Boston University

The Great “Firewall” of China By Yuanhao Yang @ Boston University

President Donald Trump has officially visited China and met the Chinese president Xi Jinping for the first time, and this caused wide discussion both in United States and China. One question that has been mentioned the most, is how many times will Trump tweet during his stay in Beijing? This arouses everyone’s attention because China has one of the strict rule on internet control – most of the foreign social medias like Facebook and Tweeter are banned there. So, when Mr. Trump did not send out a single tweet one hour after he arrived Beijing, people started to make fun about if president have failed to use his VPN in China, and his tweets has been blocked by the “great firewall of China”.
Apparently, Chinese government highly controls the ability of media to express their own thought. Like what Putin focus his attention of “commanding heights” on Russian TV channels (Gehlbach, 2010), all the mainstream TV channels in China are state-owned. Chinese government has even stronger power in directly determining the contents of presses and internet compare to Putin’s government. For example, during Trump’s stay in Beijing, Chinese people cannot publish, repost, or make comment on Weibo (the Chinese version Tweeter) if your text includes the word “Trump” or “America”, and all the news related to this event have highly coordinate with the article published by the official propaganda institution “Xinhua She”.
Strangely, there are rarely massive movements in China to complain with the strict control on the freedom of speech. How can the Chinese government be relatively successful on pacify people’s discontent?
First, economic factors can shape political outcomes. There is a strong boundary between political performance and economic growth, and increasing distribution of income to citizen will likely to promote the performance of governmental structure and ability to act collectively (Lust & Waldner, 2015). From this perspective, the strong growth of China’s GDP and rising average income rate have certainly motivated Chinese people to stay calm and be confident about the national government. The satisfaction from financial successes distract people’s attention away from the problem of media control: because what information will be provided on today’s newspaper seems to be less important in contrast with you can finally buy the car you have always dreamed about. Second, the Chinese government has put lots efforts on news sorting. While there are enormous number of events happening every moment in the country, which of them should be provided to audience? Instead of reporting those negative, conspiratorial opinions towards the society or the communist party, that government would be more willing to offer the news which contain more positive energy so they can encourage people to believe in the future of the country and the government. Last, the over dose of conspiracy opinions. There was a period of time during last decade when a lot of criticisms towards the Chinese government and the political system emerged. At that time, the government did not spend too much time to take care those negative information, so those criticisms spread widely online. But as time goes by, few of those suspicions were really proofed to be true, and people noticed not all of those things were based on reality. Therefore, more people tends to believe the information that government provides and actually enhanced the solidarity in the country.
As the result, the Chinese government reinforced its control over media which actually helps them to centralize the power, and this can further separate China from democracy. While there is just one dominant power in the country, there is no way to create a competitive political system in the country (Hill & Yonatan, 2017). Voices from people with different political views will never have a chance to present themselves to the public because all the medias are controlled and they have to cooperate with the central government. Also, there lacks the check on the governmental power. The “anti-corruption operation” took place all over the country in the last few years, and people are happy to see that corrupted officials been arrested. But the truth is, there are few officials can really have a crystal clean background in such chaotic political environment of China in last decade. Under such circumstance, how to decide who get to be arrested and who will survive? Without a legitimate standard and open process, how can we believe they got the right person? More straightforwardly, are there anyone’s crime been exaggerated or even been framed because of the political confrontation? Finally, with a system that medias have very limited autonomy to report what they really want, government are likely to abuse its power while hidden from the public eyes. Without the pressure from public opinions, officials who made mistakes can easily escape from the penalty.
Based on the analysis I made, we can see that media has been used as a political tool by the Chinese government to create a harmony of public opinion in the country by providing the encouraging news to citizen. They block out any criticisms towards themselves both from inside and outside the country, and those highest leaders in the communist party are trying to build the confidence of Chinese citizen towards the country, while strengthening the communist regime for the next decades. On the one hand, strong economic performance and the positive energy propaganda indeed motivate Chinese people to follow their government’s lead; on the other hand, the vanishing autonomy power of media increase the possibility of officials to abuse their power, which deeply undermine what left of the democracy in this country. Maybe it’s really the time for president Xi to think about how should they really face this controversy, and hopefully to avoid the embarrassment that a foreign leader cannot tweet when he comes to visit the country.

Hill, Daniel & Yonatan Lupu
2017, April 17. “Restrictions on the news media are a bellwether for two disturbing trends.” The Washington Post.

Gehlbach, Scott
2010. “Reflections on Putin and the Media.” Post-Soviet Affairs 26(1). Page 78

Lust, Ellen & Waldner, David
2015. Unwelcome Change: Understanding, Evaluating, and Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding. Section political economy. Washington, DC: USAID. Page 12.


  1. Cody Duane-Mcglashan

    December 7, 2017 at 7:31 pm

    The issue of media suppression in China is one that has concerned human rights activists and proponents of democracy for years. Before the invention of the Internet, the process of suppression was in some ways an easier task for the government of China as the CPC had complete control over newspapers and TV. The extension of this policy into the Internet age has been largely successful, but it is also more complex and easy to subvert. There are a number of opposition blogs that operate using VPNs and foreign help, but the practice is not widespread and the government has jailed many journalists. As Huq and Ginsburg explain in their study of constitutional retrogression, degradation of the public sphere, in this case, press freedoms is a classic tactic used to undermine civil society and democratic progress. In the case of China, though, the country has never operated as a democracy, so democratic erosion is not necessarily a good measure to use.

    I appreciated your mention of the multitude of corruption investigations under Xi Jinping that have seemed to become politicized. Last year I took a class called “The Rise of China” and we talked at length about this issue. Xi Jinping has consolidated more power in the party than any leader since Mao Zedong ruled in the 1960s and ‘70s, and many see his anti-corruption campaign as a way to target political opponents. He seems to have achieved this as “Xi Jinping Thought” was enshrined in the party constitution last month. Unfortunately, this campaign has dampened a burgeoning civil society that, until recently, appeared to be rising in importance. As China continues to grow into a middle and eventually high-income country though, I expect we will see a push for democratization, supported by political scholarship from Przeworski et al. (2000), and Boix and Stokes (2003) that found moderate support for the hypothesis that higher incomes increase democratization.

  2. Artur Avkhadiev

    December 7, 2017 at 8:20 pm

    Chinese government’s control over the Internet is truly impressive and unmatched by other undemocratic regimes. It is also somewhat of an aspiration to other non-democracies that strive to extend the state leverage online — if not to further consolidate their power, then at least to deter potential threats to the incumbent regime.

    Russia is a good example. In 2016, the Russian legislature adopted the Yarovaya package, a series of amendments to existing laws on counter-terrorism and public safety. The Yarovya package mandates expansive surveillance of telecommunication services and strengthens penal provisions for “extremist activities”. The law leaves the definition of extremism open to legal interpretation. Increasingly, the government has been using that loophole to prosecute ordinary Internet users for re-posting (!) social media messages that criticize the government’s annexation of Crimea, classifying these action as separatist and extremist.

    Arguably, the public resonance of these legal cases is the effect the Kremlin intends to achieve. In the absence of technological capabilities to limit the usage of the Internet, the government is trying to shape online space through inciting fear and changing the norms of what is acceptable on the Internet, and what is not.

Leave a Reply