China makes a big show of its presumed status as a strong, confident, rising world power. China’s stubborn refusal to allow its own citizens unrestricted access to news and information, however, reveals not strength nor confidence but weakness and fear. Now, China’s authoritarian rulers have again revealed their weakness and fear by censoring the inauguration of U.S. president Donald J. Trump and cracking down on censorship circumvention tools for Chinese internet users.
News outlets in China were ordered to “downplay” the U.S. inauguration, and to publish only reports from central state media. Live streaming of the inauguration on Chinese websites was forbidden. “All regions, all websites must strictly implement the above requests,” read the government’s official censorship instructions, “Any violating websites and the responsible network and information departments will be seriously held accountable.”
Domestic English-language as well as Chinese-language media coverage of the inauguration was censored: “Wasn’t allowed to discuss Trump today on my radio show, he’s now an official 敏感话题 [sensitive topic],” Elyse Ribbons, the American host of an English-language radio show in Beijing, wrote on Twitter, “Chinese leadership still trying to figure him out (sigh).”
Meanwhile—even as Chinese dictator Xi Jinping touted himself as a “champion of globalization” in contrast to “protectionist” Trump—Beijing announced a “nationwide campaign against unauthorized internet connections, including virtual private network (VPN) services” that allow users to bypass the government’s internet censorship system, known as the “Great Firewall of China.” In double-speak typical of the Beijing dictatorship, the announcement from China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said that the crackdown was aimed to “strengthen cyberspace information security management” and cited an “urgent need to regulate disorderly development” of the internet in China.
What Beijing considers “disorderly” is, of course, what the democratic world considers “normal.”
When Xi recently appeared and spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, China-happy Western business media hailed his speech as a “robust defense of globalization” and a “full-throated defense of free trade.” Just as it violates the basic human rights of free expression and press freedom, however, China’s strict censorship of the internet hurts Western businesses in China, blocks internet market access, and hampers the free flow of information that is indispensable to free trade. While it serves an authoritarian purpose for China’s one-party state, the “Great Firewall” also serves a protectionist purpose for China’s crony capitalists.
“Rarely is authoritarianism a signal of strength,” writes China analyst J. Michael Cole, “Instead, it stems from fear, paranoia, and panic.” Despite their posturing to the contrary, China’s rulers are clearly afraid of the power of information.