China is currently hosting the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, a large city on the country’s east coast. It is a seminal moment for a country which is trying to establish itself on an equal footing with the world’s superpowers, despite its status as a single-party communist state.
It is the first time the G20, a gathering of the leaders of the world’s 20 most powerful countries to discuss key economic and political policies, has been held in China and needless to say they are keen to impress. But of course this hasn’t stopped the Chinese censorship machinery from going into overdrive.
The event has not exactly been totally free of incident, with US President Barack Obama seemingly being snubbed by the Chinese after being forced to disembark from the rear of Air Force One after the usual red carpet stairs were not made available for him.
He has responded by noting rather bluntly to the media that the US and China have “different values” when it comes to press freedom. An understatement if ever there was one.
China’s preparation for the event has been remarkable. Factories have been shut down to ensure the usual smog which hangs over the city isn’t there. More than a third of the city’s population has “been convinced to leave” according to the Guardian, and the streets of this usually bustling city are totally deserted.
Not that many people in China are aware of any of this, as the Great Firewall and in particular censorship of social media portals such as Weibo mean that domestic coverage of the event is strictly controlled.
Of course, for those delegates in Hangzhou, the Great Firewall has been lifted and international journalists are able to report freely. This is always the case when a major international event rolls into town.
But for those seeking to follow the event from elsewhere in China, coverage has been closely controlled, as has their ability to pass their own comment and opinion on it. Sunday 4th September was reportedly the most censored day for online users in China since August 2015, where there were two explosions in Tianjin.
Weiboscope, a Hong Kong University initiative which monitors censorship of Weibo – the Chinese version of Twitter – reported that 18 posts were blocked for every 10,000 being made. Key words being censored on the site included summit, country, airport, and Hangzhou.
But as the South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong-based newspaper has reported, this strict censorship has cost the ruling Chinese Communist Party some good publicity as well as controlled some negative comments.
And this is because China’s first lady, Peng Liyuan, wife of President Xi Jinping appeared at the event in what the SCMP described as “a stunning qipao-style dress”.
Peng Liyuan has proved far more popular in China than many of the previous first ladies, and her fashion sense has played a large part in this popularity. Her popularity has served as a good counter to her authoritarian husband’s policies and is the type of soft diplomacy success China has badly lacked previously.
Normally, her appearance would have resulted in a deluge of comments on Weibo and other social media sites. But there was barely a mention because all G20 related content has been blocked.
The SMCP did manage to identify just one post which showed the dress, in a video put up on the official feed of the UN. Comments were allowed here, and it seemed Chinese users weren’t being shy in voicing their approval of the outfit.
Freedom of Speech
But it only goes to show just how strongly the Chinese Communist Regime works to control freedom of speech and online freedom in the country. If the event were held in almost any other G20 nation, comment and criticism on the event, and what people were wearing, would be widespread.
But in China, where Xi Jinping’s regime are cracking down still further on online freedoms at the moment, the people are denied such basic rights, unless they make use of a VPN to circumvent the Government’s censorship.
It is to be hoped that the leaders of the free world are using this event to put pressure on China to improve people’s access to an open and free internet. But no-one will be holding their breath, and until there are fundamental changes, VPN use in China will continue to be one of the few ways Chinese people can find out about events like the G20 and pass comment on them.