The Screaming Pen

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Guest Author KPC Explains Why China’s Internet Censorship Is Proving Futile

As angry students filled the streets during the Tiananmen uprising of 1989, Communist Party officials clamored to restrict the use of photocopiers. They argued the contraptions would allow dissidents to disseminate anti-government propaganda. While a lot has changed in the interceding years—and copyphobia now seems almost charming—China’s cadres are no less adamant about neutralizing today’s technological threats to their authority. These days, Internet search engines and Web logs have become the party’s new public enemies.

The Propaganda Ministry Plays Whack-a-Mole

China is known to employ some of the most sophisticated censorship technology in the world. Authorities wield controls so precise banning mere phrases is as effortless as blocking entire Web sites. With nearly 111 million Chinese online, the government’s official stance is that it aims to protect its citizens from “dangerous” or “unhealthy” content, such as pornography. But upon closer inspection, the government has as much contempt for search results on topics including democracy, human rights, Taiwan and Tibet.

An exhaustive search for any of these terms is practically impossible using China’s beloved Baidu or other search engines complicit with Chinese censorship law. Perform a search for “Tiananmen” and you are more likely to find tourist information than potentially embarrassing historical text, a fact that has angered human rights activists worldwide.

Recently, major Western service providers have also become embroiled in the censorship controversy. In May, human rights advocacy group Amnesty International issued a stern rebuke against Google and Yahoo!, among others, for colluding with the Chinese government. Google took a public relations beating after it launched its censored version,, and Yahoo! has come under fire for allegedly helping government officials identify Chinese journalist Shi Tao after he sent an e-mail abroad exposing China’s media restrictions. The outing of Shi landed him a 10-year prison term. Shi is one of many who have received harsh punishment for accessing or disseminating politically sensitive materials online.

China has gone to great lengths to control the flow of information on the Web. While it has focused much of its attention on search engines, government officials are equally determined to snuff out subversive Web logs or blogs. The free-flowing nature of this Internet venue makes it easy for users to spread information quickly and cost effectively, which is precisely the reason President Hu Jintao announced a crackdown on these forums in late June.

China’s assault on blogs has been threefold: utilize the same censorship controls that have been effective against search engines, issue “admittance standards,” and arrest anyone posting subversive material as a means of reprisal and intimidation. Hu has his work cut out for him. According to a study by Beijing’s Tsinghua University, China has 37 million blogs. That number is expected to nearly double by the end of the year.

What does the future hold?

For now, China is winning a slew of censorship battles, but Hu and his cronies will likely lose the war. If China is to conquer the Web, it must overcome a series of obstacles arising from an increasing number of Internet users, internal and external political pressure, and technological loopholes allowing users to bypass online censorship.

Hu endorses the Internet as an invaluable tool for business and education, and recognizes that the Net is essential if China wishes to complete with other nations. Since the Internet is here to stay, the number of Chinese who have access to its search engines, blogs and e-mail accounts will only grow with time, making it increasingly difficult for authorities to control the flow of information.

While many have decried Google and Yahoo’s cooperation with Chinese officials, some good may come from the controversy. The international community is now more aware of China’s censorship policies thanks to these high-profile cases, and activists around the world have renewed their determination to end Internet restrictions. This external political pressure is coupled with that of dissidents living within China. The Chinese masses will undoubtedly continue to flex their political muscles online despite restrictions and jail time.

Perhaps the most encouraging phenomenon is the appearance of home-grown service providers that enable the Chinese to bypass government controls. Beijing-based Maxthon routs traffic through a Web proxy, which creates a loophole allowing users access to restricted sites. Although the company downplays this functionality, word of the shortcut has spread from internet café to college dormitory, causing an explosion in the service’s popularity. In time, the party may get wise and shut Maxthon down, but there will be no shortage of loopholes.

The Communist regime may ultimately discover that censoring the Web is as futile as restricting the use of photocopiers. These counterrevolutionary machines now reside in nearly every office building, bank, school and supply shop in Beijing, and offer copies to anyone capable of pressing a button.


July 14, 2006 Posted by | Asia, Censorship, China, Globalisation | Leave a comment