Internet Censorship in China: How to Still Market Online

Internet Censorship in China - All you need to know

Internet censorship in China remains one of the last large-scale online censorships in the world while in many countries of the world, freedom of speech is a reality.

Businesses feel that navigating a unique digital environment is too complex, but, this “Great Firewall of China” does not have to limit the success of businesses trying to reach Chinese consumers with the right strategic tools for minimal effort and maximum reward. Using this guide will give you everything you need to know beyond the list of blocked words to create an online presence in China without any additional stress or frustrations.

With this article by China Gravy, your trusted China online marketing company, business professionals gain a better understanding of the cyber policies for internet users in the Middle Kingdom and access business practices to fruitfully expand their operations into the Chinese market.

A Short History of Internet Censorship in China

In 1994, the internet was first introduced in China as a means of communication. In 1998, the “Great Firewall of China” emerged as a new tool of national security.

With this project, the Chinese government is provided with access to the online record of its citizens and residents. Any harmful, inappropriate, illegal online content is deleted.

In fact, the “Great Firewall of China” is essentially a method to legally deal with the complex and ever-evolving online world. This made the challenges of cyber freedom of speech one of the most complex issues of the modern world. The “Great Firewall of China” is a sub-project of the “Golden Shield Project,” a Chinese nationwide network-security project by the e-government of China. Internet censorship in China is one of the most discussed elements of the project as the online content and public opinions began to rapidly grow among one of the largest populations of internet users in the world.

For instance, searching for the phrase in the picture below in English on Google will provide photographs of tanks in the 1989 incident. However, the same search phrase in Chinese on Baidu produces cultural and architectural images with the military images filtered out of the results. 


So, what does that mean in practice?

The Emergence of a New Approach to Internet Sovereignty

As traditional broadcasting and print media were replaced with digital platforms, the Chinese government recognized a growing need to adapt current media strategies to the realm of China’s internet. Beyond daily directives detailing content coverage for media outlets, the telecom infrastructure in China had to be revamped.

Currently, eight internet service providers (ISPs) are licensed and managed by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) and provide the foundation for internet censorship in China. Upper and lower levels of internet management regulate the content accessible online with thousands of websites blocked in China and a greater number of deleted individual posts and accounts. In fact, the reach of China’s internet policies also extends into search engines, live streaming platforms, and blockchain technology. 

Since the 2017 Cybersecurity Law was introduced, more than 60 policies have been issued surrounding internet censorship in China. The framework of this has resulted in a dynamic and complex blueprint of digital governance in balance with internet sovereignty. In part, this is due to the unique inter-connected regulation mechanics that work from both the government as well as by private entities.

The approach continues to be shaped to meet an ever-changing and fast-paced digital landscape as new challenges emerge for the Chinese government. From social media to the use of virtual private networks (VPNs), China has had to rely on new measures and strict compliance by internet users, companies, and digital platform creators to continue the success of its policies.

To give an example of the speed and strictness that internet censorship in China is carried out, in 2018, more than 6,000 websites were shut down. At the start of 2019, during a brief 3-week period, more than 700 websites were blocked in China or shut down and nearly 10,000 mobile apps were taken offline in one such operation. Along with it, several millions of individual online content were removed permanently.

The Role of Managing Online Content

The success of internet censorship in China can be equated to a myriad of implantation sources. Multiple government branches and departments play a role, although often confusing and difficult to navigate, in carrying out internet policies.

These departments include:

  • The Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China
  • The State Council Information Office (SCIO)
  • The Ministry of Public Security (MPS)
  • The Ministry of State Security (MSS)
  • The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC)
  • The National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA)
  • The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT)
  • The Ministry of Culture and Tourism (MCT)

External companies, state ISPs, and additional organizations also contribute to the management of internet compliance.

The levels of management are generally divided into two main categories of internet censorship in China: macro- and micro-censorship.

  1. Macro-Censorship: Using the main infrastructure, entire websites and webpages from mostly external sources are blocked in China. URL filtering, IP blocking, and VPN blocking are a few strategies used by the “Great Firewall of China.” Although little is known about the specifics of the technology, URL and keyword filtering seem to be generally acknowledged as technological tactics.
  2. Micro-Censorship: Domestically, social media companies, app providers, and Internet content producers (ICPs) address individual online content using tactics such as content reviews, keyword filtering, and algorithm capabilities through both manual and computer-led efforts. Chinese tech firms may also hire content moderators to report and remove censored content, giving new space for technological markets geared towards these objectives. Already, popular social media and search engine providers in China have built platforms already capable of implementing these policies within themselves.
Great Wall - Internet censorship in China

Rules Governing Internet Censorship in China Businesses Should Know About

In June 2010, the Chinese government released a white paper covering the internet censorship policy. In the paper, the government defended the need to regulate the activities of cyberspace. Excerpts from the white paper state that “within Chinese territory, the internet is under the jurisdiction of Chinese sovereignty. The internet sovereignty of China should be respected and protected.

Businesses that want to tap into the Chinese market, for example with a WFOE, should know the basic internet regulations in the Middle Kingdom. These include:

1. Managing Online Information

This states that all internet service providers in the country must have a license and internet traffic must go through the appropriate networks

2. Security of Computer Information Systems

This explains that internet security protection is the responsibility of the Ministry of Public Security.

3. Security Management Procedures in Internet Accessing

This checks for harmful activities on the internet, including

  • Promoting resistance or obstructing the implementation of the constitution and administrative regulations or any activity that encourages such
  • Inciting the division of the country or an overthrow of the government
  • Inciting hatred, intolerance, or discrimination among ethnic groups
  • Spreading rumors or fabricating stories that could affect national unification or destroy the order of society
  • Promoting violence, terrorism, obscenity, pornography, or any form of criminal activity
  • Defaming government agencies or exposing sensitive information of the state

More Chinese Online Regulations

In addition, businesses should be aware that there are also regulations on internet service providers. For example, websites in China must get approval before they can include links from or to foreign websites. This can affect businesses opening up to Chinese consumers. ISPs work with the government to ensure certain policy regulations for websites are maintained, one of several layers of management providers. 

Also, to deliver news online,  a publisher must be licensed and approved by the State Council Information Agency. Any non-licensed publisher can only re-distribute content by a publisher with a license.

Moreover, internet service providers have the power to delete forbidden posts by internet users within the country. Internet providers also must also report such posts to the relevant government agencies.

Internet users are also expected to submit their real names to their service providers and can only make posts with proof of identity. This is a result of the government banning anonymous postings online. Service providers who fail to comply with these regulations are either shut down or may lose their licenses. Citizens who also refuse to comply with these rules face fines or jail time!

These regulations are constantly updated to adapt to the ever-evolving technological advances. Both foreigners and companies in China must follow these laws for using the internet. Online businesses that wish to have digital content accessible in the country should also understand the different facets of China’s internet to avoid joining the list of websites blocked in China.

China’s Internet Landscape Today

To date, China blocked more than 8,000 websites from being accessed. Businesses might find it challenging to craft an online presence when so many familiar websites and popular engagement apps are restricted.

Blocked websites include Google, Wikipedia, and The New York Times. And in the social media universe, you cannot access Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest in the Middle Kingdom. However, there are still many ways to successfully market your business online in China.

Instead, Chinese platforms have emerged, and have become powerful international players. Above all, WeChat – China’s super-app for literally everything. Sina Weibo and Douyin/TikTok are also mesmerizing audiences around the world. Click here for a detailed overview of the Chinese social media ecosystem.

And there are plenty of reasons why a business should take the time to work within Chinese internet regulations. With almost 2 trillion USD in sales, China has become the largest e commerce economy in the world.

The massive growth of the Chinese internet economy is largely due to the fact that it’s separate from foreign competition in European, American, and Japanese markets. With so many other businesses shying away from the challenge of navigating China’s cyber policies, the few businesses that choose to forge ahead are presented with the opportunity to engage with almost 1 billion internet users in China.

Business Opportunities in China

The introduction and tightening of international cyber policies will not slow down anytime soon. Businesses have bThe introduction and tightening of international cyber policies will not slow down anytime soon.

Businesses have been able to operate in a very open landscape for the past couple of years as the public usage of the internet took off. This is to say that businesses should not avoid operating and marketing in the Chinese market simply because of the effort it takes to navigate the policies of internet censorship in China and the fear of blocked websites and online content.

To communicate with your business partners and within your company in China hassle-free take a look at this article on how to communicate online in China – from WeChat to QQ, and from DingTalk to WeCom.

How to Effectively Maintain an Online Presence in China

As a foreign business, you first want to set up a Chinese website. This includes a .cn domain and hosting. For hosting, you can choose between

  1. hosting directly in mainland China with an ICP license
  2. hosting outside of China, but geographically close (e.g. Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea). Optionally with CDN, which has the advantage that you can reach a Chinese audience around the world.

For option 1 you must get an ICP (Internet Content Provider) license. And you also have to display the ICP registration in the footer of your website.

Knowing the most up-to-date list of blocked words and utilizing Chinese social media platforms are the fundamental first steps in becoming accessible to Chinese citizens online. If you host outside of China, optimizing for speed is even more important since your website has to go first through the Great Firewall.

You can find more detailed information on how to best build a website for Chinese customers here. Keep in mind, that a simple translation from your English content to Mandarin is neither sufficient nor the right strategy.

So, are you curious to start?

The Takeaway: Internet Censorship in China

To sum it up, internet censorship in China is just one hurdle businesses are facing when entering the Chinese market. Creating an online presence in line with the Chinese regulations is possible if you understand the policies and relevant digital marketing tools.

China Gravy is happy to help you surpass the “Great Firewall of China”. We build a Chinese website including cloud hosting for you. And we create a strong online presence on Chinese social media and e-commerce platforms including smart marketing strategies. Are you ready to conquer the Chinese market?

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