Across the world, hundreds of millions of people log onto Twitter every day to share opinions, make jokes, check the news, and just socialize with their contacts. And that includes millions of Chinese people, too. But there’s a curious fact about Chinese Twitter usage which makes those users exceptional. Twitter has officially been banned in China for years, so every user is risking imprisonment (or worse) by posting on the platform.
2018 has seen some important developments in the relationship between Beijing and Twitter, and the whole saga is a fascinating battle between corporate and government power. Whether you’re heading to Shanghai on business or you’re a resident of Hong Kong, let’s bring that story up to date about where Twitter posters stand in the Peoples Republic.
The history of Twitter censorship in China
Twitter and China have never looked like they were destined to get along. On one hand, you have a social network geared towards current events, reporting on protests, or criticizing officials. On the other, you have the most authoritarian government on earth.
But this picture of China is a little misleading. In many cases, social networks have been able to operate officially, or more commonly, under the radar. And purely Chinese sites are hugely popular, with almost universal reach among the country’s urban population.
However, this relaxed attitude hasn’t really extended to Twitter. It all started badly. Back in 2010, a Twitter user by the name of Cheng Jianping was prosecuted by the Chinese state for retweeting a post calling for anti-Japanese protests.
The offense wasn’t really the point. Jianping was sentenced to a year of hard labor as a statement to other Twitter users. Clearly, Beijing would not tolerate Twitter becoming a mass factory for civil disturbances. And in a country where protests are incredibly common, you can see why.
2010-2018 the China Twitter conflict continues
Since Cheng Jianping was imprisoned, others have felt the sting of Beijing’s censorship drive. Perhaps most famously, the artist Ai Weiwei was banned from using Twitter in 2011. The prominent dissident was released from prison under conditions which prohibited Twitter posting (which didn’t last long. Within months, Ai was back on his account, Tweeting away).
Failures like that made Beijing more motivated to systematically neutralize Twitter, but proper censorship of the entire network has been a long time coming.
The state continued to arrest prominent users, such as Zhai Xiaobing, in an attempt to divert users from western-owned Twitter to platforms like Weibo. But at the same time, Chinese users continued to defy the state. Some reports from 2012 even found that China was Twitter’s most active market, despite being technically “blocked.”
From 2012-2018, the China Twitter community started to dwindle, from 35 million to an estimated 10 million, in 2016. And Weibo benefited, overtaking Twitter in absolute worldwide user numbers and market capitalization – just as Beijing intended.
The current situation: Is Twitter banned in China?
So, what is the situation with Twitter in China in 2018? According to some commentators, 2018 has seen a “stealth crackdown” on the platform, to supplement the widely evaded official ban. So things aren’t looking great.
Human rights campaigners have pointed to police harassment of Twitter users, and instances of government agencies bulk-deleting China Twitter accounts. A number of activists have been taken in by police, who have proceeded to delete their Twitter histories. It definitely looks like a concerted campaign of Twitter censorship.
This wouldn’t be unusual apart from a few telling details. Usually, when the Chinese government resorts to censorship on Twitter, it does so in response to protest movements or national crises. This time, things appear to be different.
As Human Rights Watch document, 2018’s China Twitter crackdown has targeted small fry. In some cases, users with a handful of followers have been taken in for interrogation. And many have no history of activism against the state.
Why is Beijing trying to suppress Twitter in China?
The involvement of ordinary Chinese people with no links to anti-government activism shows that there is a new dynamic behind 2018’s Chinese Twitter censorship. Beijing is not just trying to silence critics, it is engineering the country’s digital architecture to make the population more loyal.
An August 2018 New York Times report captured this trend really well, focusing on people like 18 year-old Wei Dilong from Liuzhou. Wei “has never heard of Google or Twitter”, but he is heavily involved with social media. As with most Chinese teens, his favored sites are home-grown – and tightly controlled via government censorship.
Instead of posting about liberty, free speech, artistic expression, and human rights, users there are more likely to post videos about pop music, consumer culture, and status symbols. Not exactly what futurists had in mind in the 1990s when the World Wide Web first appeared.
Can you work around the Chinese Twitter ban?
So, as we’ve seen, the answer to is Twitter banned in China is a clear “yes.” And the risks of using the messaging platform are obviously rising as the Chinese state tightens its grip over social media in general. Even so, there are some ways to beat Chinese Twitter censorship, and millions of people are still happy to use them.
The most important tools for Chinese Twitter users are Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). These apps create encrypted end-to-end tunnels between computers, servers, and other web users. And they anonymize user IP addresses, making government tracking much trickier.
Ironically, VPNs are already hugely popular in China. This may be why the state has resorted to physically intimidating Twitter users and turning them into examples for the population to avoid.
Many VPNs aren’t even illegal in China. The state keeps a register of “approved” VPNs, but finds it very difficult to prohibit ones that they don’t approve of. In fact, as with Twitter, the Peoples Republic is one of the biggest global markets for their services.
The reason is complicated, but basically Beijing is caught in a bind. Companies operating in China need VPNs to communicate securely across the world. These multinationals are seen as the basis for the country’s prosperity, but at the same time, the VPNs they use can help Chinese people evade government censorship.
What does the future hold for censorship on Twitter?
Will Chinese Twitter users always be confronted with error pages when they head to Twitter.com? Or will the state’s hostility melt away as China develops, and controls are relaxed?
At the moment, all we know is that Twitter and China are unlikely to find common ground any time soon. Beijing is happy to cultivate domestic social networks, and continues to harass low-level Twitter users. And VPNs can still work around government controls pretty well, providing some access for Twitter posters.
So, if you intend to log onto the social media platform in China, be aware of the risks, and take precautions. It’s not a safe space for the unprotected and unaware. And the consequences of being caught can be very severe indeed.