Obstacles to Access | Freedom House

Obstacles to Access

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China had the largest number of internet and mobile phone users in the world in January 2013, with an estimated 564 million and 986 million, respectively.[1] These figures, though staggering, paint an incomplete picture of China’s uneven economic development and manipulated connectivity. Average broadband connection speeds are comparatively slow, leaving China in 94th place in global rankings.[2] It is stymied by poor infrastructure—particularly in the country’s vast rural areas—and a telecommunications industry dominated by state-owned enterprises. Centralized control over international gateways and sporadic, localized shutdowns of internet access around sites of social unrest are significant obstructions to full and free access. Nationwide blocking, filtering, and monitoring systems further slow access to international websites.[3] The Hong Kong administrative region, free of these obstacles, enjoys the third-fastest average connection speeds worldwide, after South Korea and Japan,[4] and at a fraction of mainland prices.

The China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), an administrative agency under the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), reports that rates of internet adoption have actually slowed since 2011 as the urban market approaches saturation.[5] Moreover, the gap between penetration rates in urban and rural areas has widened since 2007.[6] The 72.2 percent of residents online in the capital, Beijing, vastly outnumber the 28.5 percent with internet access in the least-connected province of Jiangxi in the southeast.[7]  This divide kept overall internet penetration at just 42.1 percent,[8] slightly higher than the global average, which was 35 percent in 2011.[9]

Graph A. Internet Penetration Rate in Provinces of Mainland China between 2011 and 2012 (Source: CNNIC)

The CNNIC reported 422 million mobile internet users in December 2012. By contrast, broadband subscriptions declined from 450 million in 2010 to 380 million in 2012.[10] (Broadband subscriptions have dwarfed dial-up since 2005.[11])

Mobile replaced fixed-line broadband as China’s preferred means of accessing the internet for the first time in 2012. Internet access via cybercafé declined, accounting for 22.4 percent of users, down from 27.9 percent in 2011.[12] While internet-enabled 3G (third-generation) phones are priced beyond the reach of many, platforms like the Tencent QQ instant-messaging service and Sina Weibo allow users to send and receive messages at low cost via 2G handsets.

Graph B. Percentage of Internet Users Getting Internet Access Through Mobile Phones, Broadband, and Cybercafés (Source: CNNIC)

The historically high cost of broadband internet access helps to account for the shift toward mobile. The government took steps to address this when a 2011 antimonopoly investigation accused the state-owned China Telecom and China Unicom of abusing their market dominance to manipulate broadband pricing and overcharge competitors. The investigation was the first instance in which a 2008 antimonopoly law was used against state-owned enterprises, and it was announced in an unusually public way on CCTV.[13] The telecom giants swiftly revised their internetwork pricing structures to allow rivals fair access to their infrastructural resources.[14] Interestingly, one of the beneficiaries of this measure may be a government regulator, the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT), which said in 2012 that it would launch a national cable network, funded by the Ministry of Finance and offering telephone, broadcasting, and internet services. The plan would advance the overall integration of these three services, a goal the State Council had previously pledged to achieve throughout China by 2015, though the timetable for its implementation is not clear.[15]

While customers can now choose from among scores of private internet service providers (ISPs), the large state enterprises are widely perceived as responsible for the costly, inefficient connections that continue to prevail.[16] The Beijing-based research company Data Centre of China Internet reported that the average cost of 1 Mbps of bandwidth was 469 times more on the mainland than in Hong Kong in 2011,[17] while consumers complained that broadband speeds remained slower than advertised in 2012.[18] The MIIT has sought other methods to improve internet service, such as mandating that homes constructed within reach of public fiber-optic networks be connected via a selection of service providers from April 2013 onward.[19] Whether China’s infrastructure will be able to keep pace with such ambitious government projects, however, is still uncertain. Although the MIIT said all broadband users would have internet access at 100 Mbps by 2015, the average speed in the fastest city, Shanghai, was just 4.04 Mbps in 2012, compared with 2.52 Mbps in the less-developed—and more heavily censored—Tibetan Autonomous Region.[20]

Graph C. Average Broadband Connection Speed in 2012 Q4 (Source: ChinaCache)

Mobile phone communication is also dominated by state-owned enterprises, including China Mobile, China Telecom, and China Unicom. This situation, too, is under review: The MIIT issued draft proposals to open the market in January 2013, allowing private companies to buy mobile network resources and repackage them for the user over a two-year trial period.[21] China Mobile began testing faster 4G service in some eastern Chinese cities in 2013, and the MIIT said in late 2012 that it would be issuing licenses to providers to upgrade to 4G service within a year.[22]       

The government has been willing to liberalize the telecommunications market in part because of the country’s centralized connection to the international internet. Six state-run operators maintain the country’s international gateways. [23] This arrangement remains the primary infrastructural limitation on open internet access, as it gives the authorities the ability to cut off cross-border information requests. All ISPs must subscribe via the gateway operators and obtain a license from the MIIT. Internet access via mobile phones is also monitored by the international gateway operators under MIIT oversight.

The government has shut down access to entire communications systems in response to specific events, notably imposing an astounding 10-month internet blackout in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region after an outburst of ethnic violence in the regional capital Urumqi in July 2009.[24] Since then, authorities have enforced smaller-scale shutdowns lasting several days or weeks. Officials in predominantly Tibetan areas of western China twice cut off local internet access during 2012: once in February following clashes surrounding a series of self-immolations and reports that soldiers had opened fire on civilians,[25] and again for two days around the July 7 birthday of the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader.[26] More than 100 self-immolations—suicides committed in protest against Chinese rule—have been documented since 2009.[27]

In other cases, the level of official interference with connectivity was hard to gauge. China was briefly isolated for two hours in April 2012 when users reported that all international websites were inaccessible. Hong Kong and U.S. users were unable to visit sites hosted in China during the same period. Cloud Flare Inc., a U.S.-based company that studies web performance, told the Wall Street Journal that the interruption appeared to have been triggered by overactive filtering, rather than a technical glitch, and that only traffic from China Telecom and China Unicom plummeted; smaller providers were unaffected.[28] In August 2012, the same company reported “increased difficulty with traffic out of China,” but without a consistent pattern to indicate the cause.[29] An MIIT spokesperson denied rumors that China was “closing down the internet” in advance of the politically sensitive 18th Party Congress in the fall, but acknowledged conducting maintenance.[30]

Authorities exercise tight control over cybercafés and other public access points, which are licensed by the Ministry of Culture in cooperation with other state entities.[31] Consolidating these helps increase the efficiency of surveillance and censorship.[32]

By 2012, chains had absorbed around 40 percent of cybercafés following a ministry-led push to eliminate sole-proprietor locations by 2015. Over 10 different government and CCP entities, at both the national and local levels, are involved in internet censorship, with some instructions coming straight from the top. The State Internet Information Office was created in 2011 to streamline propaganda directives for online content, punish violators, and oversee telecommunications companies.[33] It has since increased controls on online video—particularly short-form “microfilms” that are commonly used to evade controls on content screened by mainstream movie theaters or news media[34]—and real-name registration for online platforms.[35] Two official regulatory entities, SARFT and the General Administration for Press and Publications (GAPP), are slated to merge, according to a plan announced in March 2013.[36]



[1] CNNIC, “The CNNIC Released the 31st Statistical Report on Internet Development in China,” News Release, January 15, 2013, http://www1.cnnic.cn/IDR/ReportDownloads/201302/P020130221391269963814.pdf.

[2] Lin Jingdong, “Global Speed Heavy: Mainland China Ranked 94th in the Second Half of 2012,” VentureData.org, January 26, 2013, http://www.venturedata.org/?i480706_Global-speed-Heavy-Mainland-China-ranked-94th-in-the-second-half-of-2012.

[3] James Fallows, “The Connection has been Reset,” The Atlantic, March 2008, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/03/-ldquo-the-connection-has-been-reset-rdquo/6650/.

[4] Christy Choi, “Hong Kong Has Fastest Peak Internet Speed in World,” South China Morning Post, January 25, 2013, http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1135480/hong-kong-has-fastest-peak-internet-speed-world?page=all.

[5] CNNIC, Zhong Guo Hu Lian Wang Fa Zhan Zhuang Kuang Tong [The 28th Report on the Development of the Internet in China] (Beijing: CNNIC, 2011), http://www.cnnic.cn/research/bgxz/tjbg/201107/P020110721502208383670.pdf.

[6] CNNIC, Zhong Guo Hu Lian Wang Fa Zhan Zhuang Kuang Tong [The 29th Report on the Development of the Internet in China] (Beijing: CNNIC, 2012), 21, http://www.cnnic.cn/research/bgxz/tjbgdtygg/dtgg/201201/P020120116330880247967W020120116337628870651.pdf; Benat Bilbao-Osorio, Soumitra Dutta, and Bruno Lanvin, “The Global Information Technology Report 2013,” World Economic Forum, 2013, http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GITR_Report_2013.pdf.

[7] CNNIC, “Zhong Guo Hu Lian Wang Fa Zhan Zhuang Kuang Tong,” [The 31st Report on the Development of the Internet in China], January 2013, 15 http://www.cnnic.cn/hlwfzyj/hlwxzbg/hlwtjbg/201301/P020130122600399530412.pdf.

[8] CNNIC, [The 31st Report on the Development of the Internet in China].

[9] ITU, The World in 2011: ICT Facts and Figures (Geneva: ITU, 2011), http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/facts/2011/material/ICTFactsFigures2011.pdf.

[10] 163.com web portal visualization of CNNIC, [The 31st Report on the Development of the Internet in China], http://tech.163.com/special/cnnic30/#full

[11] “CNNIC Releases Internet Report: China’s Internet Users Exceed 100 Million,” Xinhua News, July 22, 2005, http://news.xinhuanet.com/newmedia/2005-07/22/content_3251081.htm.

[12] CNNIC, [The 31st Report on the Development of the Internet in China], 21.

[13] Jan Holthuis, “War of the Giants – Observations on the Anti-Monopoly Investigation in China Telecom and China Unicom, HIL International Lawyers & Advisers, March 2, 2012, http://legalknowledgeportal.com/2012/03/02/war-of-the-giants-observations-on-the-anti-monopoly-investigation-into-china-telecom-and-china-unicom/..

[14] Lu Hui, “China Telecom, China Unicom Pledge to Mend Errors after Anti-monopoly Probe,” Xinhua News, December 2, 2011, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010/china/2011-12/02/c_131285141.htm; “Guo Jia Guang Dian Wang Luo Gong Si Jiang Qiang Cheng Li Zhong Yi Dong Wei Can Yu Chu Zi” [State Radio and Television Networks Will be Set Up], Sina, November 15, 2012, http://tech.sina.com.cn/t/2012-11-15/03037799520.shtml..

[15] Tan Min, “SARFT Finishes Plan for National Cable Operator,” Caixin, August 6, 2012, http://english.caixin.com/2012-08-06/100420145.html.

[16] “Tighter Rules for Telecom Costs,” Shanghai Daily, April 26, 2012, http://www.china.org.cn/business/2012-04/26/content_25241615.htm.

[17]Zhong Guo Kuandai Yong hu Diaocha” [Survey of China’s Broadband Users], Data Center of China Internet, 2011-2012, http://www.dcci.com.cn/media/download/905430773daab3f27453929ee140539fdc12.pdf. The center has not released data for 2012.

[18] “Chinese Internet Choked by “‘Fake Broadband”’ Providers,” Global Times, October 8, 2012, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/736926.shtml.

[19] Shen Jingting, “New Residences Required to Provide Fiber Network Connections,” China Daily, January 9, 2013, http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/business/2013-01/09/content_16099801.htm.

[20] “China’s Broadband Speeds Show Shanghai Zooming Ahead [INFOGRAPHIC],” Tech in Asia, September 20, 2012,

http://www.techinasia.com/china-broadband-speeds-2012-infographic/; “China Internet Report: The First Quarter of 2013,” ChinaCache, May 2013, http://files.shareholder.com/downloads/ABEA-528MQE/2583814687x0x664689/2c293e5c-de24-4102-b7bd-828c0501bd94/ChinaCache_First_Quarter_2013_China_Internet_Report.pdf.

[21] Seng Jingting, “Telecom Plans ‘Will Help Break’ Industry Monopoly,” China Daily, January 1, 2013, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/bizchina/2013-01/09/content_16098031.htm.

[22] “China Mobile Launches TD-LTE Commercial Trials in Hangzhou, Wenzhou,” Marbridge Daily, February 4, 2013, http://www.marbridgeconsulting.com/marbridgedaily/archive/article/63196/china_mobile_launches_td_lte_commercial_trials_in_hangzhou_wenzhou#When:12:00:00Z; Want China Times, “China Paves Way for 4G Telecom Network Expansion,” November 28, 2012, http://www.wantchinatimes.com/news-subclass-cnt.aspx?id=20121128000040&cid=1502.

[23] CNNIC, [The 31st Report on the Development of the Internet in China], 21.

[24] Chris Hogg, “China Restores Xinjiang Internet,” British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), May 14, 2010, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/8682145.stm.

[25] Tania Branigan, “China Cut Off Internet in Area of Tibetan Unrest,” Guardian, February 3, 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/feb/03/china-internet-links-tibetan-unrest.

[26] “China Celebrates Dalai Lama’s Birthday by Cutting Communications in Tibetan Region,” Index on Censorship, July 10, 2012, http://www.ifex.org/china/tibet/2012/07/10/communications_cut/.

[27] “Self-Immolations by Tibetans,” International Campaign for Tibet, June 19, 2013, http://www.savetibet.org/resources/fact-sheets/self-immolations-by-tibetans/.

[28] Paul Mozur, “New Clarity on China Internet Outage,” China Real Time Report (blog), Wall Street Journal, April 13, 2012, http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2012/04/13/new-clarity-on-china-internet-outage/.

[29] Tania Branigan, “China’s Internet Users Temporarily Blocked from Foreign Websites,” Guardian, April 12, 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/apr/12/china-internet-users-foreign-websites.

[30] Brian Spegele and Paul Mozur, “China Hardens Grip before Meeting,” Wall Street Journal, November 10, 2012, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204707104578092461228569642.html.

[31] These include the Public Security Bureau and the State Administration for Industry and Commerce. “Yi Kan Jiu Mingbai Quan Cheng Tu Jie Wang Ba Pai Zhao Shen Qing Liu Cheng” [A look at an illustration of the whole course of the cybercafé license application process], Zol.com, http://detail.zol.com.cn/picture_index_100/index997401.shtml.

[32] “China’s 2013 Internet Café Market Down 13% YoY,” 17173.com, April 28, 2013, http://www.marbridgeconsulting.com/marbridgedaily/2013-04-28/article/65634/chinas_2013_internet_caf_market_down_13_yoy.

[33] The State Internet Information Office operates under the jurisdiction of the State Council Information Office. “China Sets Up State Internet Information Office,” China Daily, May 4, 2011, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2011-05/04/content_12440782.htm. See also “New Agency Created to Coordinate Internet Regulation,” China Media Bulletin, May 5, 2011, //www.freedomhouse.org/article/china-media-bulletin-issue-no-21#3.

[34] Mathew Scott, “Censors Catch Up With China’s ‘Micro Film’ Movement,” Agence France-Presse, July 16, 2012, http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5itjrPwXQFfB7ueKsg1TdiOtItR8w?docId=CNG.09667aa7e67669f6f7d1a284e78d6e1d.c1.

[35] See Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), Annual Report 2012 (Washington: CECC, 2012), 50–53, http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CHRG-112shrg76190/pdf/CHRG-112shrg76190.pdf.

[36] Alice Xin Liu, “China’s Two Main Censorship Bodies to Merge,” Uncut (blog), Index on Censorship, April 19, 2013, http://uncut.indexoncensorship.org/2013/04/sarft-gapp-china-censorship/.