Panama Papers and the law firm Mossack Fonseca are hot topics in recent days. It is reported that thousands of world’s richest and most powerful people registered offshore entities in Panama for purposes of money laundering and tax evasion. The shockwaves also have reached Beijing: relatives of several current or former leaders of China are prominently listed.
However, while “Panama Papers” is going viral in both Twitter and Facebook, Chinese social media websites seem to be silent, or ignorant, on this topic. When searching “Panama Papers” or simply “Panama” on Sina Weibo, the largest Chinese social media website, it shows that “there is no content at this moment, try again later.” Similar silence also happens in Baidu, the largest search engine in China and also a social media community. After typed in “Panama Papers”, a note in bold text states that “relevant rules and regulations” have led to suppression of results. Later, a leaked provincial government document orders social media websites to “find and delete reprinted reports on the Panama Papers. Do not follow up on related content, no exceptions. If material from foreign media attacking China is found on any website,” the document adds, “it will be dealt with severely.” According to BBC, there are only 481 discussions on Sina Weibo about the Panama Papers and they were all deleted, while Freeweibo.com, a site that tracks censorship on the Chinese platform, said that “Panama” was the second-most censored term on the platform as of Monday.
It is not surprising to see how powerful Chinese social media censorship is when the whole world is talking about the Panama Papers. China is one of the few countries that are not accessible to Western social media websites, including but not limited to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Youtube. The government further tightened the control over social media after the Arab Spring, where social media is regarded as the key driver for revolutions. The reason of social media censorship is considered as avoiding potential subversion of its authority and spreading rumors. Common censorship tactics often include the Great Firewall, monitoring system, and shuttering publications or websites.
Last year, Freedom House, a prominent American pro-democracy organization, published a report called “Freedom on the Net 2015”. In this report, China is ranked last for its openness and free access to the Internet, even behind Iran, Cuba and Myanmar (interesting to note that North Korea is not listed in this report). “The aim of establishing control was particularly evident in the government’s attitude toward foreign Internet companies, its undermining of digital security protocols, and its ongoing erosion of user rights, including through extralegal detentions and the imposition of prison sentences for online speech,” says the report. “China was the world’s worst abuser of Internet freedom in the 2015 Freedom on the Net survey.”
In 2015, China also passed a new criminal law, stating that Chinese officials will have the authority to impose a prison sentence of up to seven years on a person convicted of creating and spreading “false information” online. The new law strives to silence political dissent and quash the spread of information and rumors.
But social media censorship actually has its own merits. It is understandable that social media censorship is important in China: the country has 1.4 billion people, and not everyone of them is educated enough to tell the difference between a rumor and a fact. The population base is so big that a minor social turmoil would cause severe consequences, both economically and socially. Social media censorship is not a monster as it thought to be; in fact, to a certain extent, it helps stabilizes the Chinese society and makes people focus on economic development, instead of wasting time of political disputes.However, as economic development is more dependent on the Internet, especially social media, censorship in China would become a big problem. Rejecting technology giants like Facebook or Google will not only suffer economic losses, but also would impede the way to become a more innovative and technological country, which is one of China’s top targets in recent years. Therefore, how to find a perfect balance between national security and technology development is an issue worth contemplating for Chinese leaders.
As to the Panama Papers, they might have not shaken people’s faith in Beijing’s top leadership. But I sure that the Chinese Internet censors are working overtime to stay extra vigilant in recent days.