On February 27, China announced the creation of the Office of the Central Leading Group for Cyberspace Affairs, of which CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping was appointed chairman. This [latest move to centralise authority] follows the creation last year of the Central National Security Commission,. I feel confident in saying that this news doesn’t make Chinese internet users feel that the internet is now much safer — rather, it gives them a keener sense of dread.
Freedom and security have often been regarded as mutually exclusive. In the aftermath of 9/11, some politicians in the United States said it would be necessary for people to relinquish a degree of freedom and stomach increased surveillance in order to live with a sense of security. The Snowden affair intensified the debate in the West over the balance between rights and security.
Chinese state media are fond of reporting on the security debate in the West, which the Chinese Communist Party can draw on to further justify strict controls on its own population. But this is a complete deception that turns the argument on its head.The situation in democratic countries is entirely different. Freedom is the guarantee of security, and without freedom there can be no security.
Chinese internet users live every day with a sense of insecurity in a country that ranked in the bottom six in a report on world press freedom released by Reporters Without Borders. This insecurity does not arise from the infiltration of American ideas and culture, from the ascendancy of the Japanese political right, or from the threat of Uighur separatism, Tibetan separatism or Hong Kong separatism. The sense of insecurity arises from controls exercised on the internet by Chinese authorities.
There are thousands upon thousands of sensitive keywords on China’s web. If you’re not alert to these no-go areas you risk deletion of your Weibo posts or even the shutdown of your account. If, finally fed up with breathing foul air that threatens your well-being, you take to social media to vent your frustration and call for urgent government action, you might get a knock on your door from police who want to “invite you to tea.”
If, out of compassion, you join a group of others to mourn the death of 10 people in a horrible disaster — but official figures admit only 9 death — you risk being charged by police with spreading “rumours.” And if your post is read 5,000 times, or shared 500 times, you might face criminal responsibility.
If the police can’t get one of the above handles on you, but you continue to support things like democracy and freedom, your might have your company finances and personal life subjected to surveillance to substantiate all sorts of crimes.
According to a 2013 report on press freedom in China issued by the International Federation of Journalists, last year China’s justice department levelled all sorts of crimes to crack down on freedom of speech. They include: disturbing order in a public place, criminal damage to a commercial reputation, criminal libel, the crime of illegally obtaining commercial benefits, the crime of illegal business operations, the crime of assembling a crowd to engage in sexual promiscuity, the crime of spreading rumours, the crime of manufacturing false information, the crime of false registration and disturbing social order.
In its announcement of the formation of the Office of the Central Leading Group for Cyberspace Affairs, the official Xinhua News Agency said that “clearing up and building the online space would be a long-term task,” and it characterised the 2013 “targeted crackdown on cyber rumours” as a positive example.
Everyone who understands China’s internet knows that after this crackdown there was a notable decline in activity on China’s internet. Web users grew fearful and avoided more sensitive public agendas. The crackdown on the sex industry in Dongguan brought a huge backlash on social media, but silence reigned after these voices were attacked in the official People’s Daily.
One of America’s founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin once said: “Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.” In China, this saying should be: if a political party surrenders freedom for security it will not have, nor will it deserve, either one.”
At the first meeting following the creation of this new special group on internet security, Xi Jinping said: “Without internet security there can be no national security; without digitalization there can be no modernisation.” What he really means to say with his first sentence is: without internet controls there can be no totalitarianism.
And the second sentence voids down to this: without freedom of information there can be no modernisation.