As governance in China has slid backwards in recent years, restrictions on the media and internet spheres have been a key feature of this dynamic, as evident from the findings of Freedom House’s 2011 Freedom on the Net report. Since early 2011, dozens of prominent activists and lawyers have been abducted by Chinese security forces. As this crackdown was taking place, the editors of the Freedom House’s weekly China Media Bulletin noted corresponding censorship directives and other restrictions that effectively reduced the detained individuals’ presence on the Chinese internet, a practice that might be termed “cyberdisappearance.”
To investigate this phenomenon in greater detail, the editors selected a sample of eight prominent activists, lawyers, and journalists, many of whom have used the internet as part of their activism. Freedom House staff then conducted searches for their names on Google.hk (a Hong Kong–based site that is largely free of Chinese Communist Party censorship) and compared the results to those produced by Baidu.com, the dominant Chinese search engine; Yahoo.cn, the China-based version of the U.S. internet portal; and the search function of China’s popular Sina Weibo microblogging service—all three of which are subject to Communist Party restrictions. Although Yahoo.cn represents less than 1 percent of China’s search-engine market, it was included because its performance demonstrates the censorship requirements imposed on foreign internet companies seeking to operate in China.
The aim of the test was to simulate the experience of an average Chinese user who has heard the activists’ names and wants to learn more about them. While both the censorship apparatus and netizens are often sophisticated enough to identify terms that refer to activists indirectly, without using their actual names, China Media Bulletin editors felt that a name-based test nevertheless provides some sense of the user experience.
The findings reveal not just clear evidence of significant restrictions, but also the nuance with which the Chinese censorship apparatus imposes those restrictions. Ultimately, they provide a window into the distorted version of reality available to most Chinese internet users, as well as the Communist Party’s extensive efforts to isolate activists who cross an ever-shifting red line and limit their access to large audiences.
At this link are brief profiles of the selected activists, followed by a chart summarizing the results of the search-engine tests. In addition to the results related to each individual, several broad trends emerged from the testing:
- Heavy restrictions on Sina Weibo. For seven of the eight names tested, Sina Weibo provided no search results on the activists in question. By way of explanation, users are presented with the following message: “According to related laws and policy, some of the results are not shown here.”
- Yahoo.cn matches or exceeds the restrictions on Baidu. Despite being part of a U.S.-based company, Yahoo.cn produces search results that are as heavily restricted and dominated by Chinese government links as those of Baidu, which holds over 80 percent of the domestic search market. In some cases, Yahoo.cn appears to be even more restrictive than Baidu.
- A nuanced spectrum of restrictions, corresponding to perceived political sensitivity. For those who have fallen seriously out of favor with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—like Gao Zhisheng, Ai Weiwei, and Liu Xiaobo— search results are heavily censored, and there is almost no access to their writings. For others who have run into official repression but are not yet considered “enemies”—like Teng Biao, Jiang Tianyong, and Chang Ping—censorship is more nuanced. Chinese users may still have access to many of their writings, but the available material may be limited to topics deemed acceptable by the CCP. For example, their advocacy for Tibetans or Falun Gong practitioners would be proscribed, but their work on death penalty or corruption cases would remain online. Even for the activists considered to be more politically sensitive—such as Gao Zhisheng, Ai Weiwei, and Chen Guangcheng—information about their careers before they ran afoul of the authorities may still be available.
- The number of search results on Google.hk or Yahoo.hk is far greater than on Baidu.com or Yahoo.cn. In some instances, millions or hundreds of thousands of results appear on the outside search engines, while only a few dozen or hundred appear on the mainland Chinese sites. Whether the difference is due to the companies’ respective algorithms or deliberate censorship, the effect is that Chinese people using local search engines have a much more limited range of information at their disposal, not only in terms of quality, but also of quantity.
Beyond the freedom of expression dimension, these findings and such extensive censorship targeting leading reformers also have implications for governance in China more generally. Indeed, in some respects, they are a reflection of some of the key governance challenges facing China today.
- First, the opacity and arbitrariness with which censorship decisions are made reflect the lack of transparency emblematic of CCP rule. The above-mentioned activists have no avenue for appealing the censorship of their writings or their names, nor did they receive any official notice explaining when or how they came to be included on such a blacklist.
- Second, censorship targeting the names of key democracy activists is only one of numerous methods used by the CCP to squash dissent and limit the possibility of an organized political opposition emerging in China, including via the use of social media tools.
- Third, the targeting of lawyers and other legal activists working to expose and seek justice for a range of human rights violations—from corruption to repression of minorities to torture—has far-reaching implications for the development of the rule of law. In many respects, these individuals are a microcosm of bigger problems in China. Suppressing information about them also translates into the cover-up of the severe violations suffered by their clients and a reinforcement of the cycle of impunity for the perpetrators of such abuses.
- Fourth, the collaboration of private companies in Chinese censorship—be they domestic firms like Baidu or Sina or international corporations like Yahoo—reflects how the CCP uses bureaucratic and economic carrots and sticks to coerce non-governmental entities to do its bidding, a governance strategy of the party that extends beyond the realm of the internet.