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U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., painted a dire portrait of China in his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, saying the country is "trying to supplant us as the leading power in the world."
"Let me explain to you who the Chinese government is. The Chinese government provides their people no access to the Internet," Rubio said on March 14. "The Chinese government will hold citizens prisoner without any right to recourse. The Chinese government coerces and tortures people until they get confessions from them."
He gave a few more examples of Chinese coercion before asking, "We want that to be the leading country in the world?" The crowd shouted "No!"
We wondered if Rubio was right about the Chinese government preventing its citizens from accessing the Internet.
By a wide margin, China leads the world in the sheer number of citizens accessing the Internet, with 538 million estimated users as of June 2012, according to Internet World Stats, which tracks Web use across the globe. The United States ranks second with about 245 million. About 40 percent of China’s population uses the Internet, placing it far below the penetration of many countries, including the U.S. at 78 percent. The major Internet providers in China are government-run telecom companies.
Rubio would have been on more solid ground if he said the Chinese government censors the Internet.
Although people in China can access the Internet through home computers, Internet cafes and smartphones, they face some censorship, said Adam Segal, a fellow who specializes in technology and development in China at the Council on Foreign Relations, in an email. Access to a number of American and foreign websites is blocked or filtered, such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, but there are some Chinese equivalents.
"There can be very open discussion on Sina Weibo, which is a Twitter-like service," Segal said, "though they are then censored if they become too sensitive."
The government blocked access to the New York Times and Bloomberg for reporting on the wealth of the family of prime minister Wen Jiabao. And after the 18th Communist Party Congress got its start in November 2012, all Google programs, including Gmail and its search engine, could not be accessed in the country.
In June 2012, Google unveiled on its Hong Kong-based search site a mechanism that identifies political and sensitive terms that may break the connection to Google, the Wall Street Journal reported. For example: the government has blocked the Chinese word for "carrot" which contains the character for Chinese President Hu Jintao’s surname.
The names of top leaders, dissidents and references to the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square protests can also be blocked. To avoid that censorship, some people in China have referred to the date of the protests as "May 35th."
According to the Times, all Internet traffic in China must pass through one of three computer centers in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, where computers known as the Great Firewall of China compare data with an updated list of keywords and Web address that are forbidden.
Some Chinese users try to get around the firewall and access forbidden sites through virtual private networks or VPNs that essentially allow users to "tunnel" out of the country to avoid the censors, but China also cracked down on those services, which its Communist-affiliated daily newspaper called illegal.
Two years ago, the Beijing government clamped down on rules for microblogging, requiring users to register on sites like Sina Weibo with their real names, a move preventing anonymous commentary and criticism about the government and news events, according to the Wall Street Journal. In December 2012, the country’s congress adopted similar rules requiring Internet users to give their full names to service providers (while keeping pseudonyms on microblog posts) and Internet companies to report forbidden postings to the government, according to the Times.
"China has the world's most robust controls, both technical and human, on the Internet," David Bandurski, editor of the University of Hong Kong's China Media Project website, said in an email to PolitiFact. "But this is by no means the full picture. Internet use is growing rapidly in the country, which currently has more than 570 million Internet users, 75 percent of which access the Internet on mobile devices."
While many non-Chinese social media are blocked, homegrown versions are active allowing Chinese to even criticize authorities.
"It is a messy picture, and Chinese leaders are constantly struggling to balance control, which is still a major priority, with the growing public demand for information," Bandurski said.
Scott Edwards, an Amnesty International senior staffer based in Washington, D.C., said Rubio’s statement is up to a little bit of interpretation. Yes, the Chinese can access the Internet. But the government does not "provide" -- that’s the word Rubio used -- free and unfettered access. Plus, there is the undeniably wide divide in the country of access between the rich and poor. Internet use is also sometimes monitored, Edwards said.
Rubio’s comment touches on the debate of the free Internet movement, Edwards said, which calls on the government to provide access to the Internet and that the government should not be interfering. In a policy that was even backed by China, the United Nations Human Rights Council affirmed that freedom of expression online is a basic human right.
We emailed Rubio’s press team for comment and did not hear back.
In describing a litany of offenses by China’s Communist government, Rubio said, "The Chinese government provides their people no access to the Internet."
This is not true. The Chinese can access the Internet, and they do it in numbers higher than any other country.
However, the government blocks many popular Internet sites and censors content, limiting the access for Chinese people.
We rate his statement Mostly False.
YouTube, Sen. Marco Rubio speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, March 14, 2013
Internet World Stats
New York Times topics page for Internet censorship in China
Wall Street Journal, "Beijing tightens cyber controls," Dec. 17, 2011
New York Times, "China’s censors trip and trip over the Internet," April 8, 2010
New York Times, "China blocks web access to Times after article,"Oct. 25, 2012
New York Times, "Google is blocked in China as Party Congress begins," Nov. 9, 2012
New York Times, "Adding more bricks to the Great Firewall of China," Dec.23, 2012
Associated Press, "China set to further tighten its grip on Internet freedom," Dec. 27, 2012
Reuters,"Bloomberg sites blocked in China days after Xi family wealth story,"July 4, 2012
PolitiFact, "Jon Huntsman says Internet use in China allows forum for discontent," Aug. 19, 2011
The Epoch Times, "China Number One in Internet Use -- and Abuse," July 19, 2011
Testimony by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Robert McDowell, U.S Joint Subcommittee Hearing: Fighting for Internet Freedom: Dubai and Beyond, Feb. 5, 2013
New York Times, "China toughens restrictions on Internet use," Dec. 28, 2012
Reuters, "China Web users hit 485 million," July 19, 2011
New York Times, "Cheap Meth! Cheap Guns! Click Here." Jan. 2, 2013
Wall Street Journal, "Google tips off users in China,"June 3, 2012
CBS, "Great firewall" still strong after Google," March 25, 2010
Global Times, "Foreign run VPNs illegal in China: government," Dec. 14, 2012
Email interview with Adam Segal, Council on Foreign Relations specialist in technology and development in China, March 14, 2013
Email interview with David Bandurski, editor of the China Media Project website, March 14, 2013
Interview with Scott Edwards, Amnesty International senior staffer in advocacy, policy and research, March 15, 2013
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