Censorship in China: The Government Wants the Best of Both Worlds

By: Sarah Payne Faris

For over two decades, Internet users in China have had a significantly different experience on-line than many of their counterparts across the globe.  Since 1994, China has governed Internet usage via continuously developing regulations.[1] Although government censorship of Internet usage is not unique to China, a 2016 study deemed Internet freedoms in China to be the most heavily censored out of the sixty-five internet-active nations that were researched.[2]  The study considered factors such as obstacles to access, limitations on content, and violation of user right’s in assessing criteria for determining these rankings.[3] The results identified China’s censorship freedoms to be only slightly more restrictive than the systems in place both in Syria and Iran.[4]

With this in mind, the government’s words on the subject are particularly interesting to consider.  Addressed both to Chinese citizens and the world at large, the government published a white paper in 2010 that essentially provides an overview of the nation’s Internet policies.[5]  Specifically speaking to the issue of freedoms on-line, it states, “Chinese citizens fully enjoy freedom of speech on the Internet,”[6] assuring that freedom of speech protecting Internet rights is a guaranteed constitutional provision.[7] 

After recognizing freedom of speech as a constitutional right, the paper reasons that censorship regulations are consistent with these freedoms, claiming, “[w]ith their right to freedom of speech on the Internet protected by the law, they [Chinese citizens] can voice their opinions in various ways on the Internet.”[8] It is unclear whether “the law” as it is used here refers to the Constitution, or whether the paper is making the assertion that censorship regulations are actually in place to  “protect” citizen’s freedom of expression.    

Either way, in spite of the alleged opportunity to voice opinions through the Internet, citizens are limited as to how they can communicate and in what type of information they can receive.  The government has been known to fully blocked or temporarily disable websites such as Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Google.[9]  Materials that are considered inflammatory or likely to lead to political unrest are often banned.[10] Accordingly, these temporary bans are particularly utilized around June 4, the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.[11] Sometimes referred to as “the Great Firewall,” the government employs surveillance methods to include interrupting bandwidth, filtering keywords, and blocking access to websites to monitor and control access and usage.[12] Many Chinese Internet users, referred to as “netizens,” have consistently attempted to figure out ways to get past the firewalls and regulations.  One preferred method has been the use of virtual private networks, or VPN’s.  Evidently, this connection is encrypted, providing protection from prying eyes.[13]  Both individuals and businesses throughout the country use such technology.

Although the white paper seems to focus on relaying the message that Chinese freedom of speech is protected by the constitution, there is another constitutional provision that evidently permits these types of regulations.  The freedom of speech provision, Article 35 of the Constitution, reads, “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession, and of demonstration.”[14]

However, Article 40 of the Constitution provides a caveat that limits this freedom.  It begins with the statement, “Freedom and privacy of correspondence of citizens of the People’s Republic of China are protected by law.”[15] The second clause of this article reads as follows: “No organization or individual may ... infringe upon citizens’ freedom and privacy of correspondence, except in cases where, to meet the needs of States security or of criminal investigation, public security or procuratorial organs are permitted to censor correspondence in accordance with the procedures prescribed by law.” [16]

The language of this second clause provides several noteworthy considerations.  First, the government acknowledges that national security interests will take precedence over freedoms of communication when it is deemed necessary. In fact, it is of such importance that under certain circumstances private individuals and businesses are explicitly given the jurisdiction to conduct censorship on fellow citizens. Secondly, while it is clarified that individuals may only impose such censorship on one another under explicit circumstances, Article 40 does not provide any limitation upon the government’s power to create regulatory measures imposing censorship.

However, even with censorship in place, Chinese social media company Weibo has been a huge success.  Weibo has been described as the country’s version of Twitter, although it is said to be an amalgam of different popular social media sites boasting similarities to both Instagram and YouTube.[17] What is remarkable, however, is that Weibo has actually surpassed its model, Twitter, in worth.[18] At the beginning of 2017, Weibo was estimated as being worth $200 million more than Twitter.[19] 

Although Weibo has experienced some major successes, it has recently come under scrutiny from the government.  It is still unknown exactly whether this will significantly decrease the popularity of the site, or substantially decrease its user base.  Consistent with Article 40, the government has recently fined Weibo for allowing information that is deemed dangerous for national security.  In turn, the company decided to hire one thousand employees to pour through posted materials.  These employees are provided a subsidy, additional benefits, and flexible hours, and are expected to report at least two hundred materials that are considered harmful.[20]  Additionally, in September 2017, Weibo began to enforce the government ruling that Internet accounts must be linked to real names.[21]  Users were given one week to make the requisite change.[22] 

The Internet censorship regulations in China have been described as “schizophrenic.”[23]  The nation clearly recognizes the importance of the Internet, describing it in the white pages as “[a] crystallization of human wisdom”.[24]  It has attempted to allow Internet usage in China to thrive- just not too much.  The fairly recent controversy marking the end of Google in China illustrates this situation.[25]  Although use of communication services such as Gmail were prohibited, the government has expressed an interested in once again providing access to Google Scholar, under the logic that academic sources would provide the best of both worlds—information that is not politically dangerous. 

This raises the hypothetical question – how truly instructive can the Internet be if one can only receive limited information, and cannot receive a clear picture of how others are actually responding to it?   The popularity of VPN’s seems to indicate that many “netizens” are not complacent with the current system, and seek exposure to the uncensored Internet.   Additionally, the vast popularity of Weibo, although it is censored, illustrates that even with censorship in place, people are eager to develop an on-line presence and communicate over the Internet. 



[1] Information Office of the State Council, Basic Principles and Practices of Internet Administration, The Internet of China (June 8, 2010), http://china.org.cn/government/whitepaper/2010-06/08/content_20207983.htm.

[2] Sanja Kelly et al., Silencing the Messenger: Communication Apps under Pressure, in Freedom on the Web 2016 Freedom House, 22-23. https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/FOTN_2016_BOOKLET_FINAL.pdf

[3] Id.

[4] Id. 

[5] Information Office of the State Council, Foreword, The Internet in China (June 8, 2017), http://www.china.org.cn/government/whitepaper/2010-06/08/content_20208007.htm.

[6] Information Office of the State Council, Guaranteeing Citizens’ Freedom of Speech on the Internet, The Internet in China (June 8, 2017), http://china.org.cn/government/whitepaper/2010-06/08/content_20207994.htm. 

[7] Id. 

[8] Id. 

[9] Beina Xu & Eleanor Albert, Media Censorship in China, Council on Foreign Relations (Feb 17, 2017), https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/media-censorship-china.

[10] Id. 

[11] Id. 

[12] Id. 

[13] Charles Arthur, China and the Internet: Tricks to Beat the Online Censor, The Guardian, (Mar. 24, 2010, 20:27 EDT), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/mar/25/china-internet-how-to-beat-censorship?intcmp=239,

[14] XIANFA ch II, art. 35 (2004) (China). (Official English translations available, The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, http://www.npc.gov.cn/englishnpc/Constitution/2007-11/15/content_1372964.htm).

[15] Id. art 40 § 1. 

[16] Id. art 40 § 2. 

[17] Meng Jing, Weibo Profits More than Double in Latest Quarter to US$43M South China Morning Post (Feb. 23, 2017, 10:58 PM),  http://www.scmp.com/tech/enterprises/article/2073338/weibo-profits-more-double-latest-quarter-us43m

[18] Morwenna Coniam, China’s Weibo is now Worth more than Twitter: Chart, Bloomberg (Feb. 12, 2017, 5:00 PM),  https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-02-12/twitter-s-market-value-surpassed-by-chinese-peer-weibo-chart

[19] Id. 

[20] Charlotte Gao, China’s Weibo Hires 1000 “Supervisors” to Censor Content, The Diplomat (Sept. 29, 2017), https://thediplomat.com/2017/09/chinas-weibo-hires-1000-supervisors-to-censor-content/

[21] Devin Coldewey, Weibo Users Given One-Week Warning to Provide Real Names, Tech Crunch (Sept. 8, 2017), https://techcrunch.com/2017/09/08/weibo-users-given-one-week-warning-to-provide-real-names/

[22] Id. 

[23] Xu & Albert, supra note 9. 

[24] Foreward, supra note 5. 

[25] Nectar Gan, Is Google Another Step Closer to Being Unblocked in China? South China Morning Post (Mar. 12, 2017, 8:16 PM), https://www.cnbc.com/2017/03/12/is-google-another-step-closer-to-being-unblocked-in-china.html