In November 2018, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, the People’s Daily, listed one hundred party members who have contributed to China’s national development in the past 40 years. This list included Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba’s e-commerce kingdom, who has made significant contributions to the Chinese economy. Despite his prominence, the outside world has never known of his affiliation with communism, when, in fact, it is not surprising at all that Ma is a communist. What is surprising, however, is the amount of evidence and resistance to exculpatory evidence that points towards him not having communist leanings, despite the contrary being the case.

 

The Arab Spring cannot be replicated in China

On December 17, 2016, there was an intriguing article published in The Economist titled “China Invents the Digital Totalitarian State”. The article requires some further explanation in order to fully appreciate the information contained within.

In 2010, the world witnessed the uprising of the Arab Spring; Arab peoples who did not know each other used mobile phone and virtual messaging to connect with one another, launching a demonstration of hundreds of thousands of which eventually led to the ousting of vile dictatorships across the sphere. Unsurprisingly, the maxim was propagated by numerous media outlets at the time that the internet was a vital check and balance mechanism between dictators and unjust governments. Fast-forward to the year 2019, and we also witnessed the people of Hong Kong utilizing the technology of mobile phones to organize protests mass protests in the city. However, the results that were witnessed years earlier across the Arab world were not replicated in China. Why is this?

From 2010 to 2016, the ruling party in China sought to design a new symbiotic model of “internet convenience” and “centralized control” in the country. The new model generated a mass amount of profits, and distributed them to participants who were willing to cooperate with the idea of centralized control.

 

How to prevent people from being exposed to “toxic” information?

So how does a government set about controlling the internet? One rudimentary method is to filter keywords. For example, it is acceptable to freely surf the internet, but if your search were to mention words such as “Tiananmen”, “Dalai Lama”, “Xi Jinping”, or “Tibet independence”, then this is where you will encounter problems. Words or phrases such as these, along with tens of thousands of others, have been blacklisted by the Chinese public security department. If one of these words happens to appear on the server, the system will automatically interrupt the communication and report it to the superiors of the security department.

In the case where a user did not enter the keywords, but instead used Google to search, for instance, for a New York Times report about the corruption of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials, the results would spell disaster for those in power and their clandestine activities anonymous. The CCP must, therefore, prohibit what it views as “toxic” websites.

According to the 2017 American “Freedom House” report, among the 25 most frequently used websites in the world, China has banned 12, with the blacklist continuing to grow longer. The people of China are unable to access these “toxic” websites unless they circumvent the firewall. However, since 2018, Chinese legislation prohibits VPNs (Virtual Private Network) which are used to circumvent the wall, meaning that this method of accessing information has become increasingly difficult.

 

How to drive away disobedient foreign internet operators?

The function of checking keywords and blocking websites has become an established practice in China. But what if foreign internet operators choose not to cooperate with these restrictive measures?

While Google originally operated in China, its relationship with the Chinese government quickly soured, resulting in Google’s search speed becoming frustratingly slow. Gradually, Google was unable to compete with the government-supported company “Baidu”. Baidu’s search speed is fast; not because its program is better, but because it will automatically block keywords that ‘should’ be blocked. In this centralized system, only internet operators that cooperate with the policies of the CCP will be able to thrive in China.

 

Commodities can also be “toxic”

With keyword checking and website blocking, were these tactics seen as sufficient to stifle the acquisition of free information? It would appear not. If foreign sales websites were not also blocked, what was to stop a Chinese citizen purchasing a book about Tiananmen Square on Amazon, or purchasing a T-shirt from the German company Otto with an unflattering depiction of Xi Jinping? In light of this, foreign sales websites were also subjected to blocking by the CCP. In April 2017, Taiwan’s “Business Today” reported that it is very difficult for Chinese people to visit online shopping sites in counties such as the United States, Japan, Germany, and France, and Taiwan. See the attached table for details.

Country of Origin Online Shopping Site  

Accessibility

Response Time (sec.)
    Beijing New York  

Beijing

 

New York
India Flipkart Completely Blocked OK
Singapore Qoo10 OK OK 6.649 1.425
Indonesia Snapdeal Completely Blocked OK
Japan Rakuten Partially Blocked OK 31.189 2.568
Malaysia Iazada OK OK 9.077 4.122
Germany Otto OK OK 21.385 1.515
France CDiscount OK OK 61.87 0.963
UK ASOS OK OK 14.905 0.751
 

USA

Amazon Partially Blocked OK 14.572 5.339
Ebay Partially Blocked OK 11.747 0.619
Taiwan PChome Completely Blocked OK

Table taken from Business Today – April 2017

Take Otto in Germany as an example of this speed differential. It takes 21.358 seconds for each click to respond when a Chinese citizen is searching on their site from Beijing. In order to fully complete a transaction, you will usually need to click on the homepage, find the product, select the color, determine the size, fill in your address, payment information, select the shipping method, etc. If you were to click at least 10 times throughout this process, that amounts to 213 seconds. In today’s fast paced world, the average consumer is unwilling to engage with such a slow service.

Alternatively, it is very convenient and fast for Chinese consumers to visit Alibaba’s site. There is only one reason for this difference in speed: the Chinese government is checking whether its citizens are visiting foreign websites to buy what are regarded as “toxic” commodities. This inspection of the internet reduces Chinese outbound purchases while conversely increasing domestic demand, stabilizing the market for local internet operators such as Alibaba.

 

Design and insurance in the cage

With the creation of the CCP’s internet ‘Great Wall’, 1.4 billion people have been placed in virtual cages. Despite these constraints, however, the outside world remains very attractive to Chinese citizens. If the CCP wishes to curb circumvention of its internet wall, it has determined that its best course of action is to provide enough internet activities in the cage to keep its citizens pacified, believing that the people will remain mollified and thus less likely to protest. Conversely, exclusive Chinese internet companies rely on the power of the state to drive out foreign competitors, enjoy huge profits, and, of course, obey the unquestioned leadership of the CCP.

Yet the idea that there can be just one insurance policy for governance of the internet, as seen with the ‘Great Wall’, is misplaced. In order to seek a ‘double insurance’ policy, the leaders of China’s internet industry must also pledge their loyalty to the CCP. In fact, all important Chinese enterprises, including internet companies, contain a Communist Party Division within their organisation to supervise business operations and communicate the Party’s orders.

Jack Ma is one such industry leader who is a member of the Communist Party of China; should this be surprising?