By James Holbrooks
On June 1 China’s Ministry of Public Security announced the formation of an Internet police force that would actively patrol social media. For Chinese citizens it was official confirmation of what they already knew—the government is monitoring their speech. Dubbed “Internet Police Inspection and Law Enforcement,” the program consists of a network of social media accounts tasked with, among other things, preventing the spread of “improper” words and detecting “illegal and harmful information.”
With regard to the Web, this is the logical next step in the Chinese government’s crackdown on dissent. Since 2009, when the government banned the use of foreign-based platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, Chinese social media sites like Weibo and WeChat have exploded in popularity. Authorities have long had accounts on these sites with which fine, upstanding citizens could report on inappropriate content. Then, last year, in a move that signaled a deepening paranoia, the Chinese government enacted instant messaging regulations that required users to register their real names and seek permission to publish political news. Now, with the launch of an official Internet police force, it seems the state has decided to forego all pretense and start hunting.
For those eager to tout China as a mortal enemy of the United States—one on par with the likes of Russia and Iran—this type of news is welcome. It gives them something to point at, something to denounce. Because, clearly, only a tyrannical government would go to such lengths to stifle the free speech of its citizens. Indeed, the very fact that such measures are deemed necessary by the establishment is evidence of the Chinese people’s objection to their ruling class. Certainly, something as Orwellian as an “Internet Police Inspection and Law Enforcement” program could never exist in the United States. After all, the people of America and those of its Western allies enjoy the right to speak as the wish, on any subject they wish. Because, you know, democracy and freedom and junk.
Least, that’s what it says in the brochure.
Just don’t look at France, where in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shooting authorities kicked off a hardcore crackdown on so-called “hate speech.” More than fifty were arrested in the first wave, one of whom being the controversial comedian Dieudonne, who has a reputation for pushing the boundaries of what passes for acceptable ideas on race and religion. Dieudonne, booked for being an “apologist for terrorism,” had made a statement on Facebook in which he seemingly showed support for one of the gunmen involved with a grocery store standoff that went down two days after the Charlie Hebdo attack. Apparently, the comedian is free to express his opinion only so long as that opinion falls in line with the orchestrated consensus. To many, the hypocrisy of it all was obvious.
Turn away from Canada as well. Because if you’re operating under the delusion that our neighbor to the north is a bastion of free speech, then you really won’t want to hear about how the Harper government is threatening to use hate crime legislation to target those who would participate in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction movement against Israel. Never mind that the act of boycotting is by definition an expression of disapproval—hence, a form of speech. The Canadian authorities don’t like it and so they’re throwing a tantrum. Something else they don’t like is for their scientists to talk about climate change. Last year it was revealed that the government actually forbids its meteorologists to speak publically on the issue. One could be forgiven for wondering what the big deal is. I mean, since the science has long been “settled” and all…
And whatever you do, don’t take a good hard look at what’s happening here in America. That could be lethal. In any case, you have better things to do than reading about how the FCC has granted itself vast regulatory powers over the Internet—the same Internet chairman Tom Wheeler referred to as the “core of free expression”—with Net Neutrality. You probably wouldn’t care to discover that the secretive Trans Pacific Partnership, already suspected of being little more than a power grab by corporations, has recently been revealed to be far less about trade and far more about control of the Web. But in the odd event that you do glance about and catch sight of something that sticks in your craw, be mindful of what you say about it. This politically correct culture of ours seldom jives with the notion of free speech. But really, why trouble yourself with all that ugliness? Caitlyn Jenner is talking about how she chose her name.
The truth is, the Chinese are doing with their new Internet police force exactly what all governments would like to do. All of them fear dissension, and all of them—given the chance—would snuff out those promoting it. This is becoming increasingly difficult, of course, and the reason is plain to see. The Internet has fundamentally altered the game, and governments have been left scrambling to stay on top of the rising political awareness taking shape across the planet. Some will undoubtedly use the news of China’s cyber cops to foster the idea of American superiority. But then, China doesn’t purport itself to be the world’s great shining light for freedom and justice. So at the end of the day, when everything is tallied…who’s the real jerk?