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Is China trying to take its online censorship global?

Most people around the world are well aware that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) operates the most oppressive regime of online censorship and surveillance in the world. But could the CCPs determination to control online information start to affect what people outside China can see too?

CCP leader Xi Jinping has been making headlines around the world of late after it was announced that the Communist Party Constitution is going to be amended to allow him to remain as leader beyond the usual two five-year term limit and potentially for life.

This move has been condemned around the globe as a power grab and yet further evidence that far from modernising, the CCP is dragging China back to the dark days of dictatorship under Chairman Mao.

Powergrab and yet more online censorship

Inevitably, such critical content has been swiftly blocked in China itself. Dozen’s of keywords related to the announcement have swiftly become unavailable in China. These include any references to Emperors and the lifelong rules of China’s former imperial rulers.

The latest censorship has been more comprehensive than ever, with even opaque terms such as the word ‘shameless’, the name “Xi Zedong”, which is an amalgamation of Xi and Mao’s names, and even XI’s widely used nickname Winnie the Pooh, which he apparently detests.

According to a Radio Free Asia article, it is not just text content which is being censored either. Many people use doctored images to share their opinions online, and according to a recent research report from the international monitoring organization SANS Internet Storm Centre, internet censors in China are now able to scan such images for blocked words and block them too.

According to a post on the SANS website by Johannes Ullrich, an internet security expert, they are able to do all of this in real time and so make any critical comments about the Communist regime on services like WeChat, which are freely available in China, almost impossible.

The purpose of the censorship and how to avoid it with a VPN

By blocking critical content on the internet, the Communist regime in China wants to try and give the impression that the Chinese people are supportive of this latest abuse of power by their leaders. But, of course, they are only able to do this by blocking any dissenting voices, of which there appear to be many.

Of course, people in China are still able to use a VPN to get around the CCPs censorship programme and access content that is critical of the regime. But they cannot make that information available to non-VPN users and there are inevitably some risks should they be caught doing so by the regime.

China is also planning to introduce a VPN ban from later this month. It remains to be seen how effective this is, but even if they just manage to block some VPNs, this will still be another big blow to online freedoms in China.

Many campaigners and human rights activists have been forced out of the country altogether and are forced to live in exile and seek to influence their country’s political direction from afar. But if a recent report from the New York Times is to be believed, even they are not safe from the online surveillance regime these days.

Chinese censorship going global?

We have reported previously on the case of Zhang Guanghong who was detained by Communist Party officials in China on the basis of content he posted on WhatsApp, an American owned messaging services which is unavailable in China without a VPN.

WhatsApp is not only blocked in China but also encrypted, which means that the CCP must have either hacked Zhang’s computer or mobile device or else someone in his private WhatsApp group leaked content to them. Either way, his very public arrest sends a warning to WhatsApp users around the world that they are not safe from the CCP’s surveillance.

Another high-profile case is that of Guo Minghai, a Chinese born business tycoon, who holds Swedish citizenship and who was arrested in the presence of Swedish diplomats in a move condemned by both the Swedish government and many of their European counterparts.

The CCP has apparently leant on tech companies over the case with some astonishing results. Facebook (which is blocked in China, remember) has suspended Guo’s account but refused to say what role the CCP played in this decision.

Google has been similarly compliant with the CCP despite also being blocked in China. China made 2,290 requests for Google to take down content in the first half of 2017. This is triple the number of requests made in the previous six months.

Most of these requests related to YouTube videos. YouTube is also blocked in China. CCP officials have also indicated they plan to go further with the ultimate objective being to get global tech firms to change their terms of service, whether or not they are available behind the Great Firewall.

They have also been pursuing a campaign to stop companies posting content which identifies countries claimed by the CCP as their own, such as Taiwan and Tibet, as independent countries. And some companies have also been forced to apologise for quoting the Dalai Lama, who leads the campaign for Tibet to be freed from Chinese occupation too.

They may be taking a slow and steady approach, but the CCP is trying to take its online censorship and surveillance programmes global. And both governments and internet users in the free world need to be aware and ready to fight back.