China’s online population of 800 million gets a highly restricted internet, one that doesn’t include access to Google, Facebook, YouTube or the New York Times. There’s little coverage of the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square. Even Winnie the Pooh got temporarily banned. China is able to control such a vast ocean of content through the largest system of censorship in the world, aptly known as the Great Firewall. It’s a joint effort between government monitors and the technology and telecommunications companies compelled to enforce the state’s rules. The stakes go beyond China, which is setting an example that other authoritarian countries can imitate.
While strict censorship is nothing new in one-party China, under President Xi Jinping online restraints have grown tighter, particularly around the time of politically sensitive events like the death of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and the Communist Party Congress in 2017. China began blocking Facebook's WhatsApp messaging service ahead of the congress and extended a clampdown on virtual private networks, a commonly used method to circumvent the Great Firewall. Securing China’s “cyber sovereignty,” or protecting the country’s internet from undue foreign influence, is one of Xi’s avowed goals. Moves to restrict online freedoms include squelching a rising tide of #MeToo accusations; measures that all but eliminate the ability to post social media or even play games anonymously; and constricting the pipeline of new games to vet content and combat addiction. Pooh’s temporary banishment came after bloggers depicted Xi as the cartoon bear. Meanwhile, foreign companies that want to operate on the mainland are forced to adopt practices often seen as invasive elsewhere. Apple, which fought requests by the U.S. government to create backdoors into its password-protected products, has deleted apps and built local data centers in line with Chinese government requirements. All this contributes to China having the least online freedom of the 65 countries monitored by rights group Freedom House. It says China’s internet controls have reached “new extremes.” In the past year, people have been jailed for posting ill-advised comments — including in private chats — on the Twitter-like Weibo or WeChat, Tencent's ubiquitous messaging service.