When China's Censors Give Lessons in Liberty

Have human rights principles been consigned to a museum because they prevented the combined forces of China's dictatorship and business community from asserting themselves? That at least is the impression you get from the moral lessons that the Communist Party's censorship apparatus increasingly deliver in no uncertain terms to Internet freedom advocates.

And yet, by a strange inversion, Internet control zealots have the nerve to invoke laudable ideals in an attempt to silence those who defend freedom of expression and information, as enshrined in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

During the World Internet Conference that was held in the small city of Wuzhen in eastern China last month, the political leaders of the Chinese censorship apparatus and their accomplices continually used fine-sounding words to impose their sinister vision of the world.

The conference slogan -- "an interconnected world shared and governed by all" -- had all the appearance of a moving lesson in democracy and was echoed in the message from President Xi Jinping that a spokesman read at the opening, referring to the "principle of mutual respect and mutual trust" and China's readiness "to deepen international cooperation, respect sovereignty on the Internet [and] uphold cyber security."

Is a reality check needed here? These words are nothing more than a hollow propaganda exercise by a country that is classified as an "Enemy of the Internet" by Reporters Without Borders and is ranked 175th out of 180 countries in its Press Freedom Index.

The owners of China's big (but not very independent) Internet companies use Newspeak as if it were their mother tongue. Active contributors to Chinese Internet censorship, Li Yanhong of Baidu, Ma Huateng of Tencent (China's leading social network) and Cao Guowei of Sina thought out loud about the best way of exporting China's information control "model."

About a thousand businessmen from a hundred or so countries, including world leaders in the ICT sector, attended the three-day conference, during which the comments by the representatives of the Communist Party (and Internet giants) were sometimes impenetrable.

Facebook was represented although access to this social network is denied to the entire Chinese population, or at least to those who do not dare or do not know how to use circumvention tools. As no contradiction is too much for the authorities, they lifted censorship for a few days in Wuzhen, allowing foreign visitors to use social networks and post videos on YouTube. This short-lived microclimate of freedom around the conference contrasted starkly with the rest of the country, which remained as overcast as always.

At around 11 p.m. on November 20, the conference organizers slipped a proposed joint statement -- one clearly revealing their intentions -- under the hotel room door of every participant with a request for comments... by 8 a.m. the next morning. Posted on the Techcrunch website, it has nine recommendations, including a call to "respect Internet sovereignty of all countries" and "refrain from abusing resources and technological strengths to violate other countries' Internet sovereignty."

In other words, China is telling the rest of the world that it will not tolerate any attempts to question its system of generalized censorship, and will not tolerate any circumvention tools or support for human rights defenders or professional or non-professional journalists who try to break the online information blockade.

There was no word in the official programmor even in informal conversations about the fate of the 30 journalists and 70 bloggers who languish in Communist Party jails. But it would not have been absurd to refer to the waves of arrests of netizens such as Guo Feixiong and Xu Zhiyong at the end of last year and again during the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacres, arrests carried out on the pretext of waging a campaign against rumours.

After all, it was Fang Binxing, the former head of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications and an ICT expert regarded as the father of the Great Firewall of China, who called the shots. How could you expect such a man to question the need for this gigantic mechanism that isolates China's Internet users from the rest of the world?

The community of democracies cannot remain passive in the face of such an offensive. Its very principles require that it defend online freedom of information and combat censorship, which doesn't mean handing over the keys to the Internet to the US government.

The defenders of democracy must oppose China's growing influence in Internet governance bodies and at future international conferences on this subject when it seeks to legitimize geolocation-based censorship in the name of "national sovereignty" and even exports its repressive practices to other countries. A concerted effort is needed at the next Global Mobile Internet Conference in Beijing in April 2015.

Special thanks to Benjamin Ismail