Beijing’s internet federation tightens grip on cyberspace

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The Baidu logo. Photo: Internet

In a move to apply more oversight and red tape to curtail freedom of thought in China’s cyberspace, a federation of internet societies was established on Wednesday under Beijing’s auspices, a semi-governmental body to be tasked with “cleaning cyberspace and safeguarding China’s internet security and sovereignty.”

China’s internet-related societies and entities will all be absorbed by the newly-minted national confederation, which already has some 300 founding members.

Under the beck and call of the cyberspace administration office within the party’s propaganda apparatus, the China Federation of Internet Societies will lend political guidance for member organizations, oversee their operations and enhance “party building” and promote party thoughts in the industry, the federation’s president Ren Xianliang told Xinhua.

In party’s parlance, “party building” refers to establishing frontline party branches and poaching and drawing recruits as candidates for party membership.

The federation has also gathered almost all of China’s internet moguls, like Alibaba’s Jack Ma, Tencent’s Pony Ma and search engine operator Baidu’s CEO and chairman Robin Li, among others, as honorary vice-presidents, Beijing-based news website caijing.com.cn reported.

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This warning page that reads “illegal content banned from viewing” will appear if a user searches politically sensitive, incorrect keywords on WeChat, China’s most popular social networking app operated by Tencent.

A new purge is in the offing after Beijing named and shamed news and video hosting sites Toutiao and Kuaishou for propagating vulgar contents or commentaries that strayed from the official line. Previously, the nation’s Twitter-like platform Weibo had been mandated to halt operation or obliterate whatever key words or titles the authority deemed as “incorrect” or “demagoguery”.

Other websites have been told to do some “house cleaning” in strict accordance with the guidelines from the new federation or handed down directly from the party’s propaganda department from time to time, or risk their licenses being revoked once any irregularities are found by the party’s internet watchdog.

Companies like Weibo, Tencent and Youku have established special teams to pull audio and video content suspected of tarnishing the image of the party, distorting history or involving pornography and violence.

These companies have, in their own voluntary filtering of content, removed more than 1.5 million improper audios and videos, closed 40,000 accounts and intercepted more than 13.5 million messages, Xinhua reported, citing the State Administration of Radio and Television.

“Just relying on government authorities is far from enough in administering cyberspace, and it’s more important for the federation’s members to take their own initiative to clean the cyberspace environment,” Zhao Zhanling, a legal counsel of the Internet Society of China, told Global Times.

More websites have started requesting users to upload copies of their ID cards and update their information, and even adopting facial recognition in user authentication.

But it appears that even the army of censors and thought police are sometimes just unable to smother all dissident information within the Chinese cyberspace.

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The US Embassy in China’s statement on its Weibo account.

Earlier this week the US embassy in China posted a rare, stridently worded statement, in Chinese, on its Weibo page slashing Beijing’s subjugation of US companies doing business in China by “imposing the party-decreed political correctness,” after the Chinese Civil Aviation Administration tried to ramrod through a new administrative order mandating all foreign airlines to correct wording or categorization that could leave the impression that Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan were separate, independent sovereign states alongside China.

The post went so far as to label Beijing’s move as “Orwellian gibberish” and that its bid to export political vetting and censorship would be resisted.

The post remains on the embassy’s Weibo page with numerous Chinese netizens surprised by the inaction of the party’s censors. But Weibo users have been banned from sharing the post.

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