The chilling reality of China’s cyberwar on free speech

The Chinese government has declared the Internet to be the new battlefield in its fight against “pornography and unlawful information.”

The chilling reality is that the main casualty of this cyberwar is freedom of expression. China’s Internet model is one of extreme control. The authorities use an army of censors to stifle dissent.

In January, the Orwellian “State Internet Information Office” announced it had shut down scores of websites and more than 100 social media accounts for “distorting history of the Communist Party and the nation.”

Under the guise of a campaign to ensure social stability, the Chinese authorities suppress online debate on a range of legitimate issues.

Dozens of phrases are censored on social media including any mention of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown or the recent Hong Kong pro-democracy protests. Thousands of websites, including Wikipedia, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter remain blocked.

While the new battlefield is virtual, the impact on people’s lives is real and devastating. Since President Xi Jinping came to power, hundreds of people have been detained solely for expressing their peaceful views online.

It is women’s rights activists, anti-corruption and environmental campaigners, and those urging debate on political and legal reforms who fall foul of online censors.

Su Changlan was detained by police in October 2014.

Her apparent “crime” was to have posted comments online in support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests. She faces charges of “inciting subversion of state power,” and a potential sentence of life imprisonment.

Liu Ping, a 45-year-old mother and grassroots activist, languishes in jail right now. Last June, she was sentenced to six years in prison on the charge of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” for publicly calling on the Chinese government to step up the fight against corruption.

Liu Ping’s online posts of photos of her holding banners calling for transparency, and transcripts of Skype chats with foreign media, were used to condemn her at her trial.

The paradox is that President Xi has made great mileage out of his own anti-corruption drive. The persecution of Liu Ping, and many others that raise these issues only underlines the hypocrisy of the current leadership.

This online attack is part of the worst crackdown against freedom of expression in China in more than a decade. Under President Xi, it is an assault on all fronts: in academia, in the media, civil society and online.

Ilham Tohti, an economics professor at Central University for Nationalities in Beijing and the founder of the “Uyghur Online” website was sentenced to life imprisonment in September 2014 on charges of “separatism.” The charge was based on his online articles, university lectures and interviews with foreign media.

He worked to peacefully build bridges between ethnic communities and often criticized government policies that promoted discrimination. I have not seen evidence that his words did otherwise.

The Chinese authorities abuse the law to suppress online freedom and target critical voices, yet have the guile to portray such persecution as evidence of the rule of law in action.

Far from relenting, the government is introducing a swath of regressive legislation and regulations in a further assault against online privacy and freedom of expression.

A new, vaguely worded draft anti-terror law lacks sufficient safeguards and gives the authorities virtually a free rein to collect information on individuals’ online activities.

All Internet and telecommunication service providers operating in China would be required to give the government backdoor access to their systems and details about the encryption used.

Yes, the government has a responsibility to ensure national security and to combat serious crime, but such measures must be targeted and proportionate to the threat. Internet companies doing business in China must also take all possible efforts to avoid contributing to human rights abuses.

At the international level the Chinese government looks to legitimize its actions. China’s charismatic “Internet Czar,” Lu Wei, extolls the concept of “internet sovereignty” and promotes it as an acceptable global model.

This initiative must not go unchallenged. Internet sovereignty in China equals censorship and persecution; a web to trap thousands of individuals peacefully expressing different views online.

While the immediate outlook is bleak, there is hope. The Internet has proved invaluable to the development of human rights — revolutionizing access to information and improving transparency and accountability.

For every online critic the Chinese authorities imprison, there are scores more prepared to speak out despite the risks. It is with these courageous individuals that those of us who value online freedom must stand united.

The battle to promote Internet sovereignty and silence all critical voices is one the Chinese authorities must not be allowed to win.

Roseann Rife, East Asia research director at Amnesty International, appears as a guest on the latest episode of On China, which examines Internet censorship. The views expressed here are solely hers.

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