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China’s Reactions to the Snowden Story

This is a guest post.

On June 9, Edward Snowden, an American former contractor for the NSA, revealed himself as the whistleblower in one of the biggest surveillance scandals in US intelligence history.

Snowden’s flight to Hong Kong in late May stirred a wide and active response on the Chinese Internet. Snowden’s name was one of the top-ranked topics on China’s Twitter-like microblogging website Sina Weibo in June. Vexed by the country’s long-standing and prevalent surveillance system, many Chinese Internet users have hailed Snowden as a hero.

“He is brave. He is a real fighter for human rights. Now he is in China, we should protect him,” wrote Xiaodong Wang, an Internet user based in Beijing. Another user wrote, “it doesn’t matter whether you can call Snowden a hero. What’s worth of praise about him is he chose to break the rules rather than to be one of ‘the Great Silent Majority.’ Few people have his courage.”

Several prominent Weibo users with millions of followers, known as “Big Vs” for the large letter V (signaling a verified user) next to their account names, also expressed their appreciation of Snowden’s actions. Lvqiu Luwei, a well-known journalist who has 2.7 million followers on Weibo, wrote:

To the public, Snowden is a hero. But if he leaked the information to other governments or did this simply for money, people would think of him as a spy. I asked a guest in the programs I recorded yesterday, ‘will there be a Snowden in China?’ And the guest responded with a quick answer, ‘there won’t be a Snowden-like person in China. If there were, the person will never get out of the country.

Another popular user with the nickname “Pretending to be in New York” (@假装在纽约) posted the following comment on June 25, which gained momentum when circulated on the social media. The humorous tweet makes fun of the Snowden’s story while criticizing the dire human rights conditions and heavy-handed Internet control in China:

If Snowden were a Chinese citizen, 1) Hong Kong would agree to hand him over to the Chinese government; 2) the US would hail him as hero and then try to rescue him immediately; 3) his name would become a ‘sensitive word’ on the social media in China and all discussions related would be banned; 4) Over a thrilling struggle, he would finally board the airplane to New York; 5) people would acclaim the escape on the social media in China; 6) New York University would invite him to be a visiting scholar (referencing to the Chen Guangcheng incident); 7) the state-run Global Times would post articles criticizing Snowden, and it would become the target of Chinese netizen’s besiege. 8) American talk shows making fun of the story would be translated into Chinese.

Still, many Chinese were disappointed at the seeming hypocrisy of the US government, which appears to be engaging in activities more typically associated with the Chinese government. Though Hong Kong—which has a long tradition of free speech—operates separately from Mainland China, it is under the political influence of a nation known for its restrictions on free political expression.

To some in China, the news badly undermined the US government’s criticism of China over cyberespionage. “It looks like Obama has been assimilated by a certain political party (Communist Party of China),” Sina Weibo user Leigh Chiang wrote in a sentiment shared widely across the site.

Somewhere between 300 and 900 Hong Kong residents marched in support of Snowden, despite the ambiguous attitudes from the SAR (Special Administrative Region) government.  

Snowden’s announcement came as China began an official three-day holiday for the Dragon Boat Festival. Still, it managed to catch the eyes of the country’s social media users.

The leak broke just ahead of the much anticipated “laid-back” Sunnylands Summit between Obama and China’s Premier Xi Jinping – where, among other issues, cyber-security was prominent on the agenda. There’s no lack of irony in the leak. The US government has been criticizing the Chinese government for Internet filtering, and a more recent accusation made by the Obama administration is that China has been hacking into American computers. Now it turns out one of the biggest threats to the pursuit of individual freedom and privacy in the US may be the unbridled power of the government, according to a Chinese expert on American affairs. The country that seems to benefit most from Snowden’s revelations is China.

Bloomberg News reported that Lee Kai-Fu, the founding president of Google China, stated that Snowden’s revelation “seriously discredits” US claims about human rights and privacy. Lee, who has 49.3 million followers, is a Big V, also known as verified user on Sina Weibo. He wrote in a microblog post on June 11 that he admires Snowden’s “principles and values.”

Lee Kai-Fu’s criticism of the US government has invoked some criticism on social media, among which some netizens ridiculed him as turning his political stand to align with “Fifty Cent Party,” the people hired by the Chinese government to post comments favorable to the party to sway public opinions.

While Hong Kong-based media outlets are featuring Snowden in top headlines, the mainland Chinese media are not treating this like a big deal. Beijing has remained quite low-key towards the issue, with major news portals’ headlines saturated by the Obama-Xi meetings.

The Global Times, the tabloid-like subsidiary of The People’s Daily, which is the major state-run media outlet in China, ran an article about “the latest online spy game,” accompanied by a caricature cartoon of the NSA emblem, turning the bald eagle into a spy. The article said Snowden could offer intelligence that would help China update its understanding of cyberspace and improve its position in negotiations with Washington.

China’s largest state-run news agency, Xinhua, didn’t mention Snowden in the top 10 stories on its website’s front page. Xinhua has not published any specific reports on Snowden, though there is one video report on the NSA as a “spy agency.” It’s hard to tell whether the lack of reporting is a conscious decision to avoid stirring up a conversation that might come back to China again.

When the country’s media outlets constrained the urge to make the Snowden story headlines, news broke on June 22 that NSA targeted China’s top universities in extensive hacking attacks. Suddenly, reports began to emerge from repressed writers and editors; comments and discussions on the news overwhelmed social media in China.

“The U.S. Has Attacked Chinese Networks for 15 Years,” said a headline in The Yangtze Daily. “Snowden Leaks Information About Prism to Reveal the Hypocrisy of the U.S. Government,” added The Wuhan Evening News.

Tsinghua University was among the targets of NSA’s cyber-snooping activities, with at least 63 computers and servers attacked during a single day in January, according to information leaked by Snowden. The university is home to one of the mainland’s six major backbone networks – the China Education and Research Network (CERNET) – a hub from which Internet data from millions of Chinese citizens could be mined.

A spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry didn’t have an immediate comment on Mr. Snowden’s comments. Professor Xu Ke, deputy director of the Institute of Computer Networks at Tsinghua University, has previously said that most data passing through network backbones was not encrypted and that most attacks on such networks were carried out by governments, as individual hackers would face ‘colossal’ amounts of information that would be extremely difficult to handle.

While the mainstream media in China remained silent towards the PRISM scandal, observers have noticed the subtle changes of its contents. In April 2013, China tightened its media’s quotations of information from foreign press, aiming to exert stronger control over domestic media outlets. Ironically, Chinese media began to include more quotes from foreign press as the Snowden story was revealed.

#imweekly: July 22, 2013

Southeast Asia
Tougher Internet filtering policies are being applied throughout Southeast Asia. Singapore’s government initiated new rules requiring online news websites to apply for individual licenses and put up a $50,000 bond. The move met with strong response from 150 websites that blacked out their homepages to protest in May, and from 2,000 demonstrators who took to streets in protest. Vietnam has been putting activists and dissidents in jail on specious charges. The country has detained forty-six bloggers and democracy activists so far this year – more than during the whole of 2012—amid erupting strikes and social unrest stirred by inflation, land-rights abuses, and corruption. Thailand has also clamped down on the Internet, strengthening Internet censorship: 20,978 URLs were blocked last year, compared to just 5,078 in 2011.

The Gambia House of Representatives has enacted a new law banning criticism and derogatory content towards government officials on the Internet. The Information and Communication Bill 2013 puts stringent punishments in place for those who violate the law: up to 15 years in prison, a fine of up to three million Dalasi (about 100,000 US dollars), or both. The law targets any person found to be spreading false news or derogatory statements against the government or any public officials. The bill seeks to provide deterrent punishment of people who are engaged in  campaigns against the government both in and out of the country, according to Nana Grey-Johnson, the Gambia’s Minister of Information, Communication and Information Infrastructure. Human rights groups say the new law takes the restriction of freedom of expression in the Gambia to “a shocking new level”.

Russia has been pushing new legislation that allows copyright holders to ask courts to block access to allegedly pirated content as well as hyperlinks to such content. The anti-piracy law has stirred much controversy, for it may cause Wikipedia to be blocked in the country, since Wikipedia has millions of hyperlinks to content that may or may not be authorized. If the legislation comes into force on August 1, Russian Internet users may be denied access to the whole service of Wikipedia. Wikipedia blacked out its Russian-language website in protest of the proposed law.

#imweekly is a regular round-up of news about Internet content controls and activity around the world. To subscribe via RSS, click here.

How Facebook Can Prompt Real-Life Action

This is a guest post.

Given its role in the Arab Spring, many people have emphasized Facebook as an effective tool for online activism. There’s much debate on the ability of Facebook to effect social change, but a handful of campaigns by the social networking site over the past several years have demonstrated just how powerful social media might be in prompting real-life actions.

On May 1, 2012, Facebook rolled out a new feature allowing users to share their status as an organ donor on their timeline. A study published last month in the American Journal of Transplantation shows that the experiment coincided with an incredible spike in organ donor sign-ups in the United States—13,012 on the first day of the campaign, or 21 times the daily average number of registrations. The organ donor registration rate remained higher than average for nearly two weeks.

Although the registration rate tailed off 12 days later, it was still two times higher than the average baseline rate by the end of the study period. By the end of two weeks, the number of new registrations reached nearly 40,000. In an article in Slate, study author and Johns Hopkins associate professor Andrew Cameron said that “Having [organ donor registration] be on Facebook makes it easier for people.” The next step will be to find ways to sustain the gains in donor sign-ups. As noted by Cameron, “we need to find a way to keep the conversation going”.

A second study, published last fall in Nature, showed similar results with respect to voter turnout.  The study authors worked with Facebook to randomly display to Facebook users either: 1) a message encouraging them to vote along with a link to polling places, an “I voted” button to click, up to six profile pictures of friends who had clicked the same button, and a total count of all friends who had reported voting; 2) the same message, without the photos or friend counter; or 3) no message.  By examining voting records, the authors were able to determine that users who received the first message were 0.39 percent more likely to vote than users who received no message—an effect the authors say led directly to an increase in voter turnout by 60,000.

Early last year, Peter Leone, a professor of medicine with University of North Carolina, began experimenting with Facebook as a tool for predicting and preventing STD transmission.  While working with patients with HIV and syphilis, Leone concluded that the friend networks people have could reveal patterns about the spread of STDs. He reasoned that a person’s circle of Facebook friends often have similar risk-taking patterns, and are best way to spread information about the risk of infection—and that potentially, using Facebook to prompt people to be tested and encourage them to share information about testing could help destigmatize the process.

While debates continue about the affect of social media on events in Egypt, Turkey, Syria, and elsewhere, these early studies show that in some cases, what users see online can influence their real-world behavior.

#imweekly: June 17, 2013

United States
The National Security Agency has confirmed that it has been operating a global electronic surveillance program, collecting information from Google, Facebook, and other tech companies under a program called PRISM, after Booz Allen employee and NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked inside documents. The news has triggered a widespread outcry from human rights advocates and organizations.

Saudi Arabia
In March, Saudi Arabian officials declared that the country would block access to three popular voice and messaging services—Viber, Skype, and WhatsApp—if the companies did not give the government access to local monitoring services. The government has followed through on its threat, blocking Viber on June 6. On June 11, the block was rescinded, though whether Viber has complied with government demands for monitoring access is unclear.

Iranian Gmail users were reporting evidence of phishing attacks, just days before last week’s presidential elections. The attacks, which appear to be originating from within the country, have been occurring for three weeks; in a blog post, Google Vice President of Security Engineering Eric Grosse said the attacks were likely politically motivated. Google security staff said the phishing attacks appeared to be conducted by the same group that conducted attacks in Iran in 2011 using a fraudulent Google certificate.

Culture Memes as Creative Resistance on Tiananmen Square Anniversary

This is a guest post.

Ahead of last week’s anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, the Chinese government engaged in what has now become an expected annual crackdown on Internet freedom. This year, however, the government adopted more advanced and subtle means of censorship. Rather than blocking all search results for sensitive terms, websites such as Weibo are instead displaying carefully curated results that have little to do with the 1989 protests.

Although Chinese censorship is ever-more sophisticated, Internet users in China are finding creative ways to express themselves and commemorate the tragedy. Memes – spontaneous, humorous, grass-roots-style online satirical works – are a significant feature of the Chinese Internet, ranging from 2009’s Grass Mud Horse to memes involving sunflower seeds and self-portraits of people wearing sunglasses, both inspired by arrested Chinese dissidents. These memes take the form of photos, videos, animations, and texts that defy and ridicule Chinese authorities.

This year, Chinese Internet users created multiple variations of an iconic photograph from the 1989 protests, incorporating images ranging from yellow ducks to Legos. These images began to circulate through social media in China days before the June 4th anniversary as a way to bypass censorship, and gained momentum largely for their humor and brevity.

The famous photograph – known as “Tank Man” – of the 1989 protest has long been banned in Chinese cyberspace. The photo, featuring a man blocking a series of tanks during the Tiananmen Square protest on June 4, 1989, directly points to the dictatorship of Chinese government and has startled people worldwide.

Days before this year’s Tiananmen Square Anniversary, someone wittily replaced the four tanks in the original photograph with giant yellow ducks. The meme is based on a 54-foot-tall duck sculpture, created by a Dutch artist, that currently floats in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor.

The “tank man” picture is also photoshopped into a Lego man facing down three green Lego tanks. By embedding these images in posts instead of using banned keywords, Internet users can often escape automatic deletion.

Another picture showing a cow in front of a line of bulldozers is also getting past Weibo’s censors. While Weibo has blocked the words “big yellow duck” in response to the memes, the word “cow” appears to be uncensored.

While censors continue to add new words to the blocklist, Internet users continue to create new images, making it impossible for the government to shut down conversation about the Tiananmen Square protests entirely.