"Likes" and Law: Safely Using the Internet in China

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By Jasmine Chorley Foster

Between 2002-2007, sites like Facebook were permitted in China, but had open/close status. This meant that some big cities (e.g. Shanghai) would have access to the site, but elsewhere it was inaccessible. Despite this status, a burgeoning but limited civil society was developed on Renrenwang and Weibo – the Chinese equivalents of Facebook and Twitter respectively. On chat forums, ordinary people could converse with one another all over the country about politics, philosophy, and current affairs.

This free-flowing dialogue was not favourable to the Party, and The Party began to heavily censor chat forums. This is when the “50 Cent Party” was born. The “50 Cent Party” is a pejorative term for the people hired by the Party to log into chat forums and post nationalist, government-approved views. They were apparently paid 50 cents per post, hence the name. The Party also developed three levels of online discourse categorization: The first level applies to posts that were non-political or not terribly subversive. The second level applies to posts that are subversive enough to be combated by sending in a 50 Cent Party poster. The third level applied to posts so subversive that they had to be deleted entirely.

By 2007, the Internet had become faster and easier to use, and censoring the activity of Chinese citizens became more challenging. Between 2007-2008, Facebook began facing some large problems in China. Firstly, in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics, there was controversy in Paris as the Olympic torch run was interrupted by protesters. The individuals protesting China’s presence in Tibet pushed the Chinese torchbearer off the track. Nationalist populism encourages a great deal of anti-Tibet-independence among Chinese citizens, and supported the Chinese Communist Party’s official line that the protest was Western interference.

Secondly, massive protests began in Tibet. Bombings, self-immolation, and riots brought attention to the region from all over the world and all over China. The Party recognized that this kind of organization could be facilitated by websites such as Facebook and didn't want to take any chances.

Thirdly, the Jasmine Revolutions in the Middle East confirmed the power of social media in organizing ordinary people and disseminating information. The Party closed off access to Facebook altogether. The technology China developed to so heavily censor online activity is called the Great Fire Wall. Exported to Iran and Gaddafi’s Libya, the technology is the country’s most powerful export. It has earned China political capital and allies in other authoritarian governments around the world.

In China, you will be able to purchase a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to access Twitter and Facebook. The Chinese government tried to ban VPNs in the past, but all financial institutions and corporations that operate in, or do business with China use them. Modern big business cannot be done without the Internet, as it provides updates on currency, stocks, and news.

The Chinese population hardly uses Facebook. Rather than buy a VPN to access it, they use the Chinese state-approved version of Facebook (Renrenwang). They also use Weibo, a great tool for anyone interested in building a following or expanding their career in China. Serbian-Australian model Andrej Pejic recently opened a Weibo account and Coco Rocha has had one for quite some time.

Keep all of your online activity non-political, and non-philosophical. Remember, you're in an authoritarian country. The law is sometimes framed, and often enforced, in an arbitrary manner. Although they probably won’t prosecute you for breaking a small by-law, they have the power to do so. If they decide, for whatever reason they don’t want you in China, they can jail, deport, or fine you. This is especially important for models who insist on working in China on a tourist visa; a crime that could potentially cost you all of your earnings from your trip to China, and more.

It’s very easy to break laws in China because the criminal law can be overreaching and, at times, arbitrarily enforced. Don’t give the police a reason to want you gone. Be very cautious and keep your head down. An old Chinese saying describes it best: “Cross the river by feeling the stones.”

A special thank you goes to Tyler Cohen, JD candidate at University of Toronto Faculty of Law.