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CHINA: Cracks Appearing in the “Great Firewall”

Marina Litvinsky

WASHINGTON, Feb 23 2009 (IPS) - While the Internet boom in China has given citizens new avenues for self-expression, the government’s tight control and censorship of content has made it difficult for the web to act as a platform for any major political dissent.

“Censorship (in China) is not perfect, but works well enough that no one has been able to organise a successful political movement through the Internet,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre, speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Wednesday.

The China Internet Network Information Centre in Beijing says the number of Chinese Internet users reached 253 million last July, making it the world’s largest Internet market. The estimate, based on a phone survey, found that nearly 70 percent of China’s Internet users were 30 or younger.

“The Internet has brought a loss of control of authorities over culture, particularly youth culture,” said MacKinnon, who has been studying China and the Internet since 2004.

Chinese youth are using the Internet in varied ways, even gaining international notoriety, like the “back dorm boys,” by posting funny clips on the YouTube video sharing site.

“Before, if you wanted to be culturally famous, you needed to pass through official gatekeepers affiliated with the propaganda department,” MacKinnon explained. “Now people are uploading (directly) onto the Internet.”

While the relative freedoms of the Internet pose new challenges to the Communist Chinese government, MacKinnon contends that the Internet in China has served as a “challenge to cyber utopians” – people who hoped the Internet would bring democracy to all.

Access to the Internet has not meant complete access to all information. The Chinese government is working harder than ever to make sure citizens are protected from what it labels as “vulgar” content. The active role of censor has been extended from government offices into private companies

A 2006 report by MacKinnon for Human Rights Watch (HRW), “Race to the Bottom: Corporate Complicity in Chinese Internet Censorship,” points out that China’s system of Internet censorship and surveillance, known as the “Great Firewall”, is the most advanced in the world. Tens of thousands of people are employed by the Chinese government and security organs to implement a system of political censorship. This system is aided by extensive corporate and private sector cooperation, including by some of the world’s major international technology and Internet companies.

According to MacKinnon, the government holds web companies responsible for watching and censoring content according to certain standards. Companies, however, are left to decide for themselves “how enthusiastically they respond to regulations.”

In June 2005, a month after MSN China rolled out its Chinese portal, Microsoft came under criticism from the press and bloggers around the world for censoring words such as “democracy” and “freedom” in the titles of its Chinese blogs, at the request of the Chinese government.

In January 2006 Google rolled out its censored search engine, The site provides notice to users when search results have been censored but provides no further details.

Chinese search engine sites are even more censored than their international counterparts. While a search for “Tiananmen massacre” on the site produced less results – omitting gory pictures – than on the international Google site, the same search on China’s most popular search engine, Baidu, which has a greater market share in China than Google, produced no results at all. The HRW report said that since President Hu Jintao took office in 2003 the authorities have taken a series of harsh steps to control and suppress political and religious speech on the Internet, including the jailing of Internet critics and bloggers for peaceful political expression. According to Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, China shut down 276 websites that contained pornographic and “lewd” materials on Feb. 10, bringing the total number of closed websites to 1,911, the national Internet regulator said.

The crackdown started on Jan. 5 and will most likely continue as 2009 will see many notable anniversaries in China, including the 50th anniversary of the 1959 uprising in Tibet, the 30th anniversary of the “Democracy Wall” movement, and the 20th anniversary of the crackdown on the 1989 pro-democracy Tiananmen protests. All of these could inspire protests and dissent both online and off.

MacKinnon points out that Westerners incorrectly tend to think of the Internet situation in China as a Great Wall or Iron Curtain metaphor. The more correct description would be “more like a nanny metaphor.”

“There isn’t 100 percent control all the time, but (the Chinese government) manages to control enough so that no one can organise oppositional parties,” MacKinnon said. “The goal is to, in aggregate, minimise kinds of conversations that lead to action.”

The idea that tearing down “the wall” will usher in democracy in China is overly simplistic, according to MacKinnon. The Chinese people are not all “waiting to be saved,” she said.

Despite the censorship a diverse discourse is starting to emerge. Chinese citizens feel empowered in having conversations on the Internet that are not possible in traditional media spaces. Some citizens are using the Internet to raise awareness of social problems, like homelessness, and organise grassroots efforts. It is more difficult for the government to police such efforts as they are merely individuals organising people, not official non-governmental organisations with bank accounts that can be monitored.

Also, while China blocks the websites of such human rights organisations as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, lawyers are using the Internet to distribute information on civil rights cases.

At the same time, it is important to remember that there is a great deal of nationalism in China. Sites like Anti-CNN, established by a Chinese student, criticise the foreign media’s portrayal of China.

Ailin Guo, a Chinese student currently enrolled in the media and public affairs master’s programme at George Washington University here, told IPS, “Although I am consciously aware of the fact that democratic accountability is essential and censorship is wrong, I endorse the practice of censorship in China because it is necessary to maintain social stability, taken into consideration all the socio-economic and political factors – especially because China is under market transition.”

“I believe a functioning and workable system is better than blindly implementing a democratic system, which was never viable in Chinese history,” she said.

At the same time, many people, especially parents, view the Internet as a very chaotic place – they worry about their children falling prey to predators and cyber hackers. To them, “the government presents itself as helping (one) be safe in cyber world,” MacKinnon noted.

The government recognises the influence the Internet has had on citizens and is using this to its advantage. MacKinnon sees China as potentially using the Internet to enable citizens to engage with government without a multi-party system or democratic institutions.

“The Internet could enable the Communist party to remain in power longer,” she said.

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