China is a global behemoth in the modern world. It is one of the biggest nations in the world with the highest population and one of the strongest economies today. Their military force is one of the strongest as well, with numerous skilled soldiers equipped with the most advanced equipment and munitions. It seems that China has it all. And perhaps it does. The nation is also blessed with a rich history, culture, and the arts along with some breathtaking scenery both natural and man-made.
However, they may be just smokescreens to more pressing yet seldom talked about issues regarding real life in China. Chinese citizens do not enjoy many rights and they have no choice but to obey everything the government says or risk persecution. Life isn’t easy for the ordinary Chinese who not only has to deal with constant human right abuses from people in authority but likewise live in poverty in densely populated and polluted cities. But while their conditions are poor and human right abuses are the norm, they seldom complain because that’s just their way of life. After all, they know so little about life outside the great walls of their nation because the government imposes extreme Internet censorship and its citizens have little use of the World Wide Web so far.
Everyone knows that China has some of the most sophisticated censorship tools in the world, but the details of how they actually work — what they censor and when — are often not fully understood. A new report by Citizen Lab, a research group studying the web, human rights, and global security, sheds some light on one particularly fruitful target for Chinese censorship: mobile messaging.
Citizen Lab looked at how the Chinese government censors discussion on WeChat, a popular messaging app. WeChat is the fourth biggest messaging service in the world, with more than 768 million active users, but is also deeply embedded in Chinese society, where it’s used not only for chatting, but for tasks like banking, paying bills, booking holidays, calling cabs, and much more.
The cornerstone of WeChat censorship is keyword filtering, which blocks messages that contain terms like “human rights,” “mass arrest,” and “spiritual freedom.” However, Citizen Lab found that the censors don’t just block messages containing any one specific phrase, but instead look for combinations of different terms. So you can send a message with the words “human rights lawyer” in it, but if you combine that with the name of a specific lawyer — Jiang Tianyong, who was recently “disappeared” by the government — the message is blocked.
When a message is censored, users are not notified of this fact. They see it as sent in their own app, but it just never reaches its intended recipient. The system works by examining every message that is sent when it passes through WeChat’s servers. The list of filtered keywords is also reactive, and changes in relation to the news; and only to WeChat accounts using mobile phone numbers registered in the Chinese mainland. Citizen Lab says much of the censorship on WeChat is currently focused around the “709 Crackdown” — a series of arrests against civil dissenters that began on the 9th of July 2015 (hence the name).
If you live in a free country anywhere in the world, learning about these things can shock you. You’d probably wonder how people live with such restrictions in this modern day and age. But that is just the way it is in China. The people don’t even know what they are missing out on because the government is very good in limiting their access to the web and are prompt in addressing potentially problematic issues in their infancy. No wonder that Facebook and Twitter are not welcome in the Red Dragon of Asia. These social networks are notorious for controversial social and political remarks, discussions and arguments that may likely mess the internal equilibrium there is in China.
The mobile internet, accessed via smartphone, is capturing a growing share of daily time that adults in China spend on major media, according to eMarketer’s latest forecast.
In 2017, adults in China will spend an average of 1 hour 38 minutes with their smartphones. eMarketer has raised its previous estimates for time spent with smartphones by 7.4 minutes per day. This is largely due to the availability of cheaper smartphones with capabilities similar to flagship devices like the Samsung Galaxy and the iPhone, which in turn has led to increased smartphone adoption and deeper engagement with the devices.
“As attention continues to migrate from offline to online formats and from desktop to mobile devices, advertising dollars, too, will shift,” said Shellen Shum, senior forecasting analyst at eMarketer. “Coupled with improvements in targeting and measurability, digital and mobile ad formats will continue to fare better than their counterparts in traditional media.”
Adults in China still spend less time on smartphones than they do with TV—but that gap is closing. eMarketer estimates that by 2019, adults will spend an average of 2 hours 9 minutes with their smartphones per day, just 25 minutes less than the average amount of time spent watching TV.
But it seems that the Chinese government should work even harder as the threat of technology and everything that comes along with it is now reaching even rural areas in Mainland China. Freedom of speech, information and of the press is a popular concept that is heavily influenced by modern western democratic culture and societies. They are something that Chinese leaders don’t want their people to openly enjoy as it might trigger an uprising against the government. Chinese traditional media acts as puppets, only showing what the government wants the people to see and know of.
While the advent of the Internet posed a new and bigger challenge to the Chinese government, they managed to find a way to address this through the vast centralized censorship program. But if you look at it, what they are doing is even in clear violation of the Chinese Constitution itself that supports freedom of speech, publication, assembly, association, procession, and demonstration. But leave it to the Chinese to find a way to do whatever they want. The whole world remains as distant onlookers who will keep on guessing what is really going on in this powerful Asian nation.