What’s with Xi Jinping’s relentless efforts to reign in China’s internet?

In 2008, China officially, for the first time, surpassed the United States to become the world’s largest internet-using population, reaching 221 million users. By August 2021, more than one billion out of China’s 1.5 billion population were already on the internet.

In a nutshell, China is home to the largest online community in the world — except it comes with a hefty price tag: being under the world’s most sophisticated,  and arguably most authoritarian censorship system.

Considering how the total number of internet users in China accounts for one in five of the world’s users, it inevitably reflects the booming development of internet applications and the continuous improvement in digital industrialization. Basically, online services have become a fixture of everyday Chinese life, expanding the reach and influence of the tech sector. 

A mobile-first kingdom

The gradual and constant rise in China’s internet population is mainly attributed to the high volume of affordable smartphones in the market. In 2019, over 90% of Chinese people accessed the internet through mobile phones, and, interestingly, statistics claim that Chinese mobile users spend over 70% of their time daily online. 

A mobile-first kingdom

A woman uses her mobile phone as it rains in Beijing on August 23, 2021. (Photo by Noel Celis / AFP)

Mobile preferences among citizens are reflected such that out of the 600 million customers using online payment modes, 580 million prefer using mobile payment services, according to Statista records. That being said, it is only apparent how this large and engaged mobile internet population has provided a wide range of opportunities to hi-tech companies in China.

Unfortunately, it has also led to the internet becoming the frontlines of the battleground that is China’s new informational politics — the very reason why President Xi Jinping is overseeing a crackdown on the country’s tech sector as its influence rises.

The history of the Great Firewall of China

In China, the world’s largest internet population is subject to the world’s most sophisticated censorship system: The Great Firewall (of China).

This may come as a surprise to some, given the ruling communist party’s infamy for authoritarianism — but China didn’t initially restrict the web. The Great Firewall only started to come about a decade after the first email was sent from China.

It was only after China got access to the world wide web in 1994, that both the country’s earliest netizens and the government came to realize that the free flow of information could have some big political implications.

By the early 2000s, China’s internet controls were apparent. By the time Google launched a Chinese version of its search engine in 2000, it was already slow, unstable and blocked about 10% of the time. In 2002, Google was completely blocked in the country for the first time, but only for nine days. Google’s search engine was blocked again in 2003. That’s the year the Great Firewall went online, according to Fang’s Global Times interview.

Although China has never publicly revealed technical details about the Great Firewall, researchers around the world have studied it and concluded that techniques include blocking IP addresses, DNS attacks, and filtering specific URLs and keywords within URLs. The latter method has become more difficult with the increasing popularity of the encrypted HTTPS protocol

Truth be told, before President Xi Jinping, China’s internet was becoming a more vibrant political space for Chinese citizens. But like the web, the Great Firewall is a complex and multi-layered beast of a system that keeps evolving alongside the government’s whims.

That makes it difficult for people on the outside to completely understand how it works. Researchers have found China’s internet blocking mechanisms are changing frequently in response to different situations, and they may change based on the internet provider and region.

Over the years, the number of websites blocked in China has ballooned and the blacklist includes social networks like Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp; news outlets like Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times; and popular collaboration tools such as Dropbox and Google Drive (or anything else on Google, really).

Agenda: Censorship

Xi has always established that the Chinese internet would be a world unto itself, with its content closely monitored and managed by the Communist party. In one instance, during the country’s second World Internet Conference in 2015, Xi warned against foreign interference saying, “We should respect the right of individual countries to independently choose their own path of cyber-development; in other countries’ internal affairs”.

Abroad, Xi frequently asserts China’s sovereign right to determine what constitutes harmful content. At home, Xi paints the west’s version of the internet, which prioritises freedom of information flow, as anathema to the values of the Chinese government.

In China, the world’s largest internet population is subject to the world’s most sophisticated censorship system: The Great Firewall.

In China, the world’s largest internet population is subject to the world’s most sophisticated censorship system: The Great Firewall. Source: Getty Image

And, rather than acknowledging that aggressive efforts to control the flow of information on the internet are a source of embarrassment and a sign of potential authoritarian fragility, Xi ironically tried to turn his vision of a “Chinanet” into a model for other countries to follow.

Gradually, the experience of being online in China changed. While the Chinese people explored new ways to use the internet, the leadership also began to develop a taste for the new powers it offered, such as a better understanding of citizens’ concerns and new ways to shape — and arguably, control —  public opinion. The government responded with a stream of technological fixes and political directives, yet the boundaries of internet life continued to expand.

The victims of China’s internet crackdown

Looking back at all of China’s achievements in the past two decades, one of the most impressive is the rise of its technology industry. First China, then global tech giant Alibaba Group hosts twice as much e-commerce activity as Amazon does. Tencent runs one of the world’s most popular WeChat apps, with 1.5 billion users. Both Alibaba and Tencent form the fintech duopoly on e-wallets in China, too, with their Alipay and WeChat Pay e-wallets respectively.

Chinese people in cities largely perceive cash or card payments as alien — a whopping 92% of all financial transactions in cities are carried out via e-wallets. The sheer volume of digital payments made has become so dominant that the People’s Bank of China had to forbid what it sees as cash discrimination by merchants who refuse to accept anything but digital payments, according to CGap. This very fact is immensely remarkable, given that barely two decades ago, China was pretty much a cash economy.

China’s tech revolution has also helped transform its long-run economic prospects at home, by allowing it to leap beyond manufacturing into new fields such as digital healthcare and artificial intelligence

That is why Xi’s recent assaults on his country’s US$4 trillion tech industry are making a lot of industry players, especially stock markets local or otherwise, very nervous. There have been over 50 regulatory actions against scores of firms for a dizzying array of alleged offenses, from antitrust abuses to data violations.

To recall, since the suspension of Ant Group’s IPO in November 2020, Beijing has embarked on an unprecedented clampdown of its technology sector. These crackdowns didn’t stop at tech, however — recently, Xi has set its all-seeing eye towards regulating and coming down harshly on companies in other sectors.

The casualties include some of China’s leading tech companies, such as Tencent (internet conglomerate), Meituan (food delivery), Pinduoduo (e-Commerce), Didi (ride-hailing), Full Truck Alliance (freight logistics), Kanzhun (recruitment), online private tutoring companies like New Oriental Education and TAL Education, and cryptocurrencies.

As reported by The Washington Post earlier this week, “It’s striking and significant. This is clearly not a sector-by-sector rectification; this is an entire economic, industry, and structural rectification,” said Jude Blanchette, who holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

China’s internet woes: a deeper agenda?

Whilst the government insists such moves were designed to control the country’s businesses from abuses, inequality, and inequity, critics imply that these swathes of crackdowns have a deeper agenda behind them.

As the authoritarian state’s leaders become increasingly embroiled in friction between Western nations such as the United States, critics opine that these moves are to gain more control and oversight over the flow of information of citizens — particularly, intelligence on state officials — from being leaked outside the country.

Crackdowns on social behaviors and activities related to “morality” (from a Chinese perspective, obviously) seem aimed at forcibly asserting and reiterating anti-Western propaganda through controlling popular thought and culture — which arguably, could be seen as a supportive tool to achieve the agenda mentioned above.

The seemingly nationwide crackdown is not ending anytime soon and while regulators have tried to calm the markets after their latest tutoring bans, experts highlighted some sectors that are highly concentrated, have little relation to state priorities and have previously become targets of public scrutiny.

Alas, Xi intends to reiterate the same point to the world — the crackdown on China’s unruly tech is a demonstration of the party’s untrammeled power.


Note: The views represented here are of the author’s and do not represent Tech Wire Asia.