How China Assesses Civil Disobedience in Cyberspace
The 2014 Hong Kong protests
Image Credit: Lewis Tse Pui Lung /

How China Assesses Civil Disobedience in Cyberspace


On April 13, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and State Council issued new guidelines on strengthening internal security in the wake of unprecedented terrorist attacks inside the country, rising public order concerns, and increasing online dissent. The guidelines called out the use of new high-technology and cyber-based assets, including data mining, closed circuit TV, and satellites, to help restore central government control. This is the fourth in a series of five brief items (see: “Part III: How China Plans to Become a World Class Cyber Power”) by Greg Austin, based on his 2014 book, Cyber Policy in China, providing some political context on how the country is using its cyber power in the service of internal security. 

Part IV: China’s Assessment of its Online Civil Disobedience

It is commonplace to credit the Chinese government with considerable power in its application of cyber assets to contain online dissent. Studies of the takedown rates by the country’s army of censors of internet posts considered offensive or subversive reveal both high capability and tenacity by government agencies and their co-opted partners in civil society and private sector businesses. Indicative works include studies by the China Media Project at Hong Kong University and a 2013 study by a group of five scholars on the “velocity of censorship”.  On April 10 2015, The New York Times reported on China’s highly effective use of a new internet censorship tool dubbed by foreign researchers with the nick name “the great cannon”.

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In contrast to studies on the effectiveness of take-down rates by the regime and its other technical successes, we see less often direct evidence of official assessments by Chinese agencies of the scale of online civil disobedience, its trends and its political implications. Much of the study of online political opposition to the Chinese Communist Party has focused on what might be called classic dissent, which involves articulate political activists usually organized around some platform of well-argued ideas. There has also been considerable study of public opinion, especially that expressed in mass proportions through the internet. There has been less analysis of what might be called “online civil disobedience” or “civil disobedience in cyber space”.

Civil disobedience can be understood as “the deliberate and conscious refusal to obey, or violation of, a law believed to be unjust” or, in the case of some of China’s internet control laws, as simply unnecessary or inconvenient. As mentioned in the first post in this series, in 2013, China’s Ministry of Public Security (MPS) reported there were as many as 100 million users of mobile phones (and therefore potentially of mobile internet technology) who were defying Chinese regulations by  not using real name registration. By 2015, that number was being reported in Chinese official sources as 130 million.

David Herold asked in a 2014 co-edited book, China Online: “why are studies of the Chinese Internet only able to refer to the same few cases of online activism?” He might have extended that critique to deeper study of online civil disobedience in China. In spite of the paucity of such studies, we do see some generalized statements about leadership assessment of these trends and these are mostly negative as far as regime control is concerned.

On the one hand, we can rely on an earlier observation by Herold that the Chinese regime has had to surrender control of online activism in favor of seeking to control offline political organization that might stem from it. One implication I draw from this is that the scale of incipient civil disobedience on the internet in China is so high it can neither be monitored not contained, and that by focusing on containment of offline activities, the authorities are able not only to offer their citizens a safety valve for venting frustrations and grievances but also to concentrate overstretched public security resources on the activities that have a physical manifestation: organized political action on the streets or inside institutions, such as the universities.

On the other hand, online civil disobedience does matter to the Chinese leadership. Most Chinese scholars in the public security field equate civil disobedience with unlawful action and the color revolutions much feared by the Chinese leaders.  The Chinese official view of today is the same as that of some legal scholars in the United States in the 1960s who argued that civil disobedience as practiced by the U.S. civil rights movement was a “heresy” that threatened to undermine the rule of law. There are only a handful of legal scholars in China who have argued that “any just society should acknowledge the legitimacy of civil disobedience”.

We can find some consistent reflection of Chinese leadership estimates of the scale, trends and implications of online civil disobedience. This was most evident in the leadership’s reaction to the recent “occupy central” movement in Hong Kong, which had elements of classic political organization and dissent as well as elements of civil disobedience. On 24 October 2014, the former Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Tung Chee-hwa, characterized the movement as a civil disobedience campaign. He said that “The negative impact of the Occupy Central will go beyond our imagination”. Of note, the question of civil disobedience was too sensitive for it to be included as a target in the current ideological campaign by the CCP, captured most succinctly in the now infamous Document No. 9 from the general Office of the CCP and issued in 2013. This document was supposed to be a comprehensive assessment of ideological threats to China and the ways to counter them.

Up next this Wednesday: “Foreign investment in China’s Internal Security Technologies”

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