Chinese Censors Limit Online Content for the 18th Party Congress

December 21, 2012

In the months leading up to and during the 18th Party Congress—which began on November 8, 2012—Chinese official censors took bold steps to limit political debate and control free expression on the Internet. According to news reports, Internet users and Western media organizations faced frequent Web site blockages and experienced heightened sensitivity over a range of political topics. In some instances, China reportedly took unprecedented steps to block online content, including blocking Google services. In another reported incident, Chinese officials blocked the New York Times Web site after the newspaper published an investigative article detailing Premier Wen Jiabao's family fortune and business networks.

In the months leading up to and throughout the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party (18th Party Congress), Chinese censors took bold steps to control online content and limit freedom of expression. International media organizations widely reported heightened sensitivity and increased censorship during the once-in-a-decade turnover of China's leadership, which ushered in the country's fifth generation of leaders. While official censors commonly increase Internet censorship around sensitive political events or anniversaries (17 November 12, Al Jazeera), the Communist Party appeared to employ particularly strict measures in the lead-up to and throughout the 18th Party Congress (13 November 12, Deutsche Welle; 9 November 12, International Business Times).

Examples of Internet Censorship and Online Content Blockages

Internet users and international media outlets reported on increased censorship of and sensitivity to names and phrases related to the 18th Party Congress. The following instances and examples demonstrate heightened official concerns over free expression of political views and political commentary:

  • Weibo Censorship of Political Terms: International news media organizations and foreign Web sites reported that Chinese censors blocked or partially blocked a range of political terms on China's popular microblogging (weibo) Web sites. According to the November 9, 2012, International Business Times article, Chinese censors acted by "preemptively blocking several names and phrases relating to the meeting." According to a November 10, 2012, China Digital Times article, Sina Weibo, China's largest Twitter-like microblogging service, changed the way it blocked some terms and blocked a number of terms related to the 18th Party Congress, including "area of political importance" (zhengzhi zhongxin qu) and "Sparta" (sibada), which sounds nearly identical to the common phrase for the 18th Party Congress (shiba da, or Mandarin for "eighteenth big"). The blog, a Chinese-based Web site that tracks Internet censorship and access, reported that Sina Weibo, however, also had begun to allow some previously blocked Chinese terms—including the Chinese terms for "remember 89" and "river crab" (which is commonly used to refer to China's censorship, since it sounds like the Chinese term "harmony")—to appear in some search engine results (2 October 12).
  • Google Services Blocked: According to a November 9, 2012, New York Times (NYT) article, all Google services were inaccessible in China from November 9, 2012, to November 10, 2012, a period that coincided with the start of the 18th Party Congress. A Google representative reportedly told the NYT that Google was not experiencing any difficulties on its end, but “did not say whether it believed its sites had been blocked by the government or were the victims of hacking.” While Google did not say its services had been blocked by the Chinese government, suggested that the blockage was likely a result of or connected to the 18th Party Congress (9 November 12, (For more information, please see the Google Transparency Report here.)
  • Censorship of the New York Times Web Site: In late October 2012, Chinese censors reportedly blocked access to both the English and the Chinese language versions of the the New York Times Web site, after the newspaper published an investigative article detailing Premier Wen Jiabao's family fortune and his family's business networks (25 October 12, NYT; 27 October 12, NYT). In addition, Chinese authorities blocked mentions of the "New York Times" and China's prime minister, Wen Jiabao, in microblog posts on Sina Weibo. Despite the blockage, the NYT reported that the Web site had been accessed in China by Internet users with virtual private network (VPN) technology.
  • VPN Access Disrupted: According to a November 7, 2012, Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article, in the weeks leading up to the 18th Party Congress, access to virtual private networks (VPNs) "deteriorated"—VPNs are often used by foreigners and some Chinese Internet users to access foreign Web sites blocked by China's "Great Firewall." The WSJ reported that two VPN companies had experienced "an uptick in blockages and interferences."

Censorship Fails to Comply With International Human Rights Standards

Authorities have consistently defended official actions to limit Internet access. According to a November 13, 2012, NYT article, Chinese authorities that maintain online security restrictions and tight censorship are necessary "to fight pervasive fraud, cyberattacks, pornography and rumormongering."

Despite official claims, Chinese censorship of public expression and political commentary fails to comply with international human rights standards. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Articles 19 and 29 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights permit officials to restrict expression so long as it is (1) for the purpose of respecting the rights or reputations of others or protecting national security, public order, public health or morals, or the general welfare; (2) set forth in law; and (3) necessary and the least restrictive means to achieve the purported aim. The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has said restrictions on "discussion of government policies and political debate," "peaceful demonstrations or political activities, including for peace or democracy," and "expression of... dissent," are inconsistent with Article 19 of the ICCPR. In June 2012, the UNHRC passed a resolution supporting freedom of expression on the Internet, affirming that "the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one's choice."

For more information on Freedom of Expression and the Internet, see Section II—Freedom of Expression in the CECC 2012 Annual Report.