The Coming Information Totalitarianism in China, by Mo Zhixu

“A longer, more pessimistic outlook [than the Economist’s special report on China’s internet].” – Mo Zhixu 

Leading dissident intellectual Mo Zhixu (莫之许)

Beijing-based dissident intellectual Mo Zhixu (莫之许)

On March 28, the General Office of the State Council issued a “Notice about the Division of Labor in Implementing ‘the Plan for the State Council’s Institutional Reform and Function Change’” (国务院办公厅关于实施《国务院机构改革和职能转变方案》任务分工的通知) which lays out, among other things, the time table for implementing the information network real-name registration system (“The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and State Internet Information Office, along with the Ministry of Public Security, will be in charge of it. It shall be completed by the end of June, 2014”); and for establishing a unified credit information platform and a unified social credit coding system based on citizens’ identification numbers (implementation will start in 2015 and be completed in 2017).

Few people would realize the connection between the two, and fewer people would think, as I do, that the gradual implementation of the online real-name system, a unified credit information platform, and a unified social credit code will mark the arrival of an unprecedented information totalitarianism.

The attempt to apply the online real-name system is nothing new. As early as the mid-1990s, when the state was drafting regulations on residential access to the Internet, the Ministry of Public Security wanted each computer to have a fixed, singular IP to access the Internet. It was a form of a real-name system since information such as a unique address and identification must be provided to apply for access. But due to technical reasons, such as the limited number of IVP4 addresses, what was then called the Ministry of Information Industry opposed that requirement. Arguments between the two ministries, according to a direct government source of mine at the time, went all the way to the then-top leader of China who made the decision to solve the issue with a simpler approach, perhaps to expedite China’s WTO entrance.

The attempt for a real-name system was then scrapped, but you can see that the attempt to control the Internet was on the mind of the Chinese government from the very beginning.

As Internet use skyrocketed, the government also became more and more vigilant. The notorious GFW has becoming more capable than ever with “walls” being erected higher and higher. But for the worth of the Internet, enthusiastic users have always found ways to scale the walls, and also to hide their traces under the searching eyes of the government. The large-scale surveillance and detentions during the non-existent Jasmine revolution in the spring of 2011 were largely a result of the government’s sense of crisis about hidden, cross-border information flow and its potential power to mobilize. Furthermore, with the emergence of Weibo and other social media platforms, the government has been alarmed by the fact that sudden events can spread and amplify instantly, and can potentially cause chain reactions. At the same time the government is less and less tolerant of the growing number of activists. As a result, Internet real-name system is becoming inevitable.

The real-name system has two purposes. One is the chilling effect, and it works very well on average netizens but not so much on activists. The other and the main purpose is to be able to locate activists and eliminate them from certain information/opinion platforms, in the same way that opinions of dissident intellectuals are completely eradicated from the traditional media.

The online real-name system has been implemented for some time now and the results are less than remarkable. A casual online search can yield a string of ID numbers which you can use to register online accounts. Because of this, many people have little sense of the Internet real-name grade system that is coming. The Internet real-name system that will be upon us soon enough will leave no hiding place for anyone, and all of the activists will be like fish caught in the net once this system is integrated with a unified credit information platform and a unified social credit coding system.

First of all, once the real-name system is used in website backstage management where one ID card matches one ID number, as Alipay (支付宝) does, those ID numbers culled online will soon become useless for repeated use. Secondly, with regard to activists using ID numbers of relatives and friends, if the conventional deterrence measures don’t work, the government could resort to building control into services by bundling ID card and the correlating social credit code with matters of personal interest. That way, relatives and friends will not want to, nor dare, to lend their ID numbers to anyone else.

Having established “a unified credit information platform with gradual input of information about finance, commercial registration, tax payments, social security contributions, traffic violations and other credit information” and “a unified social credit coding system based on identification number,” personal credit information will necessarily include information about Internet use. Thus, the Internet real-name system will be tied with one’s social credit code, and even with the social welfare system. From there, it’s not unimaginable for the government to use the unified credit code as the exclusive online ID code.

Imagine, when that becomes a reality, who would dare to let others use his or her credit code when so much is at stake? This code is tantamount to issuing you a “driver’s license” for speech: You will be subjected to point deductions for speech violations (which Weibo censorship frequently tells its users); once you have no points left, you will be barred from “going on the road” again, and that is, you will be barred permanently from speaking on information/opinion platforms. (After all, there are already plenty of citizens, such as Ai Weiwei, who have not been able to maintain a Weibo account without being deleted instantly–Yaxue)

You can imagine what it will be like in China’s online opinion platforms. First, the threat of being permanently banished from Internet access will have a much more powerful and chilling effect. Second, online opinion space will become similar to the grid management of stability maintenance in current life (网格化维稳)¹, that is, any activist, once exposed, will be stripped of access permanently, the same way the traditional media shut out  dissenting voices. Consequently, online opinion platforms will be just like the traditional media today where you can never hear the voices of dissent and opposition.  Finally, the chilling effect and the denial of activist users will make online platforms much less active; as a result, even non-sensitive emergency events will not spread explosively, nor are any chain reactions likely, due to the absence of active participation. This, as you can imagine, is a dream come true for the rulers of China.

By scaling the wall, activists perhaps will still be able to receive information, express their opinions, and exchange views with others on overseas platforms, but without reverberation and coordination on China’s domestic opinion platforms, the circles of activists will become small and isolated, making it difficult for them to participate in real-life events. This of course is a grim outlook, but by no means unheard of. After all, this had been the state of opposition activities in China before the rise of Internet. What makes me sad is that, while this brand new information totalitarian system is marching toward us in full gear, I see no realistic force that can stop its arrival. Despite today’s globalized world, a “Great China 1984” will be upon us within a few years of time.

¹ Following this post, Seeing Red in China will publish an exclusive article by Dr. Wu Qiang of Tsinghua University explaining “grid management”(网格管理) to our readers.

The Chinese original is published in the latest issue of iSunAffairs Weekly (No. 49). You can also find it here. Other commentaries by Mo Zhixu (@mozhixu) on this site: The Opposition Path and China’s FuturePerspective on Southern Weekend Incident: Root, Failure and Future.

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About Yaxue Cao

I grew up in Northern China during the Cultural Revolution, came to the United States in the early 1990s to study literature and stayed. I have been writing stories about China, exploring both my own experiences and those of others against the larger picture of Communist China. You can find my work on Amazon.com, and new works are being added periodically.
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16 Responses to The Coming Information Totalitarianism in China, by Mo Zhixu

  1. Pingback: Ingrid Fischer-Schreiber » Blog Archive » Chinas Echtnamen-System

  2. hydrandt says:

    I would like to ask the author, what does he think about the possibility of mass protests against implementing this kind of policies — is there any? In my eyes, Chinese internet society got used to much higher “freedom” of speech (or, let’s say, many less restrictions), and once you get something, you don’t want to give it up so easilly. Which could be very interesting to watch, considering the amount of social media users in China.
    If you have written more on this topic, please give me a hint what to look for, I’m very interested in it, possibly making percepcion of social media censorship a topic of my bachelor thesis.

    • Yaxue Cao says:

      @hydrandt, I’ll alert Mr. Mo Zhixu your question.

    • Hon San Kok says:

      International Recognition Of China Sovereignty over the Nansha Islands -

      1. The United Kingdom of Great Britain

      (a) China Sea Pilot compiled and printed by the Hydrography Department of the Royal Navy of the United Kingdom in 1912 has accounts of the activities of the Chinese people on the Nansha Islands in a number of places.

      (b) The Far Eastern Economic Review (Hong Kong) carried an article on Dec. 31 of 1973 which quotes the British High Commissioner to Singapore as having said in 1970: “Spratly Island (Nanwei Island in Chinese) was a Chinese dependency, part of Kwangtung Province and was returned to China after the war. We can not find any indication of its having been acquired by any other country and so can only conclude it is still held by communist China.”

      2. France

      (a) Le Monde Colonial Illustre mentioned the Nansha Islands in its September 1933 issue. According to that issue, when a French gunboat named Malicieuse surveyed the Nanwei Island of the Nansha Islands in 1930, they saw three Chinese on the island and when France invaded nine of the Nansha Islands by force in April 1933, they found all the people on the islands were Chinese, with 7 Chinese on the Nanzi Reef, 5 on the Zhongye Island, 4 on the Nanwei Island, thatched houses, water wells and holy statues left by Chinese on the Nanyue Island and a signboard with Chinese characters marking a grain storage on the Taiping Island.

      (b) Atlas International Larousse published in 1965 in France marks the Xisha, Nansha and Dongsha Islands by their Chinese names and gives clear indication of their ownership as China in brackets.

      3. Japan

      (a) Yearbook of New China published in Japan in 1966 describes the coastline of China as 11 thousand kilometers long from Liaodong Peninsula in the north to the Nansha Islands in the south, or 20 thousand kilometers if including the coastlines of all the islands along its coast;

      (b) Yearbook of the World published in Japan in 1972 says that Chinese territory includes not only the mainland, but also Hainan Island, Taiwan, Penghu Islands as well as the Dongsha, Xisha, Zhongsha and Nansha Islands on the South China Sea.

      4. The United States

      (a) Columbia Lippincott World Toponymic Dictionary published in the United States in 1961 states that the Nansha Islands on the South China Sea are part of Guangdong Province and belong to China.

      (b) The Worldmark Encyclopaedia of the Nations published in the United States in 1963 says that the islands of the People Republic extend southward to include those isles and coral reefs on the South China Sea at the north latitude 4°.

      (c) World Administrative Divisions Encyclopaedia published in 1971 says that the People Republic has a number of archipelagoes, including Hainan Island near the South China Sea, which is the largest, and a few others on the South China Sea extending to as far as the north latitude 4°, such as the Dongsha, Xisha, Zhongsha and Nansha Islands.

      5. Viet Nam

      (a) Vice Foreign Minister Dung Van Khiem of the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam received Mr Li Zhimin, charge d’affaires ad interim of the Chinese Embassy in Viet Nam and told him that “according to Vietnamese data, the Xisha and Nansha Islands are historically part of Chinese territory.” Mr Le Doc, Acting Director of the Asian Department of the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry, who was present then, added that “judging from history, these islands were already part of China at the time of the Song Dynasty.”

      (b) Nhan Dan of Viet Nam reported in great detail on September 6, 1958 the Chinese Government Declaration of September 4, 1958 that the breadth of the territorial sea of the People Republic of China should be 12 nautical miles and that this provision should apply to all territories of the People Republic of China, including all islands on the South China Sea. On September 14 the same year, Premier Pham Van Dong of the Vietnamese Government solemnly stated in his note to Premier Zhou Enlai that Viet Nam “recognizes and supports the Declaration of the Government of the People Republic of China on China territorial sea.”

      (c) It is stated in the lesson The People Republic of China of a standard Vietnamese school textbook on geography published in 1974 that the islands from the Nansha and Xisha Islands to Hainan Island and Taiwan constitute a great wall for the defense of the mainland of China.

    • Yaxue Cao says:

      This is his answer, and he said he seems to have trouble accessing this site from China:

      “很多人都说“不让上网,就上街”,但这是个不成立的命题,采用网络实名制乃至国家互联网,受影响的积极分子可能只有百分之几,甚至更少,这些人同时受到网格化维稳的严密监控,他们也几乎不可能组织其有效的抗议,更不可能获得更多民众的参与。

      大型抗议的发生需要机遇、资源和组织的配合,而在我看来,最可能的机遇是经济困境引发的通货膨胀,又或者是长期萧条,正在浮现的大型环保危机也可能是。网络实名制不会引发大型抗议。”

  3. mozhixu says:

    好像上不去。

    很多人都说“不让上网,就上街”,但这是个不成立的命题,采用网络实名制乃至国家互联网,受影响的积极分子可能只有百分之几,甚至更少,这些人同时受到网格化维稳的严密监控,他们也几乎不可能组织其有效的抗议,更不可能获得更多民众的参与。

    大型抗议的发生需要机遇、资源和组织的配合,而在我看来,最可能的机遇是经济困境引发的通货膨胀,又或者是长期萧条,正在浮现的大型环保危机也可能是。网络实名制不会引发大型抗议。

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