How Long Can China’s Internet Thrive if the Rest of the World Gets Shut Out?

Last week, Chinese authorities announced that as of March 10, foreign-invested companies would not be allowed to publish anything on the Chinese Internet unless they have obtained government permission to publish with a Chinese partner. What does this mean for the look and feel of the Chinese Internet? What will it mean for international media businesses (movie studios, newspapers, advertisers) interested in reaching China’s consumers? As more and more Chinese are able to travel to places where the Internet is less restricted, how will they react to the version of the Internet that exists inside the Great Fire Wall? How long can China’s Internet thrive without the participation of the rest of the World? —The Editors


China has feared—and fought—“peaceful evolution” (和平演变) since the 1950s, finding it anathema that foreign ideas and values could eventually challenge and even rot the Communist Party and its system from within.

While the use of the term in official discourse and especially in secret documents reached a crescendo in the years immediately after Tiananmen, something I experienced first hand as Reuters China bureau chief, the concept has never died and can be seen in every provision of the new rules excluding foreign companies from the Chinese Internet.

In practice for foreign news organizations, the restrictions are absolutely nothing new. What they do is send the strong and unmistakable message that what some had thought was a grey area is actually pretty close to black!

Foreign news companies aiming at the Chinese market have always located their servers in Hong Kong or somewhere else offshore and relied on Chinese readers to “find” them; they have then had to simply accept either with a whimper or a ritual protest the inevitable “blocking” of their sites should they do something that offends (which most eventually find themselves doing, either by design, accident, or the inexorable rules of western news judgment).

The new rules simply make the news companies’ protests even more hapless.

The main effect of the new rules on foreign news companies will be in their boardrooms, I predict. Those companies spending large sums producing tailored Chinese-language output for the mainland market will have to question once again whether they will ever turn a profit. CFOs and sales managers will wail at the complete inability to accurately predict audience size or whether the site will be blocked for days, weeks, months, or years from the advertising targets. Editors will feel pressure, subtle or overt, to avoid being blocked by either defining the areas of coverage ever more narrowly or by soft-peddling controversial subjects. Some companies will perform the ultimate act of self-censorship by simply puling the plug on their China ambitions.

But will any of this actually matter to China?

The Chinese who get most exercised by being blocked from foreign news content are the small sliver of the population in the “people like me” cohort—journalists, academics, educated, well off—exactly those who have ways of accessing the information by other means (admittedly clumsy, irritating, and prone to failure and interference).

As we have seen in the United States with the rise of “Trumpism” and the abject failure in audience and financial terms of Al Jazeera America, xenophobia and news nativism doesn’t actually need laws and regulations to triumph. The heartland of most nations is already walled off by ideology and habit from too many ideas from the outside, and China is no exception.

What the new law does, however, is send a strong shot across the bow of foreign news organizations and the intellectual elites both in China and abroad, saying: “We have our wall against peaceful evolution, and we won’t see it breached.”

As a Fulbright Scholar, I taught journalism at Northeast Normal University in Changchun, China, during 2014. In May of that year, as the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre approached, I changed my avatar on Weibo, WeChat, and other social media platforms from a pair of running shoes to Tank Man. I had been using these channels daily to communicate with my students, and I wondered whether they would recognize the iconic photo of the white-shirted man facing down a column of tanks at Tiananmen Square. Sadly, the students were clueless. (The censors weren’t; after three days, they blocked my Weibo and WeChat accounts.)

“Why a tank?” one student messaged me. I explained that the man in front of the tanks was protesting the slaughter of hundreds of Chinese who had assembled in Tiananmen Square to demonstrate for democratic reforms.

“Wow, that’s horrible,” the student wrote.

That student was a tech-savvy young woman who had “jumped the wall,” using a VPN to evade the Chinese government’s censorship of the Internet. We were friends on Facebook. But even with her surreptitious freedom, she had never heard of the student-led protests and the military crackdown they prompted just a few years before she was born.

Now China is going further to prevent its citizens from accessing information that the government doesn’t want them to see. The new rules would prohibit foreign enterprises from publishing content on China’s Internet without getting the approval of authorities.

I dread to think how this would have affected my teaching. Would the U.S.-based Council for International Exchange of Scholars, which administers the Fulbright program, be subject to the new rules? Would educators and researchers affiliated with international organizations be required to get the Chinese government’s approval before posting material on a Chinese website?

One of the courses I taught was data journalism. My students crunched data sets we obtained from various sources, including the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and the Chinese government. Then they wrote news stories: about air pollution, China’s ethnic minorities, cigarette smoking rates, the rising cost of living, and other issues. We published the articles as a zine called “Data Dim Sum” on the Chinese Web platform

The articles opened the eyes of my students and their classmates to topics to which they otherwise wouldn’t have been exposed. The same could be said of other western media content that my students found on Chinese websites—including, yes, The Big Bang Theory.

Young people in China can’t access such content on the open Internet that has been embraced by most of the world’s countries. Soon, they won’t be able to access this kind of material on the confined Internet restricted by their government. They will live in a bubble of content sanitized and censored by authorities.

A few weeks ago, I received a WeChat message from the student with whom I had the Tank Man discussion. She apologized for not being on Facebook for the past few months. “I’m sorry,” she wrote. “But my VPN doesn’t work anymore.”

Beijing’s expanded restrictions on foreign companies’ online content are another recent effort to ensure the control of information in a time of increasing uncertainty and anxiety in Chinese society about the nation’s economic and political future, and a sign of the increasing insecurity of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

Despite the continuing tightening of control of the media and the Internet over the last three years, the Chinese government is still fighting a steeply uphill and ultimately losing battle against the fundamental human desire for freedom of expression, as well as the development of information and communication technology.

The more restrictive those information control measures, the greater the political and economic costs of the censorship.

More and more netizens among the growing Chinese Internet population of more than 700 million have less and less tolerance for this Chinternet—the censored version of the Internet. The resistance against such censorship, including the Great Firewall, only grows stronger every minute.

Foreign companies now have even stronger reason to stand on the right side of this epic battle—expanding the free flow of information over the entire Internet, regardless of which country they are doing business within.

China’s new Regulations on the Administration of Intent Publishing Services, published on February 4 to take effect on March 10 just before the lianghui (yearly meeting of the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference), cap a multi-year drafting effort to replace the 2002 Interim Regulations and better insulate China from undesired published content on the Internet. In other words, the subject is not unstructured social media but rather actual publications. The one major addition to the already broad scope of covered publications is gaming, which has become widely popular in China since 2002.

The Regulations at 61 articles are much more detailed than their 30-article predecessor. The content prohibitions found in the 2002 regulations, which cover all manner of political thought including content that reveals State secrets, compromises State security, or harms the reputation or interests of the State, are carried over to the new Regulations. The only addition, (there are no deletions) is pornography, which is now deemed to merit explicit mention alongside obscenity.

Why then are the new Regulations of concern? First, they constitute another lost opportunity to expand freedom of access to information in a China, which is increasingly fearful of unapproved external influences. As before, literature, art, the sciences, and more, whether original, a digital reproduction, a digital reformulation, or other arrangement, are all covered. Original news reporting is separately regulated.

Second, the new Regulations promise tighter and more stringent enforcement. Article 9 specifies the minimum number and government licensing requirements for editing and publishing personnel.

Third, regulations for violations are more severe. But arguably of greater concern is the distinct hostility expressed with respect to things foreign, the expression of which is arguably in violation of WTO requirements. Article 10 bars Chinese-foreign joint ventures and wholly foreign-owned enterprises from Internet publishing, effectively capping foreign investment at 24.9 percent. This appears to be in violation of the decision by the WTO Dispute Settlement Body in WT/DS363/14, which held that China is obligated to open trading and services for publications and audiovisual entertainment products to foreign individuals and enterprises and to open distribution services for publications to foreign suppliers.

Article 10 even goes beyond investment prohibitions to require prior government approval for any cooperation between a licensed Internet publishing services provider and a foreign-invested enterprise in China (itself a Chinese company) or any overseas organization or individual engaged in Internet publishing. “Approval” is even more restrictive than the “security” assessment specified in the 2012 draft.

And with respect to technology, servers must be located in China. While this does not mandate procurement of Chinese hardware and software, a licensed Internet services publisher might be inclined to do so.

In sum, China has not only tightened the restrictions on the delivery of publication over the Internet, it has done so in apparent violation of a WTO obligation.

I’ll have to take a somewhat contrarian view here and say that I welcome this development, for a number of reasons.

First, it really illustrates just how frightened the authorities are. As Lester points out, Xi Jinping is willing to contravene WTO obligations in this quest, which shows just how scared the government is of anything foreign, including information which would have been used in the country’s schools and universities. Either Xi Jinping suffers from paranoid delusions or foreign publishers have ramped up the “anti-China rhetoric” to historic highs. Or perhaps both.

Secondly, this is bad news for foreign publishers who have already invested in the China market. But this is great news for those who are looking at entering the market. They don't have to worry about striking any deals now! Foreign publishers can now be 100% certain that they are not wanted in China. This, however, does not preclude foreign organizations from publishing content in Chinese but hosting it on servers outside of China. However, the risk then becomes that the authorities simply block these websites.

Which brings me to my third point, which is to say that “all is not lost.” Yet. There are workarounds to delivering Chinese language content to an audience in China, and many publishers are taking advantage of these hacks. Collateral freedom forces the authorities to either continue to allow access to foreign websites or to completely block the foreign Internet in China, whether they are publishing information or not. Xi Jinping could choose a complete block, which would mean major disruptions to finance and banking, commerce and the flow of entertainment.

This ban on foreign publishers could in fact be the first step in making the Chinternet a reality. Regardless of what the strategy may be, foreign publishers and other organizations who have either seen their websites blocked or distribution of their content in China restricted, should band together and use collateral freedom to deliver content into China as soon as possible. If the authorities are already scared, they’ll be hysterical when they see that collateral freedom is gaining momentum and that the only way to stop it is to deny Chinese access to half of the world’s Internet content. Once Chinese realize what their leadership has done, the authorities will learn the true meaning of terror.