Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Should We Prioritize Chinese Censorship?

By Danielle GrossmanPublished October 27, 2016

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The United States government is failing to view censorship as a prevalent and urgent matter. China currently utilizes "The Great Firewall of China," run by a subsection of the Chinese government, to maintain security over the internet and block many websites, thus limiting free speech.
By Danielle Grossman, 10/27/16

Over the summer, China shut down various online news sources putting at risk both journalists and the human rights of the people they cover. One might expect an American government response to be firm and swift. But the State Department did not issue a public word of protest. Ironically, the White House issued a statement on July 25, the same day as the Chinese crackdown, praising the Chinese government for preparations for President Obama's upcoming visit to China. Does America not care about an open Internet in China?

Until approximately 2012, the American government cared deeply about a free Internet in China. Under Secretary Rice and Secretary Clinton, the State Department established the Global Internet Freedom Task Force and the Office of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues to promote Internet freedom and combat global censorship. These groups raised awareness of censorship concerns both domestically and internationally. The State Department's efforts helped continue the international discussion of Internet freedom.

In addition to the State Department's initiatives, Congress held numerous hearings on censorship in China. Between 2006 and 2011, the hearings discussed the numerous human right violations of Chinese censorship as well as their foreign policy implications. Human rights activists and representatives from large technology corporations testified at the hearings about the importance of addressing Internet freedom concerns in order to secure basic human rights. Although the hearings were crucial for further exposing censorship concerns, specifically in China, no resulting legislation was passed.

More recently, American concerns with China have shifted away from an open Internet, and even from human rights, towards issues deemed to be more pressing, including the South China Sea, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, climate change, and clean energy. Also, cybersecurity and cybercrime have become more important to America's national security than censorship. The United States government is increasing its cybersecurity efforts by implementing stronger firewalls and creating innovative software to protect existing networks. As technology becomes more advanced, private organizations and foreign governments are hacking into the United States government and corporate databases to retrieve valuable, private information. Our government is fighting back. This effort, though, comes at the expense of interest in Chinese censorship.

Unlike many countries with extensive limitations on free speech — North Korea, Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are notable examples — China has become a world economic and political leader. Current global leaders, including the United States and democracies in Western Europe, do not use extensive censorship to control political discourse or prevent dissidence. Although there have been legislative attempts to introduce restrictions on the internet that some have criticized as censorship, these acts do not compare to the overwhelming power of The Great Firewall and other similar surveillance systems present in the world today. Censorship should put China in direct conflict with other world powers. But that conflict is secondary to a vast range of more pressing issues

Corporate America is not pushing the federal government to stop censorship in China. Technology companies, such as Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, want access to China. Mark Zuckerberg has proven this with his numerous trips to the country over the past few years. Google has pushed back against China; Google originally established a domain in China that complied with local regulations but shifted its agenda to promote human rights concerns above censorship. Despite Google's public actions, the company has not directly pressured the United States government to intervene. The end goal is that these companies are trying to enter and to expand into the largest market in the world. Conflicts between the American and Chinese governments over censorship will not likely assist the companies in achieving their business goals in China.

The silence from our federal government regarding Internet censorship in China is deafening. Both major party presidential candidates have promised a tougher line with China on several issues. Internet censorship should be one of those areas as well. The impact of this censorship extends far beyond the concept of censorship itself. Every aspect of international relations from trade to diplomacy is at stake as the turmoil continues.