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Beyond the Great Firewall: China's global censorship campaign

Web blocks, DoS, phishing the price hacks pay for negative China stories

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China’s fearsome censorship apparatus is increasingly expanding beyond the confines of the Great Firewall to influence media outside its borders, often by online attack, according to a new report from a US Congress-funded think tank.

The Long Shadow of Chinese Censorship (h/t WSJ) by Freedom House analyst Sarah Cook is a report for the Center for International Media Assistance, part of the Congress-backed non-profit National Endowment for Democracy.

China’s increasingly proactive stance on how it’s portrayed outside the country comes in response to its tech-savvy citizens' growing desire to circumvent the Great Firewall to read international coverage, and Beijing's intensifying soft power battle with Washington.

The report continued:

Since coming to power in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has constructed a multi-layered system for censoring unwanted news and stifling opposing viewpoints within China. Over the past two decades, this domestic apparatus has spawned mechanisms that extend some censorship to media outlets based outside China. Reflecting the adaptive nature of Chinese authoritarianism, such pressures are a complex mix of overt official actions and more discreet dynamics.

China's efforts can be split into four distinct areas: direct action from Chinese officials to prevent negative articles being published and punishing media owners that disobey; economic ‘carrots’ and ‘sticks’ to induce self-censorship; indirect pressure by advertisers, foreign governments and others; cyber attacks and physical assault.

The report claimed that different strategies are used for different geographies and situations.

For example, Chinese language media owners outside of the PRC have been rewarded with lucrative advertising deals and other incentives for positive reporting, while for non-Chinese language outlets in Asia, Latin America and Africa local government officials are often approached to restrict damaging reporting, Cook said.

It continued:

Cyberattacks have been directed at broad targets (such as the global servers of international outlets or foreign hosting providers) as well as specific ones (individual journalists or overseas news websites).

Some of the biggest cases of late include the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal revelations earlier this year that they had been the victim of sophisticated attacks launched from China.

However, the report claimed that denial of service and phishing attacks in particular are a continuous threat for smaller, mainly Chinese language outlets such as Boxun, China Digital Times and New Tang Dynasty Television.

This is “one of their key on-going challenges and expenses”, it said, although attacks are often stepped up at politically sensitive times such as April 2012 when the scandal of disgraced Chongqing party leader Bo Xilai first broke.

Web blocking is also used by the party inside China in order to punish and put pressure on media owners outside, the report claimed.

After the New York Times published reports about the large financial wealth accrued by family of Xi Jinping and Wen Jiabao in 2012, for example, its English and Chinese language site were blocked outright in China, rather than the specific offending pages.

The company’s stock lost 20 per cent of its value overnight and had to renegotiate advertising deals, causing further losses, the report said.

Online attacks are also carried out on international journalists inside China, of course, to the point where “computer problems” and new malware “have become routine for foreign reporters in China”, said Cook.

She clarified that although these online attacks “are not conclusively traceable to the central Chinese authorities”, they nevertheless “serve the party’s aims and result from an atmosphere of impunity for those attacking independent media”. ®

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