations;
- Inciting to overthrow the government or the socialist system;
- Inciting division of the country, harming national unification, or separatism;
- Inciting hatred or discrimination among ethnic groups or harming the unity of ethnic groups;
- Fabricating or distorting the truth, spreading rumors, destroying the order of society;
- Promoting feudal superstitions, obscenity, pornography, gambling, violence, murder, terrorism or encouraging criminal activity;
- Publicly slandering, committing libel or distorting the truth against other people;
- Defaming (slander or libel) against state organizations;
These are not unreasonable rules to have and would not be out of place in western countries that also want to protect their sovereignty and civil order.
The next year in 1998 The Golden Shield Project was announced alongside The Great Firewall. The Golden Shield Project is managed by the Ministry of Public Security under the Bureau of Public Information and Network Security Supervision. The Golden Shield Project is the entire apparatus while The Great Firewall would be kin to the perimeter wall around the Chinese internet as per the definition of a Network Firewall which is:
In computing, a firewall is a network security system that monitors and controls incoming and outgoing network traffic based on predetermined security rules. A firewall typically establishes a barrier between a trusted internal network and an untrusted external network, such as the Internet.
The Great Firewall acts as the gate entrance to the Chinese internet. It is what regulates what content is allowed to pass into China from the outside. Much of the websites and content that is blocked from the West falls under breaking Section 5’s #2, #3, #5, #7, or #8.
Functions & Purpose
– Negative Opinions Of The Government
Now I am sure many of you are thinking that this is all just rhetoric and officially what they say they do but that the Chinese government used the Golden Shield Project to put down anyone that says anything negative about the government stamp out dissent among more democratic voices. However, two Harvard University research papers in two different years contradict this claim. One was made in 2012 while the other was made in 2017 both produced by Gary King, Jennifer Pan, Margaret E. Roberts who specializes in using quantitative data to analyze public policy.
The 2012 Research Paper Abstract is:
We offer the first large scale multiple source analysis of the outcome of what may be the most extensive effort to selectively censor human expression ever implemented. To do this we have devised a system to locate, download, and analyse the content of millions of social media posts originated from nearly 1,400 different social media services all over China before the Chinese government is able to find, evaluate, and censor (i.e., remove from the Internet) the large subset they deem objectionable. Using modern computer-assisted text analytic methods that we adapt to and validate in the Chinese language, we compare the substantive content of posts censored to those not censored over time in each of 85 issue areas. Contrary to previous understandings, posts with negative, even vitriolic, criticism of the state, its leaders, and its policies are not more likely to be censored. Instead, we show that the censorship program is aimed at curtailing collective action by silencing comments that represent, reinforce, or spur social mobilization, regardless of the content. Censorship is oriented towards attempting to forestall collective activities that are occurring now or may occur in the future – and, as such, seem to clearly expose government intent, such as examples we offer where sharp increases in censorships presage government action outside the Internet.
This 2012 research paper demonstrates definitively that the Chinese government’s operation of The Golden Shield Project perfectly fits in line with Section 5 of the Computer Information Network and Internet Security, Protection, and Management Regulations. The Chinese government does not censor negative comments of the CCP or government in general but censors’ content that the government sees as spurring collective action against #1, #2, #3 or #4 of Section 5. Now I would like to specifically point out that the Chinese government doesn’t censor all collective action. Only the ones that violate Section 5. In 2010 there were approximately 180,000 different incidences of protests in China that happened in the year. These protests are for things like governmental corruption, corporate corruption, unpaid wages, health & safety violations, education & health care, NIMBY, environmental degradation, among other types.
– The Fabled 50-Cent Army
Many of you have probably heard of the 50-cent army. People that are paid for by the Chinese government to spread CCP propaganda and attack people who say anti-Chinese rhetoric. It is also a derogatory term for anyone who happens to defend the CCP on anything. However, the 2017 Harvard research study by Gary King and his colleagues contradicts the idea of the concept of it.
The 2017 Research Paper Abstract is:
The Chinese government has long been suspected of hiring as many as 2,000,000 people to surreptitiously insert huge numbers of pseudonymous and other deceptive writings into the stream of real social media posts as if they were the genuine opinions of ordinary people. Many academics and most journalists and activists claim that these so-called “50c party” posts vociferously argue for the government’s side in political and policy debates. As we show, this is also true of the vast majority of posts openly accused on social media of being 50c. Yet, almost no systematic empirical evidence exists for this claim, or, more importantly, for the Chinese regime’s strategic objective in pursuing this activity. In the first large scale empirical analysis of this operation, we show how to identify the secretive authors of these posts, the posts written by them, and their content. We estimate that the government fabricates and posts about 448 million social media comments a year. In contrast to prior claims, we show that the Chinese regime’s strategy is to avoid arguing with skeptics of the party and the government and to not even discuss controversial issues. We show that the goal of this massive secretive operation is instead to distract the public and change the subject, as most of these posts involve cheerleading for China, the revolutionary history of the Communist Party, or other symbols of the regime. We discuss how these results fit with what is known about the Chinese censorship program and suggest how they may change our broader theoretical understanding of “common knowledge” and information control in authoritarian regimes.
The 2017 research paper demonstrates that out of the 80 billion social media posts that were made in China in 2016 only 448 million of those would be considered a part of the “50 cent army”. Making up only 0.6% of total social media traffic in China. It also shows that the so-called “50-cent army” is 1. Not paid for these comments and 2. Are not from the public but just regular government bureaucrats in various fields fulfilling extra job responsibilities. 3. They Do not engage in arguments or attack anyone but their goal is to change the topic of discussion to more positive news.
VPNs or Virtual Private Networks are an Internet mechanism for masking your IP and getting around geographical blocks to internet use. They are commonly used by people who want to mask their identity online or use the internet as if they were in another geographical location. It is commonly used by a corporation that wants to manage large and disperse intranets or want encrypted connections for corporate communications. For the public, however, it is commonly associated with criminal behaviour in the west particularly for people who use VPNs to access the dark web. Contrary to popular western belief, VPNs are completely legal and in common use by the general public. This is because crossing The Great Firewall, believe it or not, is not illegal. Foreign VPNs are indeed illegal in China, but VPNs that are based in China, and registered and regulated by the government are as legal as ISPs (Internet Service Providers). VPNs are regulated by the government which means you will still get into trouble by the police if you were to get caught using a VPN for criminal activity. However, the government does not block anyone from using VPNs to cross The Great Firewall. This was largely because Chinese academia and commercial businesses still need to access the outside world, all businesses and institutions that need a connection to the outside world use one of the government registered VPNs. For the general public, anyone can pay for a government registered VPN the same way they pay for their phone bill. The fact that the Chinese government does not block or punish people for crossing the firewall is a demonstration that the Great Firewall is not designed to keep people in and blind of the outside world. But to keep foreign manipulations and false information from entering and distorting discourse in the country. This is demonstrated by the existence of the Cambridge Analytica Scandal. And this scandal is the absolute perfect example of why China has the Great Firewall and The Golden Shield Project. Now let’s discuss why the Cambridge Analytica Scandal is the perfect example and justification for The Golden Shield Project.
Comparison to Western Model
The Chinese model that we have been discussing so far, is all about order and stability. “Bringing order, to the chaos”. It has strict regulations on what is and isn’t allowed and an army of volunteers keeping the Chinese internet legally tidy. For example Zhao Jinxu:
Mr. Zhao, 27, lives in a small town on the windswept grasslands of the Inner Mongolia region of China, hard by the border with Russia. He has scoured the internet for calls to violence, fake news, and pornography. He is one of a battalion of online “supervisors” whom Weibo, one of China’s biggest social media platforms.
The Western Model of internet governance is that of no restrictions whatsoever. The pure form of the Internet’s Anarchism. It is up to the individual sites to determine what is and isn’t allowed. This model has been championed as a beacon of freedom of speech, that all voices should be heard on the internet. But this would come to bite the west in the ass with Cambridge Analytica.
For people that do not know, Cambridge Analytica was a Marketing firm based in London, England that specialized in helping political parties with their election campaigns. However, in 2018, it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica was utilizing big data to spread propaganda and false information about 2016 presidential candidate Hilary Clinton and UK’s Brexit among other things. After extensive investigations by a number of countries that have also discovered manipulations in their democratic process, it was discovered that Cambridge Analytica was responsible for aiding and abetting a number of political parties in predatory manipulative practices that have distorted and corrupted the social and political discourse of those countries.
If you would like to learn more about what happened with Cambridge Analytica, I would highly recommend The Great Hack on Netflix.
“We targeted those whose minds we thought we could change until they saw the world the way we wanted them to.”
- Brittney Kaiser, Former Business Development Director for Cambridge Analytica
What Cambridge Analytica was doing was a demonstration of Psychological Information Warfare it is an example of exactly what The Great Firewall and Golden Shield Project are designed to defend against and it is the most dangerous threat the western democracy. As definitively shown before in the 2012 Harvard research paper the Chinese government does not suppress anti-government dissent. The work of the Golden Shield is primary about:
- Protecting against foreign media manipulations.
- Blocking domestic hate speech and toxicity.
- Protect social order and ethnic harmony.
- Supress criminal activity and incitement of violence.
- Supress Defamation and the spread of fabrications and rumors.
In the United States, some of the world’s most powerful technology companies face rising pressure to do more to fight false information and stop foreign infiltration. For years, the United States and others saw this sort of heavy-handed censorship as a sign of China’s weakness and a barrier to its development. As other countries begin to discuss potential internet restrictions and pressure technology companies to do more in the wake of Russian interference, some in China instead see it as a powerful affirmation of the country’s vision for the internet.