Hayward: China Applauds the World for Following Its Lead on Internet Censorship

Li Xin/AFP/Getty Images
Li Xin/AFP/Getty Images

“Reining in social media appears to be the trend of governments,” China’s state-run Global Times declared happily in a Sunday editorial. It is not wrong.

The Chinese Communist Party is pleased to see their authoritarian restrictions on speech going viral and infesting Western societies.

Halfway through the editorial, the Global Times tips its hand by grumbling about how Western humanitarian organizations continue to hassle Beijing for its speech restrictions, even as the West slowly accepts China’s principles of censoring free speech to promote social harmony and choke off the flow of “fake news” (emphasis added):

But what should be the standard of social media regulation? The world has not reached a consensus. In the meantime, the Western world won’t miss any opportunity to defame China over the issue, saying Beijing’s management over the Internet is strangling privacy and human rights.

If there is anything we can learn from the latest Facebook’s data privacy scandal, it is that major tech companies are information monopolies and they are powerful. Without proper supervision and management from the government, they will simply take their customers’ privacy as no big deal.

Loopholes in internet regulation have exposed users to greater risks from extreme groups and privacy abuse by big corporations. Both are calling on the government to strengthen management.

China’s short-term goal is to deflect pressure from other governments, United Nations organizations, and human rights activists for its lack of free speech and political freedom. That is why Chinese editorialists constantly complain that China is “defamed” by free speech criticism even as the rest of the world embraces the Chinese ideal of suppressing speech that threatens social harmony, from hate speech to political agitation that interferes with the state’s noble actions on behalf of the people.

For example, China was far ahead of the curve in cracking down on “fake news” with a series of censorship crusades stretching back to the beginning of President Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2012. China’s notorious website controls and its “Great Firewall” were largely justified in the early days as an effort to combat misinformation spread by unregulated news organizations. As the new Global Times article puts it, “Convenience is not the only thing social media has brought to the world. Freedom of speech has led to the spread of inflammatory information.”

The result is a ranking of 176 out of 180 countries for China on the World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders. It should be a matter of grave concern that a nation as powerful and influential as China – a nation with the proven interest and capability to enforce its censorship standards on other countries, including the United States – is rated superior to only Syria, Turkmenistan, Eritrea, and North Korea in press freedom.

Under Xi’s leadership, China is increasingly bold about pursuing individual people across national boundaries to stifle their speech, not just pressuring corporations to toe the party line or risk losing lucrative contracts in China. The New York Times offered a chilling story in early March to illustrate how Beijing’s cold hand reaches around the world (emphasis added):

Zhang Guanghong recently discovered the changing landscape for technology firsthand. Mr. Zhang, a Chinese human rights activist, decided last fall to share an article with a group of friends in and outside China that criticized China’s president. To do so, he used WhatsApp, an American app owned by Facebook that almost nobody uses in China.

In September, Mr. Zhang was detained in China; he is expected to soon be charged with insulting China’s government and the Communist Party. The evidence, according to his lawyer, included printouts of what Mr. Zhang shared and said in the WhatsApp group.

That information was likely obtained by hacking his phone or through a spy in his group chat, said China tech experts, without involving WhatsApp. Mr. Zhang’s case is one of the first-known examples of Chinese authorities using conversations from a non-Chinese chat app as evidence — and it sends a warning to those on the American platform, which is encrypted, that they could also be held accountable for what’s said there.

Beijing is deeply irked by constant criticism of its censorship policies, so its media organs work tirelessly to use charges of hypocrisy as a shield. The new Global Times editorial is more triumphalist than petty, however. Instead of sneering that countries with increasingly draconian hate speech laws have no business criticizing the Chinese government for muzzling what it considers to be hate speech, the Global Times applauds the rest of the world for slowly coming to see things China’s way. All that remains is bickering about what sort of online content should be illegal and how the speech control system should be administered.

The next stage of China’s argument, previewed by the Global Times piece, will be touting China’s centrally administered speech control system as more logical and efficient than the unruly patchwork of regulatory agencies, private industry standards, unwritten rules, and boycott-happy pressure groups that control speech in the West.

China will argue that it takes speech more seriously than a hypocritical West that clearly no longer believes in the ideal of free speech but is too embarrassed and politically conflicted to admit it. The Western world is filled with double standards about who gets to say what.

China’s bureaucracy, freshly steam-cleaned of corruption, thanks to the tireless efforts of Xi Jinping, has a single standard: the good of the state, which is the guardian of the people and the expression of their will.

Human rights advocates criticize China as backward and repressive. China counters that it’s really ahead of the rest of the world in controlling speech online, and we are beginning to catch up with them.

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