China was the year’s worst abuser of internet freedom for the third year running in 2017, according to an annual report from U.S.-based freedom-of-speech watchdog Freedom House.
As the ruling Chinese Communist Party held its 19th Party Congress, enshrining the "new era" ideology of President Xi Jinping into its founding document, the government began to write many of its censorship strategies into law, the group said in its annual report on China.
"The drive to codify what were previously ad hoc censorship and surveillance strategies persisted during the coverage period," the report said.
Other new restrictions targeted citizen journalism, and several sought to prevent websites from republishing “unverified” news from social media, the report found.
Websites not licensed by the government are now banned from providing any online news or information service at all, the report highlighted.
Meanwhile, a draconian cybersecurity law passed in November 2016 forced large numbers of internet users to register for services with their real names, in preparation for a personalized "social credit"
scoring system that could link people's online behavior to their access to jobs and services.
"The cybersecurity law also requires foreign companies to store data on Chinese users within China by 2018, and many—including Uber, Evernote, LinkedIn, Apple, and AirBnb—have started to comply," the report said.
It said social media users were also punished for sharing sensitive news and commentary, with prison terms ranging from five days to 11 years.
Groups shut down
Social media user Zhouzhouzhuzhou said the "seriousness" of such sharing depends on how many people ultimately retweet the information.
He said entire WeChat groups are now regularly shut down by the authorities in a bid to erase any "sensitive" topics from the platform.
"Our WeChat group was shut down 10 or 20 times in the run-up to the 19th Party Congress, and we are still in the process of setting them up again," he told RFA.
"If anyone says anything sensitive, or posts something sensitive, they can even be detained, although they are more likely to receive a warning," he said.
Meanwhile, smartphone chat apps like WeChat were increasingly targeted, with several people detained in connection with comments they shared on the platform.
New regulations also sought to limit user-generated news content, meaning that social media users who tweet photos and other information from the scene of breaking news events are now at risk of detention.
Meanwhile, 2017 also saw the introduction of a licensing system for anyone wishing to use virtual private network (VPN) tools to bypass censorship.
China also continued with its now long-established methods for recruiting and managing paid and unpaid pro-government commentators to manipulate public opinion online.
Pro-government commentators were found in 30 of the 65 countries surveyed by Freedom House, up from 23 in the 2016 edition and a new high.
Such commentators, once known as the "50-cent army" in China, are hired to feign grassroots support for the government, smear government opponents, and move online conversations away from controversial topics.
"The government in China has long enlisted state employees to shape online discussions, but they are now just a small component of a larger ecosystem," Freedom House said.
Pro-government commentators in China include volunteers from the ruling party’s youth apparatus as well as ordinary citizens known as "ziganwu," it said.
It cited official Communist Youth League documents that described "online civilization volunteers" as people using keyboards as weapons to "defend the online homeland" in an ongoing cyberwar for hearts and minds.
'Unsuitable' material deleted
Online activist Ou Biaofeng said China's "50-cent army" also routinely deletes posts and accounts deemed unsuitable in the "new era" of Xi's rule.
"I am sure that Chinese government departments and administrative bodies all hire online commentators and internet police to a greater or lesser extent," Ou told RFA.
"[Their aim is] to create division where there is any show of social unity."
There were 731 million internet users in China at the start of the year, according to the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC).
"China boasts the world’s largest number of internet users, yet obstacles to access remain, including poor infrastructure, particularly in rural areas," the Freedom House report found.
The country's telecommunications industry is dominated by state-owned enterprises, enabling centralized control over international gateways and sporadic, localized shutdowns of internet service to quell social unrest, it said.
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Zhu Dan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.