For the past few days, an unprecedented wave of civil disobedience has shaken up the Chinese government, which is determined to gag its population, even on the internet. Censorship is a key instrument of Xi Jinping’s authoritarian communist regime. Here is how it is organized.
Since November 2022, the China crackles. Unprecedented events – de facto banned – erupted in several cities across the country. Part of the Chinese population can no longer bear the drastic restrictions imposed as part of the fight against Covid-19. This wave of disobedience has been unprecedented since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012. Because in China, multifaceted censorship has historically taken precedence over the lives of citizens. Exponential censorship since the arrival of the internet, then, above all, of Xi Jinping. The final blow: the Covid pandemic. “Covid-19 was an accelerating moment for trends that had already been largely short in China. Under the pretext of health, the population is even more controlled and the data collected even more important”, says Emmanuel Lincot, professor at the Catholic Institute of Paris, sinologist and researcher associated with the Institute of International and Strategic Relations (Iris). In China, there is not censorship but censorship, online and offline, on the internet and in daily life.
“Tens of thousands of small hands are paid to watch the Chinese web day and night”
To control information contrary to communist ideology, harmful to the government’s image or the birth of opinion-exchange groups, China has been described as “cybercracy” by Emmanuel Lincot – author of China and Islamic lands: a millennium of geopoliticsPresses Universitaires de France (puf) – has a multitude of online tools.
“Over the last ten years, we have seen an extreme filter being applied to the internet”, Sougline Katia Roux, Freedom Advocacy Officer at Amnesty International France. Thousands of websites have been blocked, the use of VPN, a software that allows access to foreign sites, has been prohibited since 2009, the social networks Twitter and Facebook are prohibited. Thanks to artificial intelligence (AI), hundreds of combinations of keywords and hashtags are automatically detected on social networks and messaging applications and then deleted.
A team of researchers from Harvard University of America, noted, in an experiment conducted in 2014, that out of 1,200 messages posted by Internet users in China, just over 40% were blocked by automatic censorship tools. Some were published a few days later, others never. Since the start of the pandemic, this practice has exploded.
At the other end of the line: an army of censors, responsible for removing annoying words, images or videos that have escaped artificial intelligence. “You also have tens of thousands of small hands who are paid by the job to monitor the Chinese web day and night and it started at the end of the 1990s. This is what is called, in China, a virtual great wall, explains Emmanuel Lincot.
In 2010, Le Figaro estimated this Internet police at 40,000 people. One of the members of the Harvard team, political science professor Gary King, who worked on Chinese censorship from 2013 to 2017, estimated in 2014 this figure to be between 50,000 and 75,000. In 2013, International mail relays information from the Beijing newspaper Xinjingbao, according to which 2 million people are employed in the country at “analyze opinion on the internet”. One can imagine that with the acceleration of censorship, and all the more so since the pandemic in 2020, the army of censors has grown even larger…
“It’s a bit of a game of cat and mouse with the authorities”
The messaging application like WeChat used on a daily basis in China (including to pay online) and the social network Weibo (the equivalent of Twitter) are particularly monitored. “For example, yesterday [jeudi], when I searched for “white pages” on Weibo, I only came across pro-government posts. There was no trace of footage from the protest, says a Chinese student living in France, alluding to demonstrators brandishing white sheets in protest. I saw posts from students about the protests, but 15 minutes later they were gone… It’s a bit of a game of cat and mouse with the authorities. » Expressing oneself on topics or “liking” online content deemed contrary to the interests of the regime can lead to account suspension, sanctions, or even disappearances.
“On WeChat, I’m sure they listen to our calls, so I’m very careful when talking to my parents, I’m very careful about the words I use. On social networks too, I avoid using these famous keywords spotted by artificial intelligence (AI). On Chinese social networks but also abroad, because I think they also monitor Twitter, for example”, explains the young woman again. The 1.4 billion Chinese are not watched in the same way: dissenting voices will of course come under increased scrutiny.
The Harvard team noted that people who incite rallies, whether in opposition, in support, or unrelated to the government, are more likely to be censored. More than if they issued a criticism of the state. “Authorities are very concerned about the spread of protest activity, and an important means of control is to block communications from potential protesters, including reporting on protest activity and calls to join them,” explains Joseph Cheng, a retired political science professor at Hong Kong Municipal University, to CNN.
Censorship intensifies due to protests
Following the protests in China, the crackdown on dissent and censorship doubled in intensity. An observation already effective. The Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission, chaired by President Xi Jinping, has introduced a new rule that is expected to come into effect on December 15, 2022: for the first time, “likes” (like) published posts will be regulated, along with comments, CNN says.
Social networks are not the only ones to bear the brunt of the cleaning carried out by artificial intelligence. Every private company or online platform, including the media, is called upon to apply censorship so as not to allow sensitive opinions to flourish on the web. They must monitor, report or remove content in real time.
But for that, they have the possibility of choosing their own system. Consequence: a capitalist market has developed, remarked Professor Gary King. Companies seek to sell their own technology or censorship service to other private actors or to the government. “An Amnesty report released in September 2020 showed that companies in the European Union had sold surveillance tools to Chinese authorities, responsible for the violation of human rights in China”, emphasizes Katia Roux, of Amnesty International France.
A horde of “encensers”
Besides the army of censors, there is also a horde of “encensors” called “the 50 cents Party”. Thousands of Internet users are paid to post comments favorable to Xi Jinping’s regime and blow the wind of debate. In 2017, the harvard team considered that the government fabricated 448 million comments on social networks a year. “These messages are noticeable. It can be seen that they are artificial, comments the Chinese student.
She explains that young people have also developed techniques to try to circumvent censorship. “For example, if we want to post an image of the demonstrations, we will reverse the direction of the image, we will turn it around so that it escapes the system”, she explains. An image that often ends up being suppressed by the small hands of the government, “but at least it saves time and it allows you to have a better chance of seeing this information pass”, she says. “In my opinion, the government is not afraid, per se, that we see this information. Because as he deletes them, we have no proof, there is no trace left. »
Jean-Vincent Brisset, associate researcher at Iris, expert on China and strategic issues in Asia, also noticed that the Chinese use the subtleties of their language to escape artificial intelligence. In Chinese, different characters can have the same sound. Thus, instead of using a character that is likely to be detected, they prefer to use another character with the same sound to slip through the cracks.
Censorship so offline
Online censorship is undeniably an important part of the control and surveillance system. But Jean-Vincent Brisset is formal: for the Chinese, it is the social pressure that reigns every day that is the hardest. Surveillance cameras are everywhere, they identify each inhabitant in real time.
“The identity of people and all their pedigree, their social and professional relationships are transmitted directly to the central office in real time. You have total surveillance,” explains Emmanuel Lincot, who himself witnessed this system in China. What adds his colleague Jean-Vincent Brisset: “The problem is also the neighborhood committees. This is what prevents people from expressing themselves. Especially since you have extreme collaboration, corruption and denunciation that works every day. » For the latter, it is “self-censorship” which is the major problem.
A term that the Chinese student does not like to use. “I hate this term because we don’t want to censor ourselves, it’s not our wish. It’s just that we have to, because we are afraid for our family, for our life, because it can have serious consequences behind. But it is far from being a choice. »
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How does China go about censoring 1.4 billion people on the internet? – Evening edition Ouest-France – 02/12/2022
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