When Russia blocked Facebook and restricted Twitter this month, many Chinese netizens were surprised. Wait a minute, they said: Russians could use Facebook and Twitter? Both social media platforms have been banned in China since 2009.
By blocking online platforms, shutting down the last remnant of Russia’s independent media and criminalizing labeling the fighting in Ukraine a war, the Kremlin has made it almost impossible for the Russian people to obtain independent or international information after their invasion. . Most Russians embrace an alternate reality.
This is exactly what China has been doing to its 1.4 billion people for years. Almost all major Western websites are blocked in the country. A generation of Chinese grew up in an IT environment very different from the rest of the world. Most of the time, they are left to believe what Beijing tells them.
“When people ask me what the information environment is like within the Great Firewall,” Yaqiu Wangresearcher at Human Rights Watch in New York, wrote on Twitter about China’s censored internet: “I say, ‘imagine the whole country is one giant Qanon’.”
After years of trial and error, Russia is moving toward tougher internet censorship akin to China’s Great Firewall to better control its people. China’s dark information age could be Russia’s future.
“What is darkness? asked a user of Chinese social media platform Weibo. “You cannot tell the truth and you are not allowed to see the truth.”
The two countries tend to learn the worst from each other.
Russians and Chinese have been deeply scarred by disastrous times under communism, which produced tyrants like Stalin and Mao, gulags and labor camps, and man-made famines that starved millions.
Today, Russia is learning from China how to exercise control over its people in the age of social media.
The Ukrainian crisis has only accelerated a process that began years earlier. At the end of 2015, China and Russia signed a strategic cooperation agreement on internet governance. A few months later, two of China’s most infamous proponents of censorship traveled to Moscow to preach their ideas on the internet to their Russian counterparts.
China has not always been as tightly controlled as it has become under its supreme leader, Xi Jinping. In the 1990s and 2000s, investigative journalists published many stories that led to the downfall of government officials and judicial reforms. The internet and social media allowed the public to exchange ideas, debate important issues and pressure the government to address their concerns.
There was censorship – sometimes very strict – and some people went to jail for expressing their political views. But there was little room for free speech, as there was in Russia for much of President Vladimir V. Putin’s reign.
Then, under Mr. Xi, a new era of control set in, and it didn’t stop at the news media and social media. It has reached everything that touches human minds: books and cartoons, movies and TV, music and classrooms.
The country regulates the textbooks used by children, the types of novels writers can publish, and the types of mobile games people can play. And all of this is possible because the vast majority of Chinese people live in the huge information bubble within the Great Firewall.
The effects are clearly demonstrated in the overwhelmingly pro-Russian, pro-war and pro-Putin sentiment online in China following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. A large number of Chinese netizens have bought into the misinformation that the Russian and Chinese propaganda machines feed them.
Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform, was once the place to discuss democracy and freedom. Today, the biggest influencers on Weibo are public media outlets like People’s Daily, Global Times, and China Central Television. Bilibili, a user-generated video site that was once popular among young gamers and comic and anime fans, is now full of young nationalists known as little roses.
It takes a lot of perseverance for 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 see them deleted one by one. Some of them only survived a few minutes. Many people left social media because they couldn’t stand the abuse from government trolls and little roses. They also don’t want to risk being imprisoned for a position.
The news media suffered an even greater setback.
After a huge earthquake hit Sichuan Province in May 2008, many Chinese media outlets sent reporters there despite the ban from the Central Propaganda Department. Their powerful and emotional coverage informed the nation of the tragedy and raised questions about the quality of many school buildings.
This kind of reporting is long gone. When the news comes out, the Chinese public has no choice but to accept the government’s version of the truth.
In January, when the city government of Xi’an in the northwest of the country imposed a strict lockdown that created chaos and crises not seen since Wuhan two years ago, few media sent reporters to cover it. The only major report the Chinese public got was a first-person blog post written by a former investigative reporter known by her pseudonym, Jiang Xue.
A few weeks later, when the public was outraged by a video showing a woman chained in a shack without a door, many questions were raised about her, including whether she was a victim of human trafficking. No journalist was able to carry out an independent investigation. Even though the government has released five statements on his case, many people remain skeptical and fear they will never know his true identity.
State censors take a closer look at books, videos, movies, TV shows and just about any creative content before they reach their audiences. The goal is to ensure that everyone, especially the younger generation, shares the same values.
A well-known Chinese scholar has written three books that may never be published. Another famous scholar wrote five books with no hope of getting them through censorship.
On Chinese television, hip-hop singers and football players wear long sleeves or use makeup to cover their tattoos, and men’s earrings are blurred so as not to become a “bad influence” on youth.
China still wants to offer Western entertainment content, but only in a sanitized format. On the sitcom “Friends,” Ross never explained to his parents that he separated from his wife because she was a lesbian living with another woman. Queen’s biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” had no scenes involving homosexuality. Chinese censors put a black dress on the heroine’s naked body in “The Shape of Water.”
Creative talents are now signing contracts that include clauses that make them liable for engaging in immoral behavior or making politically sensitive comments. Celebrities can have their online presence erased for getting divorced, evading taxes, or hiring a prostitute, or for no clear reason.
The release of a highly anticipated Chinese thriller was delayed last Christmas because one of the film’s main actors was charged with drug use in 2015. Never mind that the charges against him were dropped. All his shots had to be redone.
Before, I doubted that young people would want to watch chauvinistic propaganda films. My generation couldn’t run away from them fast enough, like the Russians in the 1980s and 1990s. But I was wrong.
Last year, “The Battle of Changjin Lake,” a government-sponsored film depicting the unexpected defeat of the United States in the Korean War, broke box office records in China.
The most depressing aspect of the information dark age is collective amnesia.
Young censors are so ignorant of China’s forbidden history that they need training before they start working. Otherwise, they won’t even be able to look for references to the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy protests, or dissident and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo.
Some young people feel it is their responsibility to report to the authorities speeches they deem inconsistent with the values of the Communist Party. Some teachers lost their jobs or were punished after their students pointed out their “politically incorrect” speech.
Last summer, a local state security bureau in southeastern Fujian province awarded a student $1,500 for reporting that an online user was spreading “anti-revolution information”.
Many Chinese netizens regard the Great Firewall as necessary to ward off information and ideological imposition from the West. And after the Kremlin followed suit this month, banning many foreign websites, many in China applauded the decision.
“It is very necessary to build the Great Firewall,” wrote Weibo user @icebear_Like_. “Ideology is also a battle front.”