When Russia blocked Facebook and restricted Twitter this month, many Chinese internet users were surprised. Hang on, they said: Could the Russians use Facebook and Twitter? Both social media platforms have been banned in China since 2009.
By blocking online platforms, shutting down the last vestige of independent Russian media and making it a crime to view the fighting in Ukraine as war, the Kremlin has made it nearly impossible for the Russian people to get independent or international news. after his invasion. Most Russians take in an alternate reality.
That is exactly what China has been doing to its 1.4 billion inhabitants for years. Almost all major western websites are blocked in the country. A generation of Chinese has grown up in a very different information environment from the rest of the world. Usually they have to believe in what Beijing tells them.
“When people ask me what the info-environment within the Great Firewall looks like,” Yaqiu Wang, a researcher at Human Rights Watch in New York, wrote on Twitter about China’s censored internet: “Imagine the whole country has one giant QAnon.’”
After years of testing and hesitation, Russia is moving towards stricter internet censorship, similar to China’s Great Firewall, to better control its people. China’s informational dark age could be Russia’s future.
“What is darkness?” asked a user on the Chinese social media platform Weibo. “You cannot speak the truth and you cannot see the truth.”
The two countries tend to learn the worst from each other.
Both the Russians and the Chinese were deeply scarred by disastrous eras under communism, which spawned tyrants like Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, gulags and labor camps, and man-made famines that starved millions.
Now Russia is learning from China how to control its people in the age of social media.
The crisis in Ukraine has only accelerated a process that started years earlier. At the end of 2015, China and Russia signed a strategic cooperation agreement in the field of Internet governance. A few months later, two of China’s most notorious proponents of censorship traveled to Moscow to preach their ideas about the Internet to their Russian counterparts.
“Unlimited freedom can lead to terrorism,” then-Chinese internet czar, Lu Wei, told his Russian audience at a forum. “If borders exist, they also exist in cyberspace,” said Fang Binxing, known as “father of the Great Firewall.”
China has not always been as tightly controlled as it has become under its top leader, Xi Jinping. In the 1990s and 2000s, investigative journalists broke many stories that led to the downfall of government officials and reforms of the judiciary. The internet and social media made it possible for the public to exchange views, debate important topics and put pressure on governments to address their concerns.
There was censorship – sometimes very strict – and some people went to jail for voicing their political views. But there was a little room for free speech, as in Russia for much of Putin’s rule.
Then, under Xi, a new era of control dawned, and it didn’t stop with news media and social media. It reached everything that touches the human mind: books and cartoons, movies and television, music and classrooms.
The country regulates what textbooks children use, what kinds of novels writers are allowed to publish, and what mobile games people can play. And it’s all possible because the vast majority of Chinese live in the huge information bubble within the Great Firewall.
The effects have been clearly demonstrated in the predominantly pro-Russia, pro-war and pro-Putin online sentiment in China following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February. A large number of Chinese internet users have taken over the misinformation that the Russian and Chinese propaganda machines feed them.
Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform, used to be the place to debate democracy and freedom. Now the biggest influencers on Weibo are state media outlets like the People’s Daily, the Global Times and China Central Television. Bilibili, a user-generated video site that used to be popular among young gamers and comic and anime fans, is now full of nationalistic young people known as little pinks.
It takes a lot of perseverance from someone with independent thoughts to maintain a presence on Weibo. A lawyer I know had created 343 Weibo accounts between 2009 and 2014, only to delete them one by one. Some of them survived only a few minutes. Many people quit social media because they couldn’t bear the abuses by government trolls and little pinkies. They also don’t want to risk being locked up for a position.
The news media has undergone an even greater retreat.
After the massive earthquake that hit Sichuan province in May 2008, many Chinese news outlets sent journalists out despite a ban by the Central Propaganda Department. Their powerful, emotional coverage informed the nation about the tragedy and raised questions about the quality of many school buildings.
That kind of reporting is long gone. When there is news, the Chinese public has no choice but to accept the government’s version of the truth.
In January, when the government of the northwestern city of Xi’an imposed a strict lockdown causing chaos and crises not seen since Wuhan two years ago, few news outlets sent journalists to cover it. The only significant coverage the Chinese public received was a first-person blog post written by a former investigative journalist known by her pen name, Jiang Xue.
A few weeks later, when the public was outraged by a video showing a woman chained in a hut with no door, they had many questions about her, including whether she was a victim of human trafficking. No journalist was able to conduct an independent investigation. Despite the government making five statements about her case, many people remain skeptical and fear they will never know her real identity.
State censors scrutinize books, videos, movies, TV shows, and just about any creative content much more closely before reaching their audiences. The aim is to ensure that everyone, especially the young generation, shares the same values.
A well-known Chinese intellectual has written three books that may never be published. Another famous scholar has written five books with no hope of getting them through the censors.
On Chinese TV, hip-hop singers and football players wear long sleeves or use makeup to cover their tattoos, and earrings for men are blurred so they won’t become a “bad influence” on young people.
China still wants to offer some western entertainment content, but only in a sanitized format. On the sitcom ‘Friends’, Ross never explained to his parents that he had separated from his wife because she was a lesbian and living with another woman. “Bohemian Rhapsody”, the Queen biopic, did not contain scenes of homosexuality. The Chinese censors put a black dress on the naked body of the heroine in ‘The Shape of Water’.
Creative talents now sign contracts with clauses that make them liable for immoral behavior or making politically sensitive comments. Celebrities can get their online presence dropped because of a nasty divorce, tax evasion, hiring a prostitute, or for no apparent reason.
The release of a highly anticipated Chinese thriller was delayed last Christmas after one of the film’s protagonists was accused of drug use in 2015. It didn’t matter that the charges against him were dropped. All his shots had to be redone.
I used to doubt that young people would want to watch grumpy propaganda films. My generation couldn’t run away from it fast enough, like the Russians in the 1980s and 1990s. But I was wrong.
Last year, “The Battle at Lake Changjin,” a government-sponsored film dramatizing the United States during the Korean War against all odds, shattered box office records in China.
The most depressing aspect of the informational dark age is the collective amnesia.
Young censors are so ignorant of China’s forbidden history that they need to be educated before going to work. Otherwise, they won’t even be able to look for references to the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square against pro-democracy protests, or to the dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.
Some young people believe it is their responsibility to report to authorities about speeches they consider not in line with the values of the Communist Party. Some teachers have lost their jobs or been punished after their students reported their “politically incorrect” speech.
Last summer, a local state security agency in southeastern Fujian province awarded a student $1,500 for reporting an online user who is spreading “anti-revolutionary information.”
For many Chinese online users, the Great Firewall is seen as necessary to fend off the information and ideological imposition of the West. And after the Kremlin followed suit this month and banned many foreign websites, many in China welcomed the decision.
“It is very necessary to build the Great Firewall,” wrote Weibo user @icebear_Like_. “Ideology is also a front.”
This post China’s Informational Dark Age Could Be Russia’s Future
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