The Internet was supposed to foster democracy. China has different ideas.

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The Internet was supposed to foster democracy. China has different ideas.
The Washington Post, July 10, 2016
World: Asia & Pacific
By Simon Denyer

“BEHIND THE FIREWALL: How China tamed the Internet | This is part 3 of 6 of a series examining the impact of China’s Great Firewall, a mechanism of Internet censorship and surveillance that affects nearly 700 million users.”


“I just want freedom of speech without fear.”


BEIJING — Wen Tao has been saying what he thinks on China’s booming social-media outlets for the best part of a decade.


His forthright views have won him tens of thousands of followers, but his criticism of the authorities has also come at a cost: He says his social-media accounts have been closed down about 20 times, and he has been bombarded with curses, personal insults and death threats from other social-media users.


China’s Communist Party and its military say they are waging an ideological war against hostile Western ideas on the Internet, and people like Wen are in the firing line.

Through censorship, intimidation and repression, and with the help of an army of “patriotic” netizens, the party appears to be winning.


It is part of China’s larger effort to tame the Internet and to disprove the notion that the flow of ideas across the World Wide Web would be an unstoppable force toward democracy. News and information that might threaten the Communist Party are kept out of the country under a system of censorship known as the Great Firewall, while foreign social-media networks such as Facebook and Twitter that allow private citizens to share ideas and join forces are also banned. Behind the wall, China’s own social-media networks are closely policed to ensure public opinion does not coalesce into a threat to one-party rule.


In February, the government finally banned Wen for good, among a group of Internet users who had supposedly abused their influence, spread rumors and disrupted social order.


Now, he is about ready to give up.


“I am tired,” he said in an interview at a Beijing coffee shop. “The most important thing now is I should lead a happy life with my wife. I want to sleep well.”


Guobin Yang, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of many books on China’s Internet, says the online environment has “really changed” in recent years.


“Critical voices are still there, but it is less likely they will coalesce into a broader form of online protest,” he said.


Indeed, social media is increasingly being harnessed by autocratic regimes to bolster their rule, says University of Toronto political scientist Seva Gunitsky. It helps dictatorships gauge public opinion and discover otherwise hidden grievances, while also allowing them to disseminate propaganda and shape the contours of public debate.


“China has been at the forefront of this, and they are quickly getting very sophisticated about it,” he said. “Social media can allow autocrats to become stronger, more informed and more adaptable. As with radio and television before it, social media is not just a way to spread information but a potential tool of subtle control and ma­nipu­la­tion — one that often works more effectively than brute-force suppression.”

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About the Author:

Simon Denyer is The Washington Post’s bureau chief in Tokyo, covering Japan and the Koreas. He served previously as bureau chief in China, and in India; a Reuters bureau chief in Washington, New Delhi, Islamabad and Kabul; and as a Reuters correspondent in Nairobi, New York and London. He is author of “Rogue Elephant: Harnessing the Power of India’s Unruly Democracy,”, and the co-editor of “Foreign Correspondent: Fifty Years of Reporting South Asia.” He has also made frequent TV and radio appearances, including on BBC, CNN, NPR, PBS, Fox News, MSNBC, CNBC and Sky News, as well as India’s NDTV, Times Now and CNN-IBN.