China remains “the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom”

15th November 2017

Freedom House report includes cases of Tibetans being punished for online writings and communities having their communications cut

China has once again been named by the US political watchdog Freedom House as the worst regime in the world for internet freedom.

This is the third consecutive year that Freedom House has named China as the worst abuser of online freedom. In its new report, “Freedom of the Net 2017: Manipulating Social Media to Undermine Democracy”, the organisation highlights widespread censorship on social media, such as the messaging app WeChat, along with restrictive cybersecurity laws, new regulations on online news gathering and harsh prison sentences for online activists and bloggers.

China’s crackdown on internet freedom is noted as intensifying in the lead up to the Chinese Communist Party’s National Congress in October 2017, where Xi Jinping’s power was consolidated with a second five-year term as General Secretary. During his three-hour opening speech, Xi pledged to increase the already strict controls on the internet as part of an effort to “clearly oppose and resist the whole range of erroneous viewpoints.”

A war on privacy, a ban on dissent

The report mentions the effects of these tight restrictions on Tibetans, including how the Chinese authorities have responded to events in Tibet (such as self-immolations) by shutting down access to communications systems like WeChat. Free Tibet has recorded several cases in recent years of communications being cut in the wake of self-immolations in an apparent attempt to prevent the spread of news.

Those expressing critical opinions about the government are held in detention on national security grounds. The writer and blogger Shokjang, for example, was arrested in March 2015, days after blogging about police harassment of Tibetans. He is now serving three years in prison. The following March, three Tibetans were arrested after holding discussions on WeChat about the recent Tibetan elections.

In recent years Free Tibet has also reported on cases of Tibetans having their mobile phones searched by police for any “reactionary” content, such as Tibetan songs, and also raids by masked police on internet cafes.

A worldwide decline in freedom

Freedom House’s report details an overall increase in governments shutting down internet services, particularly mobile services, for political reasons, along with directing more resources into manipulating social media and online information, practices Free Tibet has itself exposed on Twitter. It records 2017 as the seventh consecutive year in which the level of internet freedom worldwide has declined. China is nevertheless listed as the worst abuser, closely followed by Syria, Ethiopia and Iran.

The decline in internet freedom worldwide has also been marked by an increased numbers of attacks – both physical and technical - against independent news outlets, political opposition and human rights defenders. Techniques used to distort online discussions and suppress dissent pioneered by both the Chinese and Russian governments more than a decade ago have since gone global, the report notes. 

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In Tibet the CCP oversees what some have called the world's largest open air prison. The authorities have the power to switch the light on and off, peering into Tibetans' emails one moment and making political prisoners vanish from their families and friends, apparently into darkness, the next. Help us push for Tibet's hidden political prisoners to be found and released.