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China's Censorship Blowback

Rebecca MacKinnon

I'm not sure what the Chinese government is thinking, or whether certain parts of certain ministries and party apparatus have gotten completely out of control. 

Until recently, it had seemed to me that the Chinese government was managing its censorship system with surprising success: censoring enough (combined with strategic arrests) to keep people from using the Internet to organize a successful nation-wide political opposition movement; but at the same time allowing enough space for online discourse and citizen-muckraking that people have felt freer and more empowered than ever before, which actually seemed to work in favor of the central government's legitimacy — despite being very bad news for corrupt local officials. But this month, something shifted. It's unclear whether the shift is long-lasting or just temporary madness until the PRC's 60th anniversary on October 1st.

Most of China's educated, largely apolitical, internet-connected urbanites have until now been generally willing to accept the political status quo — and with it a certain amount of censorship, thuggishness and injustice, political paranoia and occasional bizarreness — in exchange for overall social stability (compared to any other time in living Chinese memory), economic growth, plus an impressive increase in China's global power and status. But whoever is driving the latest Internet crackdown and the accompanying moralistic propaganda drive may have done substantial damage to the government's credibility.

June began with the expected tightening of Internet censorship around the 20th anniversary of the June 4th crackdown, including the temporary blocking of Twitter and various other websites. That in itself was not a huge surprise. It followed the usual logic of Chinese Internet censorship: tighten up the bottleneck between the Chinese Internet and the outside Internet during politically sensitive periods. Chinese Internet users who tend to be concerned with politics know to expect this kind of thing. However a simultaneous suspension in service for "technical maintenance" on many domestic websites impacted a much larger number of Chinese Internet users who don't visit overseas-hosted news or social networking sites very much. It would likely not have occurred to many million Internet users that June 4th was a politically sensitive date if China's "net nanny" hadn't made it so blatantly obvious, prompting many teenagers who weren't even born in 1989 to ask each other and their parents what happened on June 4th. But that was June 4th. People expect a certain amount of government paranoia around that time.

Little did we know, that was just the beginning of The Month The Censors Stopped Taking Their Medication.

The next week the government's Green Dam censorware mandate became publicly known. Authorities insist on implementing the mandate despite the fact that it doesn't work as intended or advertised, is a security risk and has been subject to widespread domestic criticism (by bloggers as well as state-controlled media and respected public figures like Caijing editor Hu Shuli). Now the U.S. government warns it could be a violation of the WTO. It seems the government is having trouble finding a face-saving way to climb down. Rather than admit they made a mistake and work out a sensible solution with domestic and foreign industry, they have chosen instead to escalate in an increasingly irrational manner that serves only to increase Chinese Internet users' scorn and irritation.

Last week the propaganda department turned it sights on Google China, and continues to blame Google for smut on the Internet. Horror of horrors, when you type smutty words and phrases into the Google search box, you get smutty content coming back in your search results! Many people including this blogger (via Roland Soong) and this blogger have pointed out that plenty of smut remains available via Google's Chinese competitor Baidu. How commercially convenient for Baidu… though some bloggers point out that the whole fracas — aided by outrage and ridicule over a staged anti-Google interview on CCTV — is actually making Google more popular among netizens, who were already annoyed with the government for dispensing commercial favoritism on the makers of Green Dam.

So far this week we've seen the temporary blocking of Google.com and related services hosted outside of China including GMail. As if that wasn't bad enough for one week, we're now told that sexual health websites are a no-go for ordinary Internet users.

Meanwhile, the increased discussion of censorship all over the Chinese Internet is prompting China's netizens to educate themselves about the various technical methods to "jump over" the "great firewall." There are no hard and fast statistics on how many people in China are now using proxy servers, Tor, Psiphon, Freegate/Dynaweb, or OpenDNS as compared to a month ago. But based on the frequent mentions of these tools I've been seeing every day on blogs, in Twitter, and on other social networking sites, it seems that the latest Net Nanny follies have helped raise awareness of circumvention tools to a whole new level. If you plug the term >翻墙 (which means "scale the wall" — the most common Chinese euphemism for censorship circumvention) into Google's search insights and restrict it to searches coming from China, you see a big spike in early June and a bigger spike in the past few days:

Searches for Tor (a nonprofit tool for anonymizing and circumvention) are also substantially up this month, and Chinese-language searches originating in China for Freegate (a tool developed and operated by a FLG-affiliated organization) spiked dramatically over the weekend.

Aggravation is certainly mounting. After finding Google.com and GMail blocked on Wednesday night Beijing time, Jeremy Goldkorn, who runs Danwei.org wrote a letter to China's "net nanny," in which he pointed out: "You are making Chinese people look like children on the world stage. You are bringing shame to the People's Republic of China, and the Chinese Communist Party."

To protest the mounting ridiculousness, Ai Weiwei is calling for an Internet boycott on July 1st. Others like lawyer-blogger Liu Xiaoyuan believe a boycott is not the best way to protest Internet restrictions. He writes (translated by Roland): "We have nothing against the Internet. We should not boycott the Internet. We should be using the Internet to promote democracy, rule of law, people's livelihood and progressiveness." Roland suggests some other kind of protest that is more measurable, as the success or failure of an Internet boycott is very hard to measure. Meanwhile a group of anonymous Chinese Netizens have issued an open letter, vowing to take collective action on July 1st. It's not clear exactly what they will do, other than to say: "we are going to acquaint your censorship machine with systematic sabotage and show you just how weak the claws of your censorship really are. We are going to mark you as the First Enemy of the Internet."

The following paragraph is particularly interesting. They claim they're not interested in overthrowing the government; but the government is bringing on its own punishment for behaving in such a stupid manner:

NOBODY wants to topple your regime. We take no interest whatsoever in your archaic view of state power and your stale ideological teachings. You do not understand how your grand narrative dissipated in the face of Internetization. You do not understand why appealing to statism and nationalism no longer works. You cannot break free from your own ignorance of the Internet. Your regime is not our enemy. We are not affiliated in any way with any country or organization, and we are not waging this war on any country or organization, not even on you. YOU are waging this war on yourself. YOU are digging your own grave through corruption and antagonization. We are not interested in you, destined for the sewage of history. You cannot stop the Internetization of the human race. In fact, we won't bat an eyelid even if you decide to sever the transpacific information cables in order to obtain the total control you wanted. The harder you try to roll back history, the more you strain the already taut strings, and the more destructive their final release. You are accelerating your own fall. The sun of tomorrow does not shine on those who are fearing tomorrow itself.

June has been pretty wild. I wonder what July has in store…

By Rebecca MacKinnon, Journalist and activist; Co-founder, Global Voices Online. More blog posts from Rebecca MacKinnon can also be read here.

Related topics: Censorship, Internet Governance

 
   

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Comments

This is a competition issue more or less Suresh Ramasubramanian  –  Jun 25, 2009 6:45 PM PDT

I suspect you'd just have to look for the answer to that old latin tag .. "Cui bono". Who benefits?

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