The Chinese Communist Party’s commitment to curtailing internet freedom was unwavering over the course of the leadership change that took place during the coverage period for this report, May 1, 2012, to April 30, 2013. If anything, the high-level meetings at which the handover was announced served as catalysts for tighter controls on content, measures to deliberately slow internet traffic, and intensified harassment of dissidents, as the party’s propaganda and security agencies worked to eliminate any nascent political challenge. The internet restrictions Freedom House documented this year were faster and more nuanced than ever before.
The selection of Xi Jinping as the new party chief and head of state emphasized continuity, a message that was reinforced by the simultaneous promotion of party hard-liners like propaganda czar Liu Yunshan. The rhetoric of the new leadership also harkened back to the past. Party officials circulated seven “speak-nots,” or taboo topics—which included “citizens’ rights” and “press freedom”—to universities and media groups in May 2013. Meanwhile, Xi adopted the Maoist term “mass line” to encourage fellow cadres to remain close to the people.
This conservative discourse cannot conceal the unprecedented transformation taking place in China: More than 500 million people in the country are now online. Internet penetration is at 42 percent, compared with just 6 percent when Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, took office in 2003. Residents of cities like Shanghai and Beijing are the primary beneficiaries of this expanded access, while rural areas lag behind. An estimated 800 million people still rely on television outlets, like state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV), as their main source of information. But for the first time on record, more Chinese people connected to the internet via mobile phone than through any other method in the past year, meaning penetration will only continue to climb.
Internet access has provided Chinese citizens with new tools to challenge policy. This year, millions of online comments about air pollution spurred a nationwide upgrade of oil refineries. Online forums also host a surprising range of opinions on political topics. When Edward Snowden fled to Hong Kong after leaking U.S. National Security Agency secrets, users of microblog platforms in China both supported and derided him; some joked cynically that he should see how China handles its citizens’ internet records.
Many believe that such incremental civic gains will inevitably spark political reform. A 2013 meme imagined a future shift in the perspective of the Chinese authorities: “When there are a hundred of you, we will detain you,” it read, but “when there are a hundred thousand of you—we will join you.” Yet the internet has also provided those authorities with an extraordinary range of tools to contain critical conversations. A 2012 academic review of censorship across nearly 1,400 online platforms in China estimated that 13 percent of posts containing sensitive keywords were deleted, many within 24 hours of publication, some within minutes.
Even with vast technological and human resources at their disposal, censors struggled to limit some online debates in the past year. Actress Yao Chen posted a quotation from Soviet-era dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “One word of truth outweighs the whole world,” to her network of 32 million microblog followers in support of Southern Weekly journalists in Guangzhou who were on strike against censorship in January 2013. Anti-Japanese protesters also overwhelmed content controls during a flare-up in the territorial dispute between China and Japan in September 2012. Online vitriol escalated into violent rioting, which Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials consider a threat even when it supports their position.
But Chinese information authorities are also adept at manipulation, and increasingly adaptable as complex situations unfold. In Guangzhou, propaganda officials negotiated with journalists to end the January strike without conceding to all their demands, and the story fell out of the public eye. It was a memorable achievement, but no other newsrooms were emboldened to follow suit. A state-led wave of editorials condemning anti-Japanese activity helped rein in protests the previous September. Experts even speculate that censorship can be temporarily lifted, and criticism of select officials tacitly encouraged, as a weapon in the party’s internal politics. Anticorruption campaigns spread like wildfire online in China, helping the central government hold local officials in check. Yet when the New York Times and Bloomberg accused the families of top leaders of amassing disproportionate wealth, their websites were subjected to punitive blocking and their staff computers were hacked.
Even when content is filtered, the process is being constantly refined, often by private companies that serve as intermediaries between the state and users. The 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre is so thoroughly censored that users of the popular Sina Weibo microblogging platform are not even able to use the search term “today” on the anniversary, June 4. Yet this year, Sina unblocked a handful of Tiananmen-related search terms, allowing users to access dozens of discussions—though unrelated to the 1989 protests in Beijing or the subsequent military crackdown. By offering sanitized results rather than the standard message that blocked keywords usually produce, the company appeared determined to make its censorship invisible.
Far from stifling private innovation, the state has effectively harnessed it to further its own goals. Sina publicly acknowledges that it cannot yet fulfill all of the Chinese government’s requirements, like registering its Weibo users’ real names. But to avoid getting shut down, it will continue to try. Indeed, many of the more subtle developments documented in this report did not originate with the central propaganda department, a bastion of conservative ideology not known for nuance. Instead, they were developed by service providers looking to satisfy the government’s demands while maintaining the illusion of freedom for their users. Google, since it challenged the Chinese government’s censorship practices in 2010, has attempted to innovate on the side of transparency, briefly informing Chinese users of blacklisted search terms in 2012. But its experiments have cost it considerable market share as the authorities seek to marginalize the company.
Much is at stake for these firms, but the penalties of defying the state are far greater for individual dissidents. Security agencies make use of widespread surveillance capabilities and a politicized legal system to pursue selective prosecutions of dozens of people like Cao Haibo, whose eight-year prison sentence for publishing antistate content online was reported in November 2012. What constitutes antistate content is alarmingly broad—in Cao’s case it was articles he had written about democracy—and can include material published years before a case comes to trial, whether or not it was censored at the time. Ethnic minorities in regions where CCP rule is disputed or resented, such as Tibet and Xinjiang, are particularly vulnerable. At least a dozen Tibetans and 20 Uighurs were jailed during the coverage period in relation to their sharing of information online or via mobile phone. Prosecutors’ claims that they were inciting separatism or violence are impossible to verify, as their trials lack due process and are closed to observers. The state continues to pour resources into separating these perceived enemies from families, lawyers, and journalists. In 2012, China spent more on “social stability maintenance”—which includes many of the practices of information control outlined in this report—than it did on defense.
The CCP’s influence online reaches far beyond China’s borders. Nearly a third of cyberattack traffic worldwide in 2012 was traced to Chinese soil, and cybersecurity experts tracked one notorious hacking group to a military facility in Shanghai. Such international activity generally falls outside the scope of this report, but it is rooted in the online environment outlined here. It also serves as an added reminder that Chinese internet freedom, or the lack thereof, has ramifications for the entire world.
 Hu Yong et al., Mapping Digital Media: China (New York: Open Society Foundations, 2012), http://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/sites/default/files/mapping-digital-media-china-20121009.pdf.
 Wendy Qian, “Chinese Web Users React to PRISM: The End of the Affair with Google and Apple?” Tea Leaf Nation, June 11, 2013, http://www.tealeafnation.com/2013/06/chinese-web-users-react-to-prism-the-end-of-the-affair-with-google-and-apple/.
 Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret Roberts, “How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression,” Working Paper, June 18, 2012, http://gking.harvard.edu/files/censored.pdf.
 Scott Greene, "Southern Weekly Editorial Staff Goes on Strike," China Digital Times, January 6, 2013, http://chinadigitaltimes.net/2013/01/southern-weekend-editorial-staff-goes-on-strike/.
 “Censoring a Commemoration: What June 4-Related Search Terms Are Blocked on Weibo Today,” Citizenlab, June 3, 2013, https://citizenlab.org/2013/06/censoring-a-commemoration-what-june-4-related-search-terms-are-blocked-on-weibo-today/.
 “Sina Testing Subtle Censorship ahead of Tiananmen Anniversary,” Greatfire.org, May 31, 2013, https://en.greatfire.org/blog/2013/may/sina-testing-subtle-censorship-ahead-tiananmen-anniversary-0.
 Censors quickly disabled the feature, and the company apparently discontinued it. Bill Bishop, “Today’s China Readings,” Sinocism China Newsletter, July 11, 2012, https://sinocism.com/?p=5722; “All Blocked Keywords According to Google,” Greatfire.org, June 2, 2012, https://en.greatfire.org/blog/2012/jun/all-blocked-keywords-according-google.