This paper maps the Chinese government’s restrictions on online freedom of expression, and explores their domestic, regional and international implications. It examines China’s model of internet control, censorship and surveillance, drawing on recent examples that have arisen in the COVID-19 context. It analyses the degree to which this approach shapes wider trends and online restrictions in the rest of Asia, looking also at the influence of Western policies and technologies. And it reviews China’s growing influence on global technology governance in multilateral and bilateral settings. This includes China’s increasing assertiveness in international debates about digital technology regulation, its promotion of a vision of ‘cyber sovereignty’ that emphasizes state surveillance and control, and the leadership’s ambitions for the ‘Digital Silk Road’ initiative.
- The Chinese government’s highly restrictive approach to online freedom of expression has intensified under COVID-19. This has a detrimental effect on the ability of citizens to realize other rights, including the right of access to information, freedom of thought and opinion, and the right to health.
- While Chinese policies and technology have influenced the approach of some countries in the rest of Asia, the breadth, scale, detail and pervasiveness of the government’s model of internet control, censorship and surveillance remain unique to China.
- In Asia more broadly, the reasons for tight controls on internet freedoms are complex and diverse – comprising historical, cultural and political factors, and drawing on influences from countries and companies in the West as well as China.
- China’s influence on the technology governance of other countries, including in Asia, is on the increase through its ‘Digital Silk Road’ projects.
- China’s restrictive approach to online freedom of expression is reflected on the international stage through advocacy of a broader concept of ‘cyber sovereignty’ at the UN and in other international forums. Debates over online freedom of expression are increasingly part of broader geopolitical conversations about whether technology governance should be open and global, or closed and state-based.
- At a time when illiberalism was already on the rise, the COVID-19 pandemic has made tighter state control of online freedom of expression even more attractive to many governments. It remains to be seen whether the increasing restrictions enacted under the guise of emergency measures will be repealed once the COVID-19 crisis ends, or whether – as seems more likely – the pandemic will have longer-term detrimental effects on a rights-based approach to technology governance.