The stranglehold on freedom of expression, particularly online, in mainland China is "a potent tool of repression" as digital rights continue to plummet under the government's control, according to a rights group. PEN America released a report on March 13, "Forbidden Feeds
," documenting the rising censorship of social media, which the organization said is ruthlessly enforced and leaves little space for dissent. The report found through both extensive interviews and research that under President Xi Jinping the scope and severity of censorship has significantly expanded. "We were concerned by how the government's regulatory power, technological capacity for censorship and willingness to censor increasingly large areas of speech are all expanding in tandem," James Tager, senior program manager for PEN, told ucanews.com. "We note that these issues have all accelerated under Xi's tenure. Given the recent news with the removal of constitutional term limits, we worry that this trend will only continue." Term limits for Xi were officially struck down by the National People's Congress — a mostly ceremonial parliament — and it is possible he may stay in power beyond 10 years. He would be the first Chinese leader to do so since dictator Mao Zedong. According to the PEN America report, Xi is fighting a pointed war on free expression
by strangling social media. While social media in China are large and robust, posts are routinely scrubbed and accounts are often closed. Social media are also used to monitor Chinese citizens. Posts are accessed by the government to gain private information and potentially intercept dissidents or those who act out of favor with the state. While the Chinese government has for a long time kept tight control over the media, Xi's government is returning to a level not seen since the Tiananmen crackdown of 1989, punishing media for exercising independence from the Communist Party's ideology. "Xi has placed an enormous emphasis on tightening ideological discipline and limiting the range of freedom of expression: in academia, in the press, in films, TV, social media, religious life and the Communist Party itself," William Nee, a China researcher at Amnesty International, told ucanews.com. To enforce its control over the media and online space, the government last year passed a new cybersecurity law, which includes obligations that companies must stop the transmission of information that is prohibited or censored by the government. Those companies must also hand over their users' data to the government. Over the past year, Chinese state-run media have generally been more dedicated to building a cult of personality around Xi than it has been to reporting basic facts. For example, Xinhua late last year published a doting 8,000-word profile
of Xi. State media also now regularly refer to Xi with the term lingxiu
. While it translates to "leader," it is a reverential term that was used for Mao. Xi's predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin were not described with lingxiu
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"As the party tightens the press and goes after independent social media voices, there's the possibility that party leaders will no longer be able to receive objective information from the ground, and will become increasingly detached from reality," Nee said. Xi's government keeps a tight grip on social media and online posts in order to engage in political censorship and protect the reputation of high-ranking figures. The government calls this censorship a way to fight so-called "online rumors," and it essentially ensures that no online presence grows enough to pose a threat to the Communist Party's core ideology. "Gone are the relative heydays of investigative reporting, or when reporters tried to use loopholes in the system — such as making critical reports on officials from a locale different from their own — to do more critical reporting," Maya Wang, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, told ucanews.com. "The results are striking. There is hardly any interesting news coming out of Chinese media anymore, and that's a testimony to the powers of the party in controlling the press of 1.3 billion people." PEN America warned that Xi is actively working to export his model of sovereignty over cyberspace to other authoritarian leaders, taking advantage of a time around the world where many are concerned about the spread of misinformation. Under Xi, the Chinese government has near-complete control of the internet, which is the desired endgame for many autocrats including Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and Vladimir Putin in Russia. There are no signs of censorship in China slowing. In fact, as technological capacity grows and the government continues to follow Xi's ideological cues, the political grip on the media will likely become harsher. "The government is increasingly possessing more capacity and more authority to censor, while there is apparently less willingness to refrain from a heavy censoring hand," Tager said.