China’s Internet Policies: Doubling Down
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is already famous for its strict controls over Internet content and users. If anything, these controls appear to be growing tighter over time. Although many once hoped that the Internet would bring change to China, it now appears that China is more likely to bring change to the Internet. These trends are evident in two key domains: China’s domestic policies for Internet management, and China’s efforts to influence sites and users beyond its own borders. Instead of a gradual opening up, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is doubling down on its efforts to control, censor, and undermine those aspects of the net which it finds threatening.
In August 2014, the CCP reinvigorated the State Internet Information Office (SIIO), a body originally set up in 2011 to handle Internet propaganda work, and invested it with authority over all “Internet information and content management” as well as supervision and enforcement of such management. The SIIO also took on a new English title: the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC). Consolidated beneath it are twelve separate units – eight offices (ju) and four centers (zhongxin) across four different ministries and the State Council – all now under the leadership of director Lu Wei. Lu has been described as China’s “Internet czar” and the “father of the Great Firewall,” and he has been a major proponent of “Internet sovereignty,” an idea which favors the balkanization of the web under national authorities.
Earlier, in February of that same year, the Chinese leadership established the Central Leading Group for Cyberspace Affairs. Lu is head of its administrative office, but the reach of this critical task force extends to the very pinnacle of CCP authority. The Central Leading Group is one of the bodies formerly known as “leading small groups,” committees often reporting directly to the Politburo or Politburo Standing Committee and intended to work across bureaucratic divisions on major issues. The Central Leading Group itself is therefore headed by General Secretary Xi Jinping and includes Premier Li Keqiang as well as former propaganda head Liu Yunshan, now a member of the Politburo Standing Committee. This new body likely makes all major decisions regarding Internet policy in the PRC.
Together, these two internal reorganizations emphasize the importance which the CCP leadership attaches to Internet policy. Furthermore, they appear to have reinvigorated efforts to control the net. Just since January 2015, access to all remaining unblocked Google services, such as Gmail access through third-party clients like Microsoft Outlook, as well as the Reuters news service have been blocked. In that same month, the government began systematically disrupting Virtual Private Network (VPN) services, which have long provided a window through the Great Firewall. While many paid VPN services offer countermeasures to evade this blocking, they may still face interruptions and do not offer a guaranteed connection to the outside world.
Still more alarming, China has begun to aggressively externalize its own norms of Internet censorship and control. In March of this year, Chinese Internet authorities turned the Great Firewall outward in a massive distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack against GitHub, an American company that allows software engineers to store, retrieve, and “fork” versioned source code. For developers, GitHub is not only a service but a community that allows them to share their own code or download others’ as a basis for new work. For the Chinese government, however, GitHub is a host for tools that can be used to circumvent the country’s Internet restrictions. An attempt at blanket censorship of the site was beaten back in January 2013 by criticism from within the Chinese tech industry. In order to signal its latest displeasure with GitHub, PRC authorities therefore deployed a new tool, dubbed the “Great Cannon” by researchers at UC Berkeley and elsewhere. This tool used a man-in-the-middle attack to inject malicious code into the browsers of visitors to sites that used analytics tools provided by Baidu, the dominant Chinese search provider. That code forced users’ computers to silently and repeatedly load two specific GitHub pages, directing enough traffic to the site to force it offline under the load. The attack persisted for about five days. The same researchers and others subsequently showed that the traffic originated on the tightly-controlled backbone of China Unicom, a pattern consistent with a state-orchestrated attack.
The March attack was followed by a renewed assault in August. Though smaller and less disruptive than the first, this second effort to interrupt access to GitHub coincided with work by security agents inside the PRC to force Chinese developers to remove projects from the site which could be used to access blocked information. The developer of Shadowsocks, a proxy tool that could allow users to access information blocked by the Chinese government, was one individual targeted by domestic authorities. On August 22, the developer posted to GitHub site this statement: “Two days ago the police came to me and wanted me to stop working on this. Today they asked me to delete all the code from GitHub. I have no choice but to obey. I hope one day I’ll live in a country where I have freedom to write any code I like without fearing.” The statement was later amended to read simply, “Removed according to regulations.” Although other users later mirrored the project under new names elsewhere on GitHub, the top results for Shadowsocks now return dead project pages, and users undoubtedly feel nervous about accessing software they know to have been directly targeted by state security.
All of the above initiatives point to the Communist Party’s determination to control the Internet. This control will take the form of continued strict limits on expression within the country, technological disruption of tools intended to promote freedom of information, and attempts to influence actors outside China through a variety of means, both persuasive and coercive. This behavior should not be surprising and will not be a passing phase. CCP leaders have repeatedly emphasized that they see themselves as being engaged in an “ideological war” against Western values, a war to be waged in large part on the Internet itself. As the 17th Party Congress put it in 2011, the CCP must “…occupy the commanding heights of Internet information dissemination.” Outsiders would do well to recognize that China’s draconian domestic policies are not only deeply entrenched domestically, but have also begun to threaten the international commons by actively disrupting sites critical to users in democratic countries. While there is likely little that Western governments can do to increase freedom of information within the PRC itself, they must take this challenge seriously and work to ensure that whatever the Chinese state chooses to inflict upon its own citizens, it does not successfully poison the broader web upon which we all rely.
Jackson Woods is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at GWU. His dissertation research examines online public opinion in China, especially around foreign policy events, and government management of the Internet and social media. This article is based in part on field interviews conducted in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong during June and July 2015 with the generous support of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies.