Beijing Adds Veneer of Legal Legitimacy on Censorship

By Sophie Richardson

Sophie Richardson is the China director at Human Rights Watch. A graduate of the University of Virginia, the Hopkins-Nanjing Program, and Oberlin College, Richardson is the author of numerous articles on domestic Chinese political reform, democratization, and human rights in Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Vietnam. She has testified before the European Parliament and the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. She has provided commentary to the BBC, CNN, the Far Eastern Economic Review, Foreign Policy, National Public Radio, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. Richardson is the author of "China, Cambodia, and the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence," an in-depth examination of China's foreign policy since 1954's Geneva Conference.

Do Chinese authorities need more laws to surveil people? From the earliest days of the Chinese Communist Party, authorities have kept the closest of eyes on all behavior for signs of dissent. At that time, party members were obliged to report on one another; during the Cultural Revolution, that grim responsibility was imposed on teachers, married couples, and even children. Whether through the street committee system, the dossiers kept by work units, or the police-run “grid system,” Beijing has demonstrated consistent zeal for vast, intrusive surveillance networks.

The Chinese government’s love-hate relationship with online speech is well-documented. Beijing has expanded connectivity primarily for economic reasons, but also as a means to monitor and control individual views. The government has prosecuted people, like Uighur economist and peaceful critic Ilham Tohti and human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, for their online speech, adopted regulations setting out restrictions on content, and paid the “fifty-cent army” to steer online discussions to praise the government. 

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