The Chinese government continues to be the worst abuser of internet freedom, according to the 2019 Freedom on the Net report, released in November. Its oppressive censorship is increasingly affecting people outside of China.
For the fourth year in a row, Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world, named Beijing as having the most controlled, most oppressive, and least free internet in the world.
“The level of internet freedom in China also reached its lowest point since the inception of the Freedom on the Net report,” the report stated. “Censorship and surveillance were pushed to unprecedented extremes as the government enhanced its information controls.”
The Chinese government censors the internet to block dissent and to maintain its control over its population. The U.S. State Department estimated in a 2018 report that Beijing directly employs tens of thousands of people to monitor electronic communications and online content. Private internet companies, acting on the government’s orders, employ thousands more to police users.
“The Chinese Communist Party’s [CCP] violations of internet freedom are clear evidence that CCP officials care more about maintaining their grip on power than they do about the well-being of their own citizens,” said Annie Boyajian, director of advocacy at Freedom House, in an interview.
The United States is in fifth place out of the 65 countries surveyed in the report, tied with the United Kingdom and Australia. China is in last place at 65th.
Beijing’s censorship is increasingly affecting people outside of China because of the CCP’s influence over Chinese technology companies that have developed apps used worldwide.
“Not only does the Chinese government restrict internet access, surveil internet users and spread propaganda within China’s own borders, it is also stepping up efforts to expand this digital authoritarianism beyond China as well,” Boyajian said.
WeChat is the most popular social network app in China, and Chinese diaspora communities around the globe use it. Many who live outside of China are shocked that the Chinese government apparently monitors and censors what they can and cannot say. For example:
–An American in Texas had his account shut down for discussing the recent election in Hong Kong, where most pro-Beijing candidates lost.
–A Canadian member of parliament had a message to her Canadian constituents deleted by Chinese censors in 2017 for discussing democracy protests.
–A doctor in America had his ability to post articles to chat groups suspended for posting too many political articles. When he returned to posting articles about music, his permission returned.
If a user outside of China is “communicating with somebody else who’s outside of China who has WeChat, [then] they’re still for the most part often operating under the rules that are inside China,” Sarah Cook, a researcher for Freedom House, told National Public Radio.
Another popular Chinese app is TikTok. A teen in New Jersey recently had her account suspended after uploading a video to TikTok about the Chinese government’s persecution of the Uighurs.
TikTok denied that the suspension was related to the video. However, documents revealed by The Guardian show that TikTok has a history of censoring topics that the Chinese government objects to.
The issue of internet censorship and online repression is especially relevant at a time when China is trying to sell the future of mobile internet to the world through 5G networks. “The Chinese Communist Party can force any 5G supplier headquartered in China to turn over data and take other actions in secret,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said December 2.