Author: Seulgi Chung, Pima Community College
In 2017, Vera Zhou, a student at the University of Washington, traveled to visit her father in Xinjiang, China. While staying in the region, she turned on a private VPN to access her homework since her university website was blocked by Chinese authorities. Soon after, she was arrested being accused of illegally accessing the U.S website, being sent to a re-education camp without any hearing and trial. Zhou spent five months at the camp and was taken her passport and green card for 18 more months even after being released (Rogin “Opinion”).
How did the Chinese government catch an individual using a private VPN and accessing a specific website? The answer is in the Great Firewall system the Chinese government has built up over the years. The term “Chinese Great Firewall” was first used by Australian Sinologist Geremie Barmé of Wired magazine in 1997 (Oliver, “The Great Firewall”). With the introduction of the Internet in 1996, Chinese authorities first started its Internet censorship system that systematically blocked some foreign websites with the purpose of “encouraging the healthy development of the Internet and safeguarding the security of the State from Western values” (Denyer, “The Internet”). Over time, it has developed a far more sophisticated and scaled-up Internet censorship system designed to control their citizens and close off free speech and democracy (Xu and Albert, 2017). It fundamentally blocks access to information on topics on Tibetan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong independence, or historical events such as Tiananmen Square Massacre and its related web search terms (Shawn, 158).
Some assume Zhou’s detainment was related to her ethnic background, which is one of the minority groups currently persecuted in China (Petrillo and Goldstein-Street, “Former UW”). Restriction on access to information is even harsher to certain jobs and ethnicities. Among them, journalists have been the hardest hit. The government runs nine state-licensed companies employing more than 30,000 members of an Internet police force who control publications and websites, and jail dissident journalists, bloggers, and activists (Xu and Albert, 2017).
To make things worse, the censorship system is not only executed by public entities. The Chinese Communist Party makes companies carry responsibility for their contents open to the public. As required by the government, private entities have built the firewall with self-censorship systems to make sure that their online portals do not contain any prohibited topics (“Torfox project”). For example, Chinese authorities have warned Internet giant Sina to improve its censorship for comments on its popular Weibo microblogging site, or they will close it down (Anderlini, “Beijing”).
Given this extreme surveillance system, it is plausible that China has become the worst offender when it comes to the number of detained journalists. According to Committee to Protect Journalists, a non-profit organization for press freedom, China remains “the world’s worst jailer of journalists for the third year in a row” (Getz, “Number”). The latest report, published by Reporters Without Borders, ranks China 177th out of 180 countries in the Freedom Index and condemned China as the world’s largest captor of journalists with at least 127 detained by the regime (“RSF East Asia Bureau”).
Despite this crackdown, there are a group of journalists who risk their lives to fight against the regime. Zhang Jialong is one of them. He is the former editor of Tencent Finance who ran a blog where he wrote about Chinese authorities’ crackdown on the Internet and media, publicly opposing the Great Firewall system (“Zhang Jialong”). Zhang put a relentless effort to advocate for the Chinese rights of Internet freedom. To achieve his goal, he posted Chinese authorities’ crackdown on human rights on his blog, shared this issue with the former United States Secretary of State during his trip to China, and posted letters and articles urging the U.S. and world to help tear down Great Firewall on the famous foreign political outlets. As a result of these activities, he lost his job at Tencent Finance, a part of China’s largest social media company, after the company had discussed this issue with the propaganda authorities (Zhang, “Circumstances”). Then, he was being held in detention for allegedly “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” by the authorities on August 12, 2019 (“Zhang Jialong”).
This year, 2021 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to two journalists, Maria Ressa and Dmitry Andreyevich Muratov, for their efforts to advocate freedom of the press. The Nobel Committee commented that two winners are “representatives of all journalists in the world in which democracy and freedom of the press face increasingly adverse conditions.” (The Nobel Prize). Many journalists in China are also at great risk. The international community should keep tabs on the missing journalists in China and urge the Chinese government to release detained journalists including Zhang. In closing, China should realize soon that it cannot block the information from flowing freely to the people.
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