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China’s Internet Censorship System

July 14, 2010
Translation by HRIC

China’s Internet censorship system is divided into the blocking of information from outside China and the censoring of information from within. More has been written about the blocking of information from outside China, which is accomplished chiefly by the Great Firewall (GFW). For more information on that, the reader can consult the Chinese Wikipedia article on the GFW.1 This article mainly discusses the basic structure and processes of the Chinese government’s censorship system targeting information from within China.

China’s Internet censorship is chiefly aimed at controlling news about current politics and speech.

On the one hand, China’s Internet censorship system is carried out by means of explicitly-worded administrative rules and legislation. On the other hand, it relies on the traditional Party propaganda departments to exercise control. The latter often employs internal regulations which are not made public and may lack legal basis; and, at times, it may also impose administrative penalties by employing the former. In terms of administrative rules and legislation, the system determines whether a website can legally operate, publish, and carry discussions of news about current politics on the basis of a set of unambiguous legal provisions on permission for websites to operate and record-filing.

China’s Internet censorship is chiefly aimed at controlling news about current politics and speech. The two regulations forming the backbone of the censorship system are the Measures on the Administration of Internet Information Services ( “Measures”), promulgated by the State Council (Order of the State Council no. 292) on September 25, 2000, and the Provisions on the Administration of Internet News and Information Services (hereinafter referred to as the “Provisions”), jointly promulgated by the Information Office of the State Council and the Ministry of Information Industry (Order of the SCIO and MII no. 37) on September 25, 2005.

The Measures sets out three systems for websites to operate legally: permission (record-filing), prior review and approval, and specialized review and approval. Article 4 of the Measures stipulates the following permission and record-filing system for websites: “The State shall implement a permission system for commercial Internet information services and a record-filing system for non-commercial Internet information services. Those that have not obtained permission or undergone record-filing procedures may not provide Internet information services.”Article 5 of the Measures stipulates the following prior review and approval system: “Those providing Internet information services related to news, publication, education, medical care, pharmaceuticals and medical equipment, etc., have to be investigated and approved by the relevant authorities in accordance with the relevant laws, administrative regulations, and relevant state regulations; they should be investigated and approved by the relevant authorities prior to applying for permission to operate or undergoing record-filing procedures.” Article 9 of the Measures stipulates a special application or record-filing system for electronic bulletin services. Article 15 of the Measures stipulates nine categories of “harmful information,” which constitute the fundamental basis for China’s Internet content censorship. The content censorship performed in accordance with this provision is generally carried out by the Internet monitoring departments of the local public security organs, and administrative enforcement is carried out by the local departments in charge of the communications industry.

The “relevant departments in charge” have successively promulgated relevant supporting legislation. On December 29, 2007, the Regulations on the Administration of Internet-Based Audio-Visual Program Services (hereinafter referred to as the “Regulations”) was simultaneously published on the websites of State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT) and the Ministry of Information Industry (MII). Article 7 of the Regulations requires that those providing Internet-based audio-visual program services should obtain a “Permit for Broadcasting Audio-Visual Programs through Information Networks”  from the departments in charge of broadcast, film, and television, or undergo record-filing procedures in accordance with the Regulations. In December 2009, a large number of video-sharing websites including Btchina2 were shut down because they lacked the permit. Amongst the legislation that sets up detailed rules and regulations on prior review and approval, it is the Provisions that has the greatest impact on Internet censorship.

The Provisions established a news publication qualifications permission system. Article 2 of the Provisions defines “news about current government affairs”: “‘news about current government affairs’ as stipulated in these Provisions refers to news and information related to reports and commentary on social and public affairs including politics, economics, military affairs, and diplomatic affairs, as well as reports and commentary on sudden occurrences in society.” The Provisions divided the Internet news information service entities (hereinafter referred to as “news websites”) which can operate legally in the following three categories: 1) news websites established by news entities, e.g., People’s Daily Online operated by People’s Daily, Xinhuanet operated by Xinhua News Agency, and Southern Online operated by the Southern Media Group (hereinafter abbreviated as Category I); 2) news websites established by non-news entities, e.g., Sina, Sohu, NetEase, and Tencent (hereinafter abbreviated as Category II); and 3) news websites established by news entities that only carry the contents of what has already been published by specific entities, e.g., Fangzhou Online (方舟网) operated by Southern Weekend (hereinafter abbreviated as Category III). In accordance with the Provisions, the most notable difference among these three categories of websites is their news source. Category I news websites have no restrictions on choosing and editing the news items themselves. Category II news websites are strictly limited to reprinting news items only from legitimate news sources by the relevant authorities; they are strictly prohibited from reporting on news about current government affairs themselves. The Information Office of China’s State Council has issued two lists of media outlets whose articles are approved for reprinting; news websites which reprint items from news sources that are not [considered] legitimate will be punished. The Provisions also brought “those providing electronic bulletin services on current government affairs and transmitting communication and information on current government affairs to the public” as entities to be managed as Internet- based news and information services. The Provisions sets a very high threshold for application for a news publication qualifications permit; only the Information Office of the State Council has the authority to issue news publication qualification certificates. By the end of 2008, only eight websites out of a total of 430,000 in Guangdong Province were able to obtain news publication qualifications permits.

By the end of 2008, only eight websites out of a total of 430,000 in Guangdong Province were able to obtain news publication qualifications permits.

After designing this system through the Provisions, the Chinese government was able to gain control of the distribution of news contents on the Internet by traditional means of oversight of news organizations. When it comes to controlling news organizations, China’s propaganda departments have a very developed control system. Their means to control include: a system of permit-granting for establishing news organizations, a system of prior review and [post-publication] review and critique of news reports, a system of personnel access and management of news organizations, and a system of reiterating propaganda principles and issuing specific instructions on how to handle news in accordance with propaganda needs on a day-to-day basis. One may refer to Qian Gang’s book, China’s Media and Political Reform (中国传媒与政治改革),3 for more information on this. It is under this tight system that news contents from news organizations and their subsidiary news websites can be controlled. Since the websites in Category II are only allowed to reprint news from specified sources, the contents on these websites can also be controlled.

Article 19 of the Provisions has established 11 categories of “harmful information,” two more categories than in the Measures. These categories also constitute the fundamental basis for China’s Internet content censorship. Generally, the censorship of speech in accordance with this regulation is the responsibility of the local propaganda organs, while administrative enforcement of the regulation is carried out by the government news offices at provincial levels or higher and the departments at corresponding levels overseeing the communications industry.

The various local departments in charge of news and propaganda, in accordance with their supervisory roles, not only can directly censor contents on Category I websites, they can also censor the contents on Category II websites by using the system of annual evaluation of news publication qualifications, complemented by the points appraisal system for content management. If Category II websites do not abide by the content censoring, they will be running a high risk of not passing the annual evaluation of news publication qualifications and lose their qualifications to publish news. By enforcing these two pieces of legislation, China is able to carry out strict Internet content censorship.

The day-to-day censoring of China’s Internet is also divided into two main categories. Among legitimately accredited websites, those that have obtained their qualifications for news publication are managed by the departments in charge of propaganda, and those websites that do not publish news about current government affairs are managed by the Internet monitoring agencies within public security departments. Among the administrative organs, the highest level of propaganda administration responsible for Internet management is the Information Office of the State Council. At the provincial level, it is the information offices of the provincial governments. However, general duties are undertaken by Internet management branches or Internet management offices of propaganda departments at various levels of the party system. Some websites that are not qualified to publish news but are nonetheless influential, such as My1510 and ifeng.cn, are also managed by the departments in charge of propaganda.

In day-to-day management, the management models at news websites are basically the same. They are a combination of propaganda directives and self-censorship. The departments in charge of propaganda regularly or without fixed intervals issue propaganda directives to request the deletion of specific articles on websites or articles containing specific contents. The chief method of management is that the departments in charge of propaganda at various levels are equipped with powerful “grubs,” that discover potential problematic web pages on websites based on predetermined “key words.” After manual reading [of the sensitive contents], websites are directly ordered to delete those pages. The departments in charge will also request that specific contents or specific areas of contents be published or not published. After receiving these directives, news websites must make appropriate arrangements in a timely manner. These types of directives include “delete,” “delete all,” “cannot publish,” and “do not hype,” etc.

In day-to-day management, the management models at news websites are basically the same. They are a combination of propaganda directives and self-censorship.

In implementing these directives, websites will set different levels of “filter words” according to the directives. Words are classified as “keywords,” “sensitive words,” and “highlighted words,” according to their levels of importance. Generally speaking, all articles containing “keywords” are deleted without exceptions. Articles containing “sensitive words” can only be shown or released with the agreement of censors after their reading. Articles containing “highlighted words” are generally released with tacit approval, but they can still be deleted if deemed inappropriate by censors upon review after their release. For example, when a netizen publishes an article on a forum or a blog, as long as that article contains any “keywords” as established by the website, the article will be deleted immediately without censors ever seeing it. If the article only contains “sensitive words” and not “keywords,” the article will be held up, entered into censor’s censoring schedules, and will only be released for other readers to view if the censors determine the article is not problematic. If the article includes “highlighted words” and not “keywords” or “sensitive words,” then it is released with tacit approval and directly published, and other readers will be able to visit [the web page]. However, the censorship system will still alert the censors to review the article, and the article will be deleted if censors find it problematic upon review. An article that successfully reaches its readers can still be deleted later with the authorities’ directives. Currently, there is no uniform “keyword” system, so the standards are inconsistent across different websites undergoing censorship. For more information, see Rebecca MacKinnon’s related study.4

The departments in charge of propaganda, with regard to news websites’ implementation of directives, set up a points system where points are awarded or deducted according to the situation of directive compliance. For example, if a news website is found to have included “harmful information” as specified in Article 19 of the Provisions, or to have published content that is not approved, points will be deducted as a light consequence. In more serious cases, the website will be punished according to Article 18 of the Provisions. The annual point count will be considered in determining whether the news website will pass the annual evaluation for news publication qualifications. In China, the party system’s main propaganda organs and the administrative system’s information office are often the same people wearing two different hats. If there is a need to impose administrative punishment on news websites, it will be done under the name of the information office. The punishment of these types of websites can also be done through the party system, whereby the departments departments

in charge of propaganda will order the information office to directly deal with the website’s personnel. If it is a simpler Internet monitoring model with regard to website contents, it basically relies on machine “grubs” or manual inspection, and orders deletion of “harmful information” upon discovery; when the content cannot be deleted, the website would be shut down through the department in charge of the communications industry. What needs to be said is, Internet monitoring has jurisdiction over the contents of news websites, and its directives are often not limited to “harmful information” as defined in the list of nine categories under Article 15 of the Measures. In fact, its targets include articles that affect the image of public security organs or the government.

The agencies in charge of the communications sector, as the lawful mechanism of Internet management, sometimes will request websites to delete web pages containing specific contents, but in fact they more often play the role of handing down administrative penalties such as closing down websites.

Notes

1. Wikipedia, “Fanghuo changcheng (GFW)” [防火长城(GFW)], Wikipedia, http://zh.wikipedia.org/zh-cn/GFW#.E5.8F.82.E8.80.83.E6.96.87.E7.8C.AE. ^

2. Btchina (www.btchina.net) was a popular Chinese BitTorrent (BT) search engine. BitTorrent is a peer-to-peer protocol for transferring huge files. The files are not shared on websites, but instead torrents—links to trackers which identify who is sharing a file—are provided. ^

3. Qian Gang [钱钢], Zhongguo zhuanmei yu zhengzhi gaige [中国传媒与政治改革] (Hong Kong: Cosmos Books, 2008 [香港:天地图书,2008]). ^

4. Rebecca MacKinnon, “Studying Chinese Blog Censorship,” RConversation, November 29, 2008, http://rconversation.blogs.com/rconversation/2008/11/studyingchines.html. ^

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