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China Seeks On-Off Switch for Internet


FILE - Computer users sit near a monitor display with a message from the Chinese police on the proper use of the Internet at an Internet cafe in Beijing, China.

FILE - Computer users sit near a monitor display with a message from the Chinese police on the proper use of the Internet at an Internet cafe in Beijing, China.

A controversial cyber security law that is under review in China will give authorities the power to shut down the internet and block all communications online when so-called “emerging social security events” occur.

The new draft law, which is being reviewed by China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress, does not clearly state what it means by emerging social security events. The broad phrase could refer to anything from localized protests to widespread riots or violent attacks.

The current version of the draft law states local governments must seek approval of the central government before shutting down the internet. How long authorities would be allowed to keep an internet blackout in place is unclear.

China’s new Great Wall

Authorities in China routinely censor the internet, scrubbing it of all kinds of content and commentary, particularly comments critical of the Communist Party and its policy decisions.

The new law goes even further, analysts say, and appears to be part of a trend by authorities to legitimize increasingly stringent and ever-expanding controls on the internet and make them more systematic.

“The contrast between China’s internet and the internet in the rest of the world is increasingly widening and a barrier is being built,” said William Long, a well- known IT blogger in China. “The obstacles to the flow of information from the rest of the world to China are growing and foreign companies are finding it more and more difficult to expand their market in China.”

Soliciting public opinion

The government has asked the public to comment on the legislation, which was first publicized last year in June and is going through its second reading in parliament. Since the draft bill was launched, it has continually been a source of controversy both among the Chinese public as well as foreign businesses.

Authorities have said the law aims to protect China’s cyber sovereignty and the public from growing threats such as terrorism.

FILE - A man holds an iPhone as he visits Sina's Weibo (China's version of Twitter) microblogging site in Shanghai.

FILE - A man holds an iPhone as he visits Sina's Weibo (China's version of Twitter) microblogging site in Shanghai.

But on social media, many criticized the draft bill and questioned whose interests it was putting first.

“The power to shut down the internet is aimed at protecting those officials who arbitrarily bully and oppress the public, isn’t it? True security is not for the public, but to prevent the people from capturing images of the truth,” one commentator said on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.

“Can you turn off the hearts and minds of the people,” one user wrote, while others added sarcastically that the government should just cut off the public’s access to water, electricity and even air, when such events occur.

Easy to block?

Long said the way the internet is set up in China, it is very easy for authorities “to block connections between China and the rest of the world, because the Chinese internet has only a few access hubs to foreign countries.”

FILE - A computer user sits near displays with a message from the Chinese police on the proper use of the internet at an internet cafe in Beijing, China on Aug. 19, 2013.

FILE - A computer user sits near displays with a message from the Chinese police on the proper use of the internet at an internet cafe in Beijing, China on Aug. 19, 2013.

But shutting the internet down locally is not as simple, he adds.

In some provinces, the internet is more diverse, with a wide range of service providers and systems. Others, such as the region of Xinjiang, are more unique and easier to shut down.

In 2009, following massive riots between Han Chinese and the remote western region’s Muslim Uighur minorities, the internet, international telephone service and phone text-messaging service were all shut down for several months.

Stifling environment

Since President Xi Jinping came to power more than three years ago, Chinese authorities have been tightening their control over social media and all kinds of content online. In addition to the draft law, authorities ordered domestic app publishers to require users to register with their real names for all mobile phone apps. App publishers are also required to keep logs of all users for at least 60 days.

Authorities will be monitoring some four million apps.

FILE - A man uses computer at the guests waiting area inside Google China's headquarters building in Beijing, China on Jan. 25, 2010.

FILE - A man uses computer at the guests waiting area inside Google China's headquarters building in Beijing, China on Jan. 25, 2010.

Efforts to exert more control is not only expanding online, but at universities and within the Communist Party itself—among both rank and file members and the party elite.

Communist party members have been told to support government policies and warned against “improper discussions” of party policies. The strict rules apply even to those who are retired.

A struggle between conservative and reformist minded academics is becoming increasingly intense.

China’s state media reported this week that a top editor at a leading party ideological magazine committed suicide. Zhu Tiezhi was a deputy editor-in-chief at Qiushi magazine. He was suffering from depression, but friends have also said his condition may have been linked to ongoing and intense ideological struggles in China. Others have suggested that he may have been linked to an ongoing corruption investigation.

Zhu once wrote that if the party did not address real problems, “ideological debates would become empty talk to undermine the mutual trust between the party, the government it leads, and the people.”

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