At the height of the SARS scandal in 2003, I wrote a characteristically florid and dramatic post about Internet censorship and its role in the tragedy. It was sincere, if overwrought, and others have since borrowed its headline (what can you do?). That very day the government conceded it had staged a massive cover-up of a deadly disease, and vowed to open up and let the light stream in. This was my key point, addressed directly to an unresponsive Hu Jintao:
Since you are now encouraging free communications and honest dialogue, I urge you to look at the greatest roadblock to these noble goals — your custom-made Internet censorship mechanism, lovingly referred to as The Great Firewall of China. You cannot have it both ways. Either you are transparent and in favor of dialogue, or you are a frightened deer caught in the headlights, terrified of what your people see and think.
The blocked Internet is a glaring symptom and symbol of your fears. It reinforces the perception of you as paranoid ideologues. It reminds the world that your past eagerness to block communications (which, in the case of SARS, resulted only in more unnecessary deaths and unending streams of rumors) is alive and well, and thus you are still not to be trusted….I am a personal victim of your censorship, unable to read this very site, thanks to your terror of the exchange of information.
All we ever got in return for this simple request was a lot of disappointment and several broken promises. Things soon returned to normal, journalists were discouraged to do their jobs, control over the Internets only tightened (with a brief Potemkin Village-style hiatus around the Games), and nearly all the news on openness under Hu has been decidedly grim.
This week, news about China’s New & Improved firewall lit up the blogs once again, perhaps because the story it’s such a vintage example of dazzling technology being used for the most ruthless and primitive of purposes (repression):
China’s government is stepping up internet scrutiny by equipping its web censors with more advanced software that allows them to spot risks of subversion much earlier and root it out more efficiently, according to the country’s internet security market leader.
The revelation from Beijing TRS Information Technology, China’s leading provider of search technology and text mining solutions, that it is thriving on the government’s desire to better “manage” public opinion, comes as the political leadership is facing growing challenges, mostly voiced through the internet.
Currently, the security forces are cracking down on intellectuals associated with Charter 08, an appeal for democracy and human rights that many see as the most significant such document since 1989 and which has, defying Beijing’s net censorship, been collecting signatories over the web.
Traditionally, so-called internet cops look for subversive content via keyword searches on Google or Baidu, He Zhaohui, marketing manager at TRS, told the FT. But, he claimed that TRS is increasingly selling advanced text mining solutions enabling censors to monitor and forecast public opinion rather than take down dangerous talk after it happened. Mr He argued, for example, that state-of-the-art internet spying could have prevented the Shanxi brick kiln slavery scandal and the damage it did to the country’s image.
I do want everyone to think about that last sentence for a moment. This guy is actually boasting that if only his group’s technology had been around in 2007 China could have keep secret for all time the plight of kidnapped children sold into slavery to labor in a Shaanxi brick factory? The guy actually said that on the record? (Or am I misreading something?) And that we should all be grateful this technology will allow the CCP to hide the truth faster and more easily? This raises the Nanny to a new level of sinisterness, potentially morphing from a site blocker and nuisance to a network of Thought Police ready to swoop down on people before they even do anything.
Okay, so we all know how bad this system of censorship is, and we all know why the CCP invests so much time and money to ensure complete control of the pipes. We all know it’s getting worse, not better. And yet I can’t get out of my head a discussion I had with a group of journalists and Web 2.0 luminaries several weeks ago when this topic arose. One of them, a well-known techie writer who knows China better than most of us, had this to say:
“When Americans see the Chinese Internet, they say, ‘Look at this! Look at how many sites are blocked! Look at all the censorship and how the government is denying its people information.’ And then the Chinese people look at the same Internet and say, ‘This is amazing! We have never had so much information made available to us before. It’s like a dream.'”
And this conversation brought to mind yet another post I can’t forget from 2006, written, ironically, shortly before the blogger himself was arrested for pointing his video camera at the wrong places. In the post he outlined the pros and cons of the censorship argument from the Western and Chinese perspectives in a brilliant set of bullets:
1. Progress or Backwards? the extent of censorship vs information availability
a. Internet is growing rapidly in China. Chinese are having access to exploding amount of information which they couldn’t have fathomed a decade ago.
b. The information is censored, especially in politics, history and news. Chinese are being goaded by the government to think in certain directions.
c. But smart people can get around the Great Firewall via proxy servers. And if one reads English, there’s no much censorship to speak of unless one considers:
that BBC (blocked) offers much superior and often exclusive content compared to CNN and NY Times, or that speeches on Falun Gong, pro-Taiwan-independence and anti-Communist-party (I mean politically anti) are unalienable rights for the average Chinese.
2. Why are the laowais so ga-ga?
a. Why are the foreign media working up so high a frenzy over this? Don’t they know they can’t impose their will on China, if Chinese don’t want to change themselves?
b. Of course the foreigners care, because that’s in the core of their value system. Without them being ga-ga over this, the situation in China would be worse.
c. Worse. Hmm. Really? That’s very conceited. Do they want to repeat Iraq in China?
d. And who says free speech is essential to an acceptable society? Look at Singapore. Look at all the democracies that can’t feed their own people. Press freedom is not the most urgent issue in China.
e. What’s the urgent issue in China then? Without press and political freedom, none of China’s current major problems can be solved satisfactorily.
3. Do Chinese care?
a. The average Chinese I know doesn’t. Of course we can always argue about my sample size, and the predisposition in my observation.
b. But if given the chance (free speech in education and public discourse), would Chinese cherish the freedom then?
c. And why do we care about the “average” Chinese? Every individual deserves the full human rights declared in the UN charter.
d. That’s just a pipe dream! People want to make their lives better first.
And on it goes. My very favorite bullet comes at the very end:
Change has to happen. But the Chinese have to figure it out themselves. The foreign media can continue to go ga-ga over this. Will all the media attention serve much purpose beyond acting as the fad of the day though? I wonder.
Although it’s just one of many bullets, I strongly suspect it reflects the blogger’s opinion (at least before he suddenly found himself the guest of the system’s hospitality). It’s an interesting question: How excited should we (foreigners) get about China’s Internet censorship when the Chinese people, the alleged victims, are nearly unanimously complacent about a problem that to them doesn’t exist?
I don’t have answers. From 2002 to 2006 I was
apoplectic outspoken on this issue. And then…. Well, when you live here long enough and you actually talk to the people your defending and fighting for, your perspective can change. Not about censorship: it’s always bad, and in China it has brutal and evil consequences. But you realize that if there’s going to be change, it’s going to have to come from within China. Hyperventilating about the censorship may feel soothing, and sometimes it seems like an entire cottage industry has sprung up, fueled by stories about blocked blogs and the latest censorship tools. God knows, I’ve contributed enough fuel myself, starting six years ago almost to the day. (I believe this was the first blog post about China’s blogspot ban, which was to remain in effect for half a decade.) And we should keep up the complaints and the noise and not let the world forget – and not let the CCP forget that the world is watching.
But. But we can’t distort what the actual situation is in China. 99.9 out of 100 people here will tell you this is not a problem to them, and even to those who see it as such, it does not rank high on their list of urgent needs. And, again, the breast-beating of “gaga foreigners” will not swing the pendulum over to the side of enlightenment. That’s something the Chinese people will need to make happen, though I will keep urging them on from the sidelines. And just as in the good old days, I still decry the foreign companies who got rich making the technology possible. This insidious system is China’s; it’s a shame the fingerprints of companies from the developed world are all over it.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.