Censorship and the CCP: An Overview of China’s “Golden Shield”

Censorship can be defined as “the suppression or prohibition of any parts of books, films, news, etc. that are considered obscene, politically unacceptable, or a threat to security.”1“Censorship English Definition and Meaning,” Lexico, last modified 2022,  https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/censorship. Albeit many countries censor information from the general public, one of the most well-known nations to do so is the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In the PRC, heavy censorship is a part of everyday life and is enforced by the government. While internet control is one of the most prominent forms of censorship in China, even before the interweb was created, ideals of shielding the public from sometimes harsh realities have been prominent. In 1979 when Deng Xiaopeng enacted the Open Door Policy in China, which allowed more foreign investment and trade, the nation struggled with balancing the introduction of more Western practices, while preventing Western influences and ideologies from entering the country. Deng Xiaopeng stated, “If you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in.”2“The Great Firewall of China: Background,” Torfox: A Stanford Project, last modified June 1, 2011, https://cs.stanford.edu/people/eroberts/cs201/projects/2010-11/FreedomOfInformationChina/category/great-firewall-of-china/index.html. China prevents ‘flies’ or foreign influence and information unbecoming of the CCP, by censoring the internet, video games, literature, radio, and even text and instant messaging.3Bristow Michael, “China defends internet censorship,” BBC News, last modified June 8, 2010, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8727647.stm. Citizens are guarded against knowledge to prevent political opposition, maintain public faith in the China Communist Party (CCP), and censor events that shed an unfavorable light on the Communist Party. The government has a dramatic influence on censorship due to the necessity of maintaining a positive reputation of the CCP. 

First, the government censors the World Wide Web to prevent the public perception of the CCP from being tarnished. When the internet was first introduced within the PRC in 1994 under the presidency of Jiang Zemin, there was no censorship. Zemin was influenced by Alvin Toffler’s ‘third wave’ theory expressing that the world is moving towards the Information Age, the third wave, and away from the Industrial Age, the second wave.4Pingp, “The Great Firewall of China: Background,” Torfox: A Stanford Project, last modified June 1, 2011, https://cs.stanford.edu/people/eroberts/cs201/projects/2010-11/FreedomOfInformationChina/category/great-firewall-of-china/index.html. Zemin recognized that the internet would be vital for China to compete with other countries in the long run.5Pingp, “The Great Firewall of China: Background.” However, as the Chinese government anticipated, internet usage skyrocketed from almost 0% in 1994 to 28.8% in 2009.6Pingp, “The Great Firewall of China: Background.” As the government realized that it was losing control of the spread of information because of the increase in accessible knowledge, the CCP took action to regulate the issue. In 1998, the Golden Shield Project (otherwise known as the Great Firewall) was initiated and managed by the Chinese government’s Ministry of Public Security division.7Pingp, “The Great Firewall of China: Background.” The surveillance and effectiveness of this project improved over time, and it began to focus on content-filtering firewalls on individuals. These advanced methods have been adapted to both prevent the spread of knowledge and inhibit internet activism, which uses the media to mobilize socio-political action and usually opposes the government.8Guobin Yang, “Internet Activism & the Party-State in China,” Daedalus 143, no. 2 (2014): 110, last modified 2014, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43297320. The OpenNet Initiative performed an empirical study, a collaboration between Harvard Law School, University of Toronto Citizen Lab, and Cambridge Security Program, and found that the PRC has “the most sophisticated content-filtering internet regime in the world.”9“Internet Development and Information Control in the People’s Republic of China,” EveryCRSReport.com, last modified February 10, 2006, https://www.everycrsreport.com/reports/RL33167.html#n_30_. In short, China has devoted its resources to creating citizen censorship abilities unmatched by any country worldwide that furthermore.

Moreover, in the United States, three of the most popular search engines include Google, Bing, and Yahoo, none of which are allowed in China as they may consist of perspectives that are not synonymous with the government’s interests. As an alternative, citizens can use sites that closely partner with the government and follow its’ ordinances surrounding censoring content. These sites include Baidu, Xinhuanet.com, Chinadaily.com.cn, and Chinanews. To take Baidu as an example, China Digital Times explains that the search engine “has a long history of being the most proactive and restrictive online censor in the search arena.”10Xiao Qiang, “BAIDU’S INTERNAL MONITORING AND CENSORSHIP DOCUMENT LEAKED,” China Digital Times, last modified Apr 30, 2009, https://chinadigitaltimes.net/2009/04/baidus-internal-monitoring-and-censorship-document-leaked/. The Great Shield demanding self-censorship of these search engines among both the companies and the citizens of China makes it even more effective. The government mandates that companies are responsible for public content and ensure that prohibited topics and obscenities are not readily available. The government enforcement of internet censorship in the PRC allows for preventing any viewpoints that oppose the CCP, sustaining its positive reputation.

While some might argue that televised censorship contributes more to maintaining the government’s esteem among citizens because fewer people in China use the internet, to begin with, in actuality, the internet contains much more information than what reporters might express, which makes the internet censorship more effective in shielding the public from any opposition. 

Secondly, the government’s censorship of detrimental information impacts the everyday practices and lives of the citizens in China and how they positively perceive the CCP.  Withholding facts from the Chinese public has resulted in a lack of necessity for extrinsic information and cognizance of international occurrences unless the government has deemed them appropriate, as citizens in the PRC are so alienated from the rest of the world. Sarah Cook, the Research Director for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan at Freedom House explains that, “The result is a parallel universe where the combination of robust censorship, fear-inducing surveillance, and proactive content manipulation has left tens of millions of news consumers in the world’s second-largest economy with a perception of reality—in their own country and globally—that diverges significantly and even dangerously from that of their counterparts abroad.”11“China’s information isolation, new censorship rules, transnational repression (February 2021),” Freedom House, last modified June 1, 2011, https://freedomhouse.org/report/china-media-bulletin/2021/chinas-information-isolation-new-censorship-rules-transnatiovonal. CRP citizens are withdrawn from outside the country because the government manipulates all of the information in its favor. 

Furthermore, a study from VoxDev with 1800 university students showed how the generations-long censorship spearheaded by the CCP had influenced Chinese citizens’ behavior regarding the internet and the necessity for new information. The experiment randomly placed the students in either a controlled condition where they were censored or a treatment condition where the students were provided with tools to bypass internet censorship for 18 months. The study found that 21% of students had already obtained the means to circumvent censorship restrictions prior to the experiment.12David Yang, “The impact of media censorship in China: 1984 or Brave New World?” VoxDev, last modified May 21, 2018, https://voxdev.org/topic/institutions-political-economy/impact-media-censorship-china-1984-or-brave-new-world. The majority of these students came from more wealthy and liberal-minded backgrounds.13Yang, “The impact of media censorship in China: 1984 or Brave New World?” The study showed that the uncensored internet did not impact students’ search for sensitive political information. Almost half of the students did not even use the tools and those who did spent little to no time on previously prohibited foreign news sites. However, students took advantage of their access to read the Chinese edition of the New York Times and spent, on average, 435% more time on the site.14Yang, “The impact of media censorship in China: 1984 or Brave New World?” The study showed that having an uncensored internet made students more skeptical about the Chinese government and its performance, more knowledgeable of current events, and more pessimistic about the Chinese economic growth and the stock market, with the most significant impact on those from low-income backgrounds. This examination proved the impact that having access to the internet would have on the PRC, but also the effectiveness of current censorship. The fact that many students did not take advantage of the opportunity of access indicated that the government has successfully conditioned its people to be less reliant on foreign information, thus many underestimate the value of different knowledge and perspectives. The CCP recognized the public response might have been catastrophic if the population were aware of its shortcomings and that restricting access to the internet assists immensely in masking mistakes and maintaining public interest. 

Lastly, the Chinese government expresses that it has a right to censor people within its jurisdiction as it sees fit and uses this argument to justify the exhaustive measures taken to conceal information that would offset its public popularity. In a 2010 White Paper, China claims that “Chinese citizens fully enjoy the freedom of speech on the internet.”15Xinhua, “Full Text: White paper on the Internet in China,” last modified June 8, 2010, https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2010-06/08/content_9950198_5.htm However, due to the ramifications of expressing opinions that oppose the Chinese government, including fines and detention, citizens are not likely to ‘enjoy their freedom of speech’.16J. Knockel, et al. “Information control by public punishment: The logic of signaling repression in China” Sage Journals, last modified October 13, 2020. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0920203X20963010. In the document, the PRC again states that they are determined to govern the World Wide Web within the nation’s borders as it decides. “Within Chinese territory, the internet is under the jurisdiction of Chinese sovereignty. The internet sovereignty of China should be respected and protected.”17Xinhua, “Full Text: White paper on the Internet in China.” Article 25 of the Chinese constitution includes a list of strictly prohibited content, including ‘incitement to secession’, ‘sabotage of national solidarity’, ‘disclosure of state secrets,’ ‘promotion of obscenity, superstition or violence’ and, ‘harm to social morality and excellent cultural tradition of the nation.’18Torfox: A Stanford Project, “The Great Firewall of China: Background.” With many indistinct restrictions, authorities can doubtlessly incriminate individuals for violating the laws. The government takes advantage of this fact and has created many limitations that allow censorship to be enforced and the ability to punish those who do not comply. 

In sum, the government in PRC has a dramatic influence on censorship due to the necessity of maintaining a favorable reputation of the China Communist Party. Due to the increase in knowledge and accessibility of the internet, China implemented restrictions such as The Great Shield to conceal citizens from many opinions on how the country is run. Chinese citizens’ behaviors were influenced by increased government surveillance and manipulation over time and people became less likely to bypass the censorship for foreign information or sensitive knowledge that negatively reflected the government. The CCP continues to exert that Chinese citizens have the freedom of speech despite the numerous articles in the Chinese constitution, such as Article 25, with vague regulations that allow the government to quickly punish those who express personal opinions unfavorable to the CCP. The government in the PRC heavily utilizes censorship to maintain control and force a positive reputation among the general public.

Cover Image: “Great Firewall of China _0017” by Philip McMaster is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

One Reply to “Censorship and the CCP: An Overview of China’s “Golden Shield””

  1. Excellent and insightful article.
    I lived in China for 15 years, experiencing the ousting of Google etc.
    Your article appears as balanced as possible, considering the facts are presented from a biased “Western” perspective – where the so called “Free” Western web” is equally manipulated, centrally controlled and guided to keep people
    – un-focused,
    – entertained,
    – distracted,
    – divided
    and essentially dumbed-down, easily controlled consumers.

    Overall a great conversation starter article!
    (also a good choice of cover photo of the Chinese flag I took in front of a huge red wall of the forbidden city, Beijing) – from the flickr archives of the “3fingerw” SustainabilitySymbol! – Ha ha ha!

    Welcome to join us in ConscienceLAND.com where there are no borders to freedom and ISR – Individual Social Responsibility.

    Peace Plus One, Join the Fun_\!/

    -Philip McMaster

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