Twitter in China: the battle of government and corporate power

Hundreds of millions of people log onto Twitter every day, including millions from China. But Chinese users are exceptional because Twitter has officially been banned, so by posting a single tweet, every one of them risks imprisonment.

In the last few years, there have been essential changes in the Beijing–Twitter relationship, which can be described as a battle between the government and corporate power. Let’s see where Twitter posters stand in the People’s Republic of China.

The beginning of Twitter censorship in China

It seems that the relationship between Twitter and China was doomed from the start. On one side there’s a social network focused on current events, reporting on protests, or criticizing officials. On the other, you have one of the most authoritarian governments on earth.

To be fair, social networks have been able to operate officially, or more commonly, under the radar. And Chinese websites are hugely popular, reaching the majority of the country’s urban population.

However, this doesn’t apply to Twitter, for which the start was rough, to say the least. Back in 2010, a Twitter user Cheng Jianping was prosecuted for retweeting a post calling for anti-Japanese protests.

By sentencing Jianping to one year of hard labor as a statement, Beijing has sent a message to other Twitter users that it wouldn’t allow Twitter to become a factory for civil disturbances. And in a country where protests are incredibly common, you can see why.

2010-2019: the China–Twitter conflict continues

Since the imprisonment of Cheng Jianping, others have felt the sharp sting of Beijing’s censorship. Perhaps most famously, the artist and dissident Ai Weiwei was jailed for using Twitter in 2011. He later was released from prison under conditions that prohibited Twitter posting. But that didn’t stop Ai. Within months, he was back on his account.

These failures to contain the dissent made Beijing more motivated to systematically neutralize Twitter, but proper censorship of the entire network has been a long time coming.

The government continued to arrest prominent Twitter users, such as Zhai Xiaobing, in an attempt to divert users from western-owned Twitter to Weibo and similar platforms. But Chinese users continued to defy the state. Some reports from 2012 even found China to be Twitter’s most active market, despite being technically “blocked.”

From 2012, the China Twitter community started to dwindle, from 35 million to an estimated 10 million, in 2016. Weibo prevailed, overtaking Twitter in absolute worldwide user numbers and market capitalization – just as Beijing planned.

The year 2020: Is Twitter banned in China?

So, what is the situation with Twitter in China in 2020? Some commentators see the continuation of a “stealth crackdown” on the platform, to enforce the widely evaded official ban. So things don’t look great.

Human rights campaigners have pointed to the cases of police harassing Twitter users, and instances of government agencies mass-deleting Chinese Twitter accounts. More activists have been taken in by police and had their Twitter histories deleted. 

But something is different this time. Usually, when the Chinese government resorts to censorship on Twitter, it does so as retaliation against protest movements or national crises. Now there doesn’t seem to be any particular reason for the state to take action.

According to the Human Rights Watch document, 2018’s Twitter crackdown in China has targeted small fry. In some cases, users with only a few followers have been taken in for interrogation. And many have no history of participating in anti-government protests.

Why is Beijing trying to suppress Twitter in China?

The arrests of ordinary Chinese citizens with no links to anti-government activism shows that there is a new dynamic behind Chinese Twitter censorship in 2019. Beijing is no longer silencing the critics who’ve become too loud – it’s shaping the country’s digital architecture to make the population more loyal.

An August 2018 New York Times report captured this trend well, portraying people like 18-year-old Wei Dilong. Wei is an avid social media user, even though he “has never heard of Google or Twitter.” Like with most Chinese teens, his favored sites are local – and tightly controlled by the government’s censorship.

Instead of posting about liberty, free speech, artistic expression, and human rights, users are more likely to post pop music videos and other examples of consumer culture and status symbols. That’s probably not what the creators of the World Wide Web had in mind.

Is there a workaround for the Chinese Twitter ban?

Despite everything, there are ways to avoid Chinese Twitter censorship, and millions of people continue to use it.

The most important tools for Chinese Twitter users are Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). They create encrypted tunnels between computers, servers, and other web users. VPNs also hide users’ IP addresses, making themselves much harder to track.

Ironically, VPNs are already hugely popular in China. This may be the reason why Beijing has turned to physically intimidating Twitter users and showing them to the public as examples of what awaits other dissidents.

Quite a few VPN services aren’t even illegal in China. The state keeps a record of “government-approved” tools but seems to find no way of prohibiting those that are not on the list. In fact, just like with Twitter, the People’s Republic is one of the biggest global markets for VPNs.

The reasons are not fully clear, but Beijing seems to be caught in a bind. Companies operating in China need VPNs to communicate securely across the world. These multinational corporations are seen as a vital part of the country’s prosperity, but at the same time, the VPNs they use help the Chinese to dodge government censorship.

Will Twitter continue to be banned in China?

Will Chinese Twitter users always risk when logging in? Or will Beijing’s censorship loosen up in time as the country develops and potentially becomes more liberal?

All we know is that Twitter and China are unlikely to find common ground any time soon. The state is happy with developing domestic social networks and continues to hunt regular Twitter users. And VPNs will continue providing a work-around for government controls and enabling Twitter usage.

So, if you plan to use Twitter in China, be aware of the risks, and take precautions by getting a good VPN for China. It’s not a safe space for the unprotected and unaware. And the consequences of being caught can still be severe.

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