China has nearly 400 million Internet users–nearly one-quarter of the world’s total–plus 750 million mobile-phone users, many of whom access the Web from their phones. Despite censorship, Internet-based grassroots campaigns on Chinese social-networking sites have had some targeted successes, such as pressuring the Chinese government to jail corrupt local officials. Referring generally to this kind of activism, the Beijing whitepaper makes a bold assertion: “Chinese citizens fully enjoy freedom of speech on the Internet.” Left unstated is that Chinese Internet companies are under government pressure to self-censor, and do so very effectively on a slate of banned topics, including advocacy of democracy, opposition movements, the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising, and Tibetan independence.
“This is not the first time the Chinese government has said ‘we have free speech in this country, except for the speech that isn’t allowed,’ and then there’s a long list of things that aren’t allowed,” MacKinnon adds.
“There is a much broader scope of public discourse happening on the Chinese Internet now than there was in the public sphere before the Internet existed in China,” MacKinnon says. “The thing is, it’s circumscribed.”
China’s statement advertises itself as “providing an overall picture to the Chinese people and the peoples of the rest of the world of the true situation of the Internet in China.” It is a synthesis of long-understood positions: China “energetically advocates and actively supports the development and application of the Internet across the country” and sees it as crucial to economic expansion, but also reserves the right to “administer” the Internet.
“Frankly, I think China is Exhibit A for how authoritarianism will survive the Internet age,” MacKinnon says. “I think Americans have this assumption that nondemocratic regimes can’t survive the Internet, and I think that’s naïve. The Chinese Communist Party fully intends to survive in the Internet age and has a strategy for doing so. So far, it’s working.”