China: More Than a Beloved Cuisine, Policies Are Getting Traction Too

June 16, 2021

As historical information continues to migrate from physical books to online archives, governments are given the chance to enact policies right out of Orwell’s 1984. And why limit those efforts to one’s own country? Quartz reports that “China’s Firewall Is Spreading Globally.” The crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989 is a sore spot for China. It would rather those old enough to remember it would forget and those too young to have seen it on the news never learn about it. The subject has been taboo within the country since it happened, but now China is harassing the rest of the world about it and other sensitive topics. Worse, the efforts appear to be working.

Writer Jane Li begins with the plight of activist group 2021 Hong Kong Charter, whose website is hosted by Wix. The site’s mission is to build support in the international community for democracy in Hong Kong. Though its authors now live in countries outside China and Wix is based in Israel, China succeeded in strong-arming Wix into taking the site down. The action did not stick—the provider apologized and reinstated the site after being called out in public. However, it is disturbing that it was disabled in the first place. Li writes:

“The incident appears to be a test case for the extraterritorial reach of the controversial national security law, which was implemented in Hong Kong one year ago. While Beijing has billed the law as a way to restore the city’s stability and prosperity, critics say it helps the authorities to curb dissent as it criminalizes a broad swathe of actions, and is written vaguely enough that any criticism of the Party could plausibly be deemed in violation of the law. In a word, the law is ‘asserting extraterritorial jurisdiction over every person on the planet,’ wrote Donald Clarke, a professor of law at George Washington University, last year. Already academics teaching about China at US or European universities are concerned they or their students could be exposed to greater legal risk—especially should they discuss Chinese politics online in sessions that could be recorded or joined by uninvited participants. By sending the request to Wix, the Hong Kong police are not only executing the expansive power granted to them by the security law, but also sending a signal to other foreign tech firms that they could be next to receive a request for hosting content offensive in the eyes of Beijing.”

One nation attempting to seize jurisdiction around the world may seem preposterous, but Wix is not the only tech company to take this law seriously. On the recent anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, searches for the event’s iconic photo “tank man” turned up empty on MS Bing. Microsoft blamed it on an “accidental human error.” Sure, that is believable coming from a company that is known to cooperate with Chinese censors within that country. Then there was the issue with Google-owned YouTube. The US-based group Humanitarian China hosted a ceremony on June 4 commemorating the 1989 event, but found the YouTube video of its live stream was unavailable for days. What a coincidence! When contacted, YouTube simply replied there may be a possible technical issue, what with Covid and all. Of course, Google has its own relationship to censorship in China.

Not to be outdone, Facebook suspended the live feed of the group’s commemoration with the auto-notification that it “goes against our community standards on spam.” Right. Naturally, when chastised the platform apologized and called the move a technical error. We sense is a pattern here. One more firm is to be mentioned, though to be fair some of these participants were physically in China: Last year, Zoom disabled Humanitarian China’s account mid-meeting after the group hosted its Covid-safe June 4th commemoration on the platform. At least that company did not blame the action on a glitch; it made plain it was at the direct request of Beijing. The honesty is refreshing.

Cynthia Murrell, June 16, 2021

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