Inside Tibet, people live in a vigorously designed, managed and curated information bubble that the Chinese government made to subjugate Tibet and its people. China’s Internet censorship system, colloquially known as the “Great Firewall,” has suppressed freedom of expression and strictly monitored the information that could be accessed by its citizens.
The Great Firewall was established in 1998, when the Ministry of Public Security launched the Golden Shield Project, a giant mechanism of censorship and surveillance aimed at restricting content, identifying and locating individuals, and providing immediate access to personal records. In 2013, administration of the Great Firewall shifted to the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC). Regulation over Internet access has grown more comprehensive, specific and extensive with the State Council giving the CAC overall responsibility for Internet supervision.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) rule has been characterized by the acceleration of artificial intelligence, repression of society and ideological control. His tenure in China has seen a combination of communication crackdown, ramped-up propaganda and rapid expansion of surveillance with the introduction of continuous efforts to bring new laws and changes in the CAC.
According to Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2023 report, Tibet is the least free territory on Earth. Tibet has a global freedom score of one out of a possible 100. This is the third straight year that Tibet has been at the bottom of the rankings. The world is blocked from knowing anything about Tibet, aside from what is available on official propaganda.
Restricting access limits diversity of opinion and can lead to more polarized and radical nationalist views. This could be potentially harmful to minorities whose views are not represented under the censored Internet.
In 2018, the Chinese government ordered the nation’s three telecoms to completely pull the plug on the usage of virtual private networks (VPNs).
The party-state does not restrict itself to limiting access to information on the cyberspace, as it also actively relays its own messages about its assumed successes — the wickedness of everyone from the US “imperialists” to the Dalai “separatists” who endlessly instigate Tibetan unrest.
Active messaging includes flooding online platforms with posts to sway the emotions of people away from protest and toward acceptance of the official line. Authorities have silenced numerous leading writers, human rights lawyers and activists who served as the conscience of the nation.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) responded by targeting the VPN providers and either shutting them down or blocking their access. Data collected in September last year revealed that 31 percent of Internet users in China regularly used VPNs.
However, despite China’s sophisticated Internet censorship tools and policies, Chinese activists and bloggers have figured out ways to express themselves to the Chinese people and to the world. Tech-savvy individuals have played a prominent role in bringing freedom of speech to China with the introduction of new and updated software to penetrate the Great Firewall.
Using the Tor privacy network is another potential approach to attempt to bypass the Great Firewall. Motivated Tibetans have found it straightforward to acquire such software, which provides access to VPNs. Through this network, users in China can reach thousands of Web sites that are blacklisted by their government — including almost all Google services, many independent news sites and most foreign social media. That has changed sharply as a crackdown on the Internet and civil society has become more stringent and sophisticated. The government’s messaging has grown more nationalistic.
By using VPNs, individuals in China can ensure that their Internet access is safe and secure. VPNs have been their mainstay in boring through the wall, enabling anonymous and unrestricted access for activists and journalists to information and securely spreading information that would otherwise have been censored. It is still possible to use VPNs and other circumvention tools to scale the Great Firewall, but it is getting increasingly dangerous to do so. Some people have gone to jail for selling VPNs, and others were fined for merely using them.
Most VPNs providers make it possible for people to be completely anonymous online, so that even Internet service providers cannot monitor their online activity. Using dedicated connections and virtual tunneling, a VPN provides the user with privacy, security and the freedom to browse the Internet without fear.
Under the authority of the newly appointed CCP Secretary of Tibet Wang Zunzheng (王君正), this last bastion of Internet freedom, this safe haven for activists and journalists resisting one of the most despotic regimes on Earth, is being intensely censored.
The Chinese authorities frequently advise Tibetans not to engage in any anti-social activities, including contacting their family members and acquaintances outside Tibet. Families fracture as a result. Many Tibetans are detained under vague and fictitious charges, such as “leaking state secrets” and “inciting separatism.” Tibetans are jailed and interrogated with no apparent evidence of any wrongdoing, which has led to forced confessions. They are subjected to arbitrary arrests, detention and torture for exercising their rights and freedom of expression in cyberspace. Since the law applies, it has resulted in more scrutiny and direct suppression of freedom of expression and rights to privacy.
The law announced tougher punishments for “public disorder by engaging in separatist acts.” The law is a strategy by CCP to create more communication barriers between Tibetans inside and outside of the nation.
Many parts of Tibet have been reported to have banned Tibetans from having any kind of contact with people outside the People’s Republic of China as a part of its Sanitization drive and the so-called anti-separatist campaign.
The restriction on VPNs would also affect academics, researchers and software developers, as well as journalists and foreign businesses which have been the mainstay of China’s growing economy. Academicians would lack adequate access to overseas colleagues, journals and methods to communicate with universities around the world, while software developers who rely on codes hosted on Web sites based outside China would be handicapped.
Restricting VPNs and censoring information is not the way forward for a country trying to seek global limelight and portray itself as a rising world leader. Rather, the latest restrictions would further isolate China from the rest of the world, limiting its ability to learn about the world and share its opinions. The Chinese government should realize that without free and open access, the Internet can become a medium for government propaganda to hide information, and in some cases can fuel disinformation about any number of topics. There is a more possible way online ideas may also turn into offline activism.
*Mr. Tenzin Dalha is a research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Tibet Policy Institute. This article was originally published in The Taipei Times on 19 August 2023