The Chinese ‘Black Mirror’: heightened censorship in the land of the dragon

“Stressed spelled backwards is dessert.” It is late October, rainy. I am having coffee with a couple who just left Beijing after working there for several years. They seem happy to be somewhere else, even with the bad weather. The small Italian café has encouraging signs on the walls, telling you to live a full life and eat your sorrows away with sweets. “I need to send a photo of this to my friend! She is feeling very down right now” my friend bursts out. “You see, the government just blocked the access to all English pages in Beijing.”

China blocking foreign webpages is nothing new. Arguably, as long as the internet has been around in China, there has been censorship of it. The extensive censorship system set up by the government is known as ‘The Great Firewall’. This effectively blocks access to thousands of international websites and platforms and filters out search results to fit the government’s interests. However, following the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October, the restrictions has reached new heights.

With the move to escalate censorship in the lead-up to the Congress, the Facebook-owned communication app WhatsApp was fully blocked after a longer period under partial restrictions. WhatsApp has for a long time been the company’s last available product in Mainland China. In comparison, Facebook was cut off almost 9 years ago. This new block was confirmed just a month before Beijing recently cut all access to non-Chinese pages.

Despite these Chinese platforms, many still try to get around the block using VPNs – virtual private networks. Using a VPN you are able to access all global sites, climbing the walls the censorship system has built up around Chinese internet users. However, while providing hope, these services has been under attack by the government for a long time.

Stepping up their game, the Chinese leadership has recently ruled in favour of completely blocking access to the global internet by a full shutdown of VPNs in the country by 2018. The order is to be executed by the country’s three telecommunication companies, all state-owned. According to Xiao Qiang from the University of California, “[t]his is a significantly escalated form of internet control and shows there is unprecedented urgency and desperation at the top of the government.” As well as harming private users, larger companies and academics have voiced their concern. The full VPN block would prevent access to international academic journals, as well as communication with businesses outside of China.

I have personally felt the frustration of these bans twice when stuck in transits at Chinese airports. From the first attempt to connect to the WiFi, to the moment you give up and settle for some quality time with that book you probably should have read anyway, you are cut off from all outside communication. At the same time, locals are able to scroll through as many messages as their hearts may desire. In the vacuum caused by the censorship a wide range of Chinese platforms has emerged. They often both replace and go beyond what the international products were able to offer. Two good examples of highly successful companies is the Chinese version of Amazon, Alibaba, and the communication platform WeChat. In fact, according to the New York Times, WeChat has 963 million active users and is even starting to outcompete the use of email.

Queue at the airport in Kunming, China. Photo: Signe Davidson

Being denied free use of the global network is to a millennial growing up alongside it, to put it mildly, a disturbing thought. However, with so many up-and-coming domestic platforms providing Chinese residents with more than their daily internet-fix, maybe the everyday-citizen will not even notice the recently expanded censorship.

The previously mentioned Alibaba has close ties to the government, and is currently running a private test project on their 400 million users. The company is using consumer information acquired through their platform to create a social credit score, or ‘Sesame Credit’. The Chinese policy makers are learning from the experiences of the far-reaching company, and many claims it will be laying the groundwork for a government plan of enrolling all Chinese residents in a social point-based ranking system by 2020.

From early released documents on the system, it is clear that it will encompass every Chinese citizen and organisation. If you like the rest of us are a frequent Netflix-binger, you might have watched the dystopian show ‘Black Mirror’. If you have, this proposal might have you instantly drawing parallels to the episode ‘Nosedive’. The episode introduces the viewer to a world where social scores determine all aspects of life. While a high score gives you benefits, even more drastic is the effects of a low score, rendering you incapable of using even the simplest services the dystopian society has to offer.

It is easy to forget that what we watch on Netflix as a dark twist on life might be the reality for someone else. Strikingly similar to the episode, the social ranking programme in China aims to enter everyone into an extensive national database containing all personal information. This includes everything from small traffic violations and behaviour patterns, to whether birth control has been taken. The result of the information – a number ranking each citizen.

While the idea might seem drastic, it has been explored in the country before. In 2010, there was a pilot project in southern China attempting at creating a similar social ranking system. The project was forced to shut down after a great deal of negative feedback and criticism. The system was based on 1000 points being the perfect score, and its penalties and rewards reflected both the party’s desire to control and create a society to their liking. Interestingly, responses to the system has not been all negative. A large number of people within China sees it as an effective way of building a fair and secure society. In fact, social distrust has been a pressing issue since the 1980s.

No matter the public or international opinion on the issue, it is sure that China has made an effort to tighten their grip on the exponentially globalising society. The heightened censorship accompanying the National Congress this year has been predicted to be long lasting. By 2020, the government says that social credit will “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step”. To a Netflix-binging millennial, it seems like the writer of ‘Black Mirror’ does not have to look very far for inspiration.

Signe Davidson

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