Censor me

Chinayouren has a delightful new post that reminded me yet again of how much the outside world still doesn’t understand China. It’s a great post on a couple of levels, but this section, written in response to readers outside of China who wrote to Chinayouren “proposing ideas to help ‘free the Chinese’ from the claws of the GFW,” really jumped out at me:

But listen, the sad reality is, the CCP’s systems of censorship are so effective not because they are diabolically sophisticated, but because… because the Chinese netizens can’t give a damn if they are being censored by their government or not.

You don’t believe me? Then perhaps you have a better theory to explain why nobody uses the widely available, free web proxies to surf the internet. Or why the majority of Chinese netizens still use Google.cn when they have an identical search engine that is not manipulated on Google.com

Shocking, right? But not so much. The truth is that, in spite of popular funny memes and the occasional juvenile rant, the majority of Chinese who are rich enough to use the internet are happy with the status quo. They do find it mildly annoying to be treated like children by the CCP, but as long as the bills are paid, they don’t think so much of it.

And this is also why, if someone wants to create a device against the GFW, the user activated systems like proxies or Tor are not effective, because people simply don’t use them.

I’ve written about this before more than a year ago, when I said Westerners need to understand that what seems awful to us doesn’t seem nearly so awful to those we are trying to “protect.”

[W]e can’t distort what the actual situation is in China. 99.9 out of 100 people here will tell you this [Internet censorship] 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.

Most Chinese aren’t trying to circumvent the Great Firewall. Those who want to look at blocked sites know how to do it, and they are, I believe, a very small minority.

Chinayouren then rails against another shibboleth, and what he says here is far more controversial. He shatters – to his own satisfaction, at least – the widely held belief (shall we call it a “meme”?) of many English-language China bloggers that a censored google.cn was far better than no google.cn. A belief, I have to admit, I’ve held myself, though maybe I’m not so sure after reading this. He points out what should be an obvious fact, but one that we may tend to overlook, namely that the very essence of a censored google.cn is, after all, SEM (search engine manipulation).

The most amusing thing in the Google crisis is all the commentators crying about the loss of Google.cn and its negative consequences for the freedom of the Chinese. In fact, I maintain that Google.cn is the most evil product to ever have existed in the Chinese internet, and the World will be a better place without it.

That is because, unlike the Chinese official sites that practice censorship, what the search engines do is manipulation. Why? Because Google.cn is not a content site in itself, it is a gateway to the internet. When people type in a keyword into the search field, they are actually trusting it to return a fair picture of what is on the net.

When you type a “sensitive” term and G.cn removes all the results except the People’s Daily and Xinhua, Google’s responsibility is double: not only it supports those often objectible views on the first page, but it also implicitly states that it is the ONLY opinion existing in the World.

And the worse is, the Chinese who believed that would be right to do so, because Google’s well known principles clearly specify their commitment to give all the information available in a democratic way. The little warning message that is displayed on Google.cn SEM searches is meant to avoid this situation, but it is tiny and often placed right at the bottom of the page, so most Chinese users just ignore it.

In the case of Google.cn, SEM is not about “good” or “evil”. It is about breaking the very principles that give a sense to the Google company, and it is understandable that Google has never been comfortable with it.

I have to give this post, and this blog, very high marks for laying its argument on the line without sentimentality or coddling, even if what he says flies in the face of what a lot of us want to hear. This is just one of many excellent posts on the subject over at Chinayouren.

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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.

The Discussion: 31 Comments

I’ve never really understood why Google laving China would be such a bad thing for Chinese netizens if they already have other search engines that return filtered web results (such as Baidu?). It may not even be such a bad thing for the rest of us. Google is obviously an incredible company but its dominance of the net starts to give pause for thought. It may have something to do with the need the company feels to present itself as a “non-evil” actor – which seems reminiscent of the kind of propaganda powerful nation states pump out as they flex their muscles. Perhaps it’s even a good thing in the long run in terms of general pluralism if there are markets that Google doesn’t dominate – even if what there is instead isn’t that good. One has to be careful what one wishes for, but I’m happy enough with the idea of a multipolar world – and of a multipolar internet.

January 22, 2010 @ 12:14 pm | Comment

A great post, Richard.

I too find that outside the small “liberal intelligentsia” few Chinese see censorship or the lack of rights that we take for granted, as a problem.

And why should we be surprised? The majority of the middle class in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany were actually willing to surrender these freedoms so long as their own personal well-being wasn’t threatened. Anything to keep the great unwashed in their place.

January 22, 2010 @ 1:08 pm | Comment

I disagree strongly with this post. A lot of younger more educated Chinese are using VPN’s and proxy servers. Computers are also becoming more available to Chinese.

I got here in 2006 and I knew no Chinese that used a proxy or VPN. When facebook and youtube were blocked, more and more Chinese asked me how to get access to these sites (I did not come to them). Now that google is leaving, the people have already started asking me again “How can I check my gmail?”

This perception is also shared by my Chinese friends. I think more people than you think disapprove of the GFW. Have you tried googling (or bing or baidu if you wish) for a site to download proxy server. They are all blocked. Why? Because they were so popular among the Chinese, people will tell all of their friends how to access it online and the government will soon find out about it. (PS its harder to monitor English websites ie facebook–or sites that at least include a language besides Chinese– sign up for renren.com or kaixin.wang. they won’t even let you put in an non-Chinese name). I’ve been told even Russian sites are being blocked now.

Read about VPN access online, because of this companies started charging more for this access, and their profits have jumped all over the world.

The point about google is not they their are some savior or infalible company, its that they have so many products people use. They have more products than a search engine–I use their maps to find transportation to work (Ding Ding always freezes), and Chinese people use these products. The more things that a blocked, regardless of whether its sensitive or not, the more people want to (and even pay to) get around it. A few years ago, even foreigners were willing to accept the block, because they still had access to what they actually used.

I think the point is not whether or google is a good or bad company, but whether or not people actually want access to information.(How do the Chinese that post on this site–even defending the government– access this site) Hatred of American is not hatred of freedom.

I think people do, and I think many Chinese are unaware how to get around firewall, or that it even exists. Wasn’t it recently that China called its internet the most open in the world? Thats a joke right… Well they were talking to foreigners of course, they were talking to the Chinese.

January 22, 2010 @ 1:19 pm | Comment

btw, that was quite an interesting blog and I added Chinayouren quickly to my rss reader.

January 22, 2010 @ 1:37 pm | Comment

I would still say the number of Chinese using VPNs is minuscule percentage-wise, though I can’t prove that. Of my Chinese friends, very few ever expressed dissatisfaction with the GFW. Those who did were the fluent English-speaking professionals, themselves a minority, and I never got the impression the censorship was a big deal even to them. To the contrary, these same people expressed some mystification over Americans’ obsession with censorship in China, and some resented it.

I know there are lots of exceptions. I’m talking about the majority of the 350 million netizens in China. I honestly believe with all my heart that the vast majority of them rarely use a proxy and are not looking for our help in circumventing the Great Firewall.

January 22, 2010 @ 1:38 pm | Comment

Holy crap. This is unrelated, but in my innocence I always thought “death by a thousand cuts” was merely an expression.

But now I stumbled across these photos:

http://turandot.ish-lyon.cnrs.fr/Event.php?ID=1&

Browse around the site for more…

Now I believe I’m ready to 1) puke for the next three days and 2) go and burn the Summer Palace myself…

I sure hope Mr Gao Zhisheng has been dispatched in a different way.

http://www.economist.com/blogs/banyan/2010/01/brave_gao_zhisheng_looks_have_been_disappeared

Yay China.

January 22, 2010 @ 2:17 pm | Comment

To be fair, death by a thousand cuts was, I believe, only carried out in cases of treason. And when Europeans began to comment on it, it had only been a century or so since hanging, drawing and quartering had been the common European punishment for the same crime:

“They would be hanged until half-dead, upon which their private parts would be cut off and burned in front of them. Still alive, their bowels and heart would be removed. Finally they would be decapitated and dismembered; their body parts would be publicly displayed, eaten by the birds as they rotted.”

January 22, 2010 @ 2:33 pm | Comment

Richard, thanks for the kind link.

@matt – You raise a valid point, I haven’t tried to estimate precisely how many Chinese people use proxies. I know that most Shanghai young netizens KNOW that there are proxies. Clearly, college guys know how to find their way to porn… but what interests me is not the knowledge, but the real use for any serious purpose such as access to diversified information. From what I have seen around me, very few Chinese search for censored charter 08 news or Tiananmen images.

I don’t think there is an easy way to measure this though, except doing surveys (larger than mine) which would probably be illegal in China anyway…

January 22, 2010 @ 3:57 pm | Comment

@Richard
“I honestly believe with all my heart that the vast majority of them rarely use a proxy and are not looking for our help in circumventing the Great Firewall.”

Now, you have reasons to leave us alone.Because we are not fxxking Chinese-American. This is a great idea for a movie ,say ,”China Hotel”,the counterpart of “Rwanda Hotel”.

What would the founder father say if he was alive today,there are only 10% countries live in full democratic.

We see G as a symbol.

January 22, 2010 @ 4:05 pm | Comment

I would add that the apathy of which Chinayouren speaks is, at least in part, a product of CCP propaganda and censorship. Besides, when has an apathetic populace ever advanced the cause of civilisation?

It’s a good website, though – been on my blogroll for a while.

January 22, 2010 @ 4:34 pm | Comment

[...] ler o trecho abaixo, pensei muito no Brasil. Por que? But listen, the sad reality is, the CCP’s systems of censorship [...]

January 22, 2010 @ 5:44 pm | Pingback

China Can Stonewall Google, but Its “Great Firewall” is Really a False Front

http://moneymorning.com/2010/01/21/google-china-dispute-2/

January 22, 2010 @ 6:35 pm | Comment

The use of VPN/Proxie may be small in %… up to now.

The recent Google affair seems to have raised awareness of the GFW among Chinese.

I an finding now more chinese blogs discussing how to jump the wall.

Even if after this increase the % still low, lets not forget that a small % in China makes quite a big number.

The GFW is going to be under some strain soon.

January 22, 2010 @ 6:39 pm | Comment

[...] of CHINAYOUREN has yet another well-written post surrounding the recent Google debacle. Richard of The Peking Duck praised it especially for doing a good job explaining why Chinese internet users in general [...]

January 22, 2010 @ 8:07 pm | Pingback

But listen, the sad reality is, the CCP’s systems of censorship are so effective not because they are diabolically sophisticated, but because… because the Chinese netizens can’t give a damn if they are being censored by their government or not.

Yup yup yup. And yup. Good find, Richard.

January 22, 2010 @ 10:37 pm | Comment

Some of the most Orwellian takes on reality posted here are by Chinese folks who live outside China and presumably enjoy access to a fuller range of information and analysis than available in the motherland. Ditto the whole fenqing movement of 2008.

To quote a Grateful Dead song (Black-Throated Wind), “You ain’t gonna learn what you don’t wanna know.”

January 22, 2010 @ 11:08 pm | Comment

If freedom of speech or the ability to effect societal change or the freedom to inquire or the ability to know the truth, if all these things don’t matter, then what is the point of life?

I really don’t understand Chinese people. Actually the poor ones are just like the poor everywhere, just focused on survival, but the richer ones, who should drag the country forward, still seem interested only in eating and f*****g.

Depressing.

January 22, 2010 @ 11:41 pm | Comment

Fortunately (or unfortunately) China is not run according to the will of its majority population. The small number of progressive and Western educated intellectuals have enormous influence over government policies. When this group of people reaches a consensus about Internet freedom, the GFW will come down. You don’t need to wait for the entire population to understand the importance of this issue.

This can be called progressive authoritarianism. Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan under martial law are all like that.

January 23, 2010 @ 12:07 am | Comment

The Net Nanny Blues. ( Censor me )

—————–
Censor me
Oh take me in your arms
Censor me
I want your tender charms
‘Coz I’m lonely and I’m blue
I need you and your love too

Come on and censor me
Come on baby and censor me
Come on baby and censor me
‘Coz I need you, by my side
Can’t you see that I’m lonely
Censor me

Come on and take my heart
Take your love and conquer every part
‘Coz I’m lonely and I’m blue
I need you and your love too

Come on and censor me
Come on baby and censor me
Come on baby and censor me
‘Coz I need you by my side
Can’t you see that I’m lonely

censor me
Oh take me in your arms
censor me
I want your tender charms
‘Coz I’m lonely and I’m blue
I need you and your love too
Come on and censor me
Come on baby, take me baby, hold me baby, love me baby
Can’t you see that I need you baby
Can’t you see that I’m lonely
censor me

Come on and take my hand
Come on baby and be my man
Cuz I love you cuz I want you
Can’t you see that I’m lonely?
take me baby
love me baby
need me baby
Can’t you see that I’m lonely?

January 23, 2010 @ 2:24 am | Comment

Ringtone of censor me.

http://tinyurl.com/y8v65du

January 23, 2010 @ 2:26 am | Comment

“We’re Committed To Remaining In China” – Eric Schmidt

http://online.wsj.com/article/BT-CO-20100121-717467.html?mod=WSJ_earnings_MIDDLETopHeadlines

How do you translate “既要当婊子,又要立牌坊。”?

January 23, 2010 @ 5:19 am | Comment

Poet, that link you gave – I wasn’t ready for anything that disgusting. I quickly got off that page.

Smatter: Now, you have reasons to leave us alone.Because we are not fxxking Chinese-American.

I want to give you a friendly warning, Smatter. Keep writing comments like this and you’ll be out.

January 23, 2010 @ 6:02 am | Comment

first time commenter, long time reader.

Interesting post, reminded me of a dissertation I wrote back in 2002, similar conclusion http://www.libertyparkusafd.org/lp/Hale/Special%20Reports/Internet%20Censorship/The%20Internet%20in%20China.pdf

Keep up the good work.

January 23, 2010 @ 8:43 pm | Comment

[...] I’d ike to point out a new comment in an earlier thread that includes the commenter’s 2002 dissertation on the GFW (PDF file). [...]

January 24, 2010 @ 2:29 am | Pingback

My wife’s nephew knows about the Gret Firewall and he knows how to get around it. So do, as I am told, the majority of his mates. He was 19 when he came to study here in NZ – a typical Chinese student. Incidently, yes, he’s an only child. But not an “emperor”, unlike how many in the media would like to portray them. He’s no different from any kid his age of any nationality or ethnicity. Indeed, today he studies by day and flips burgers by night for money.
The GFW is, like the Great Wall, not much of an obstacle (I get this information from The Great Wall – China against the World 1000BC – AD 2000 by Julia Lovell) – many people, with a modicum of nouse, can cross it and do. Whether they can be arsed is another topic.

January 24, 2010 @ 4:25 pm | Comment

China against the World

Automatically a trash source. I take it she thinks Mongolia and Manchuria are the world now?

The Great Wall did indeed serve as a barrier against constant Mongol raids- it slowed down their return home with plunder.

January 26, 2010 @ 5:49 am | Comment

Or perhaps it’s just a terrible title, designed to titillate a few culturally illiterate peons of the West.

January 26, 2010 @ 5:51 am | Comment

Have you read the book?

January 26, 2010 @ 6:19 am | Comment

“Have you read the book?”

That’s ‘game,set,and match’, old sport.

January 26, 2010 @ 8:52 am | Comment

Even if only a minority of Chinese people (‘if’ I say- I espouse no opinion on the matter) believe censorship is a big problem, it occurs to me that a hallmark of the spirit of democracy has to do with how minorities of any kind are handled in it’s midst. To cite one example, I would argue that Abe Lincoln who was accused of attacking democracy by cramming freedom from slavery down voters throats was doing precisely what he was accused of- violating the letter of the simple notion of democracy. The thing is- we realize that what he was doing was really saving democracy by rescuing the minority (in this case a distinguished racial minority- the black people) from the injustice of the majority will. In other-words- Democracy has on sort of a spiritual and cultural level – more to do with justice and egalitarianism especially to minorities in the midst of it’s will – than it does with response to majority rule. This is something that gets too little attention. For example- among those in China who might think censorship is a problem are likely to be included say for instance- Uyghur minorities during the riots, ethnic Tibetans, so dubbed ‘political dissidents’ of all stripes including but not limited to democracy advocates, Some Buddhists, Confucianisms and Taoists (If you feel dubious on this point and say the Buddhists, Taoists and Confucian scholars in China are content consider that in my short time there I knew a Taoist professor who I came to believe was decidedly fearful about expressing his true ideas and feelings due to political concerns. In other words- perhaps you don’t hear many complaints because complaints are not tolerated- not because everyone is happy.), Christians, Falun practitioners etc. How are these folks treated? How comfortable do they feel in their nation? Democracy is not enough. Frankly modern democracy is an interesting and meaningful moment in history, but humanity really needs something more. We should be striving for a more significant kind of harmony and mutual aid, affection and regard than any political idea can envisage. That is a large subject to broach here – but an easier point to make is simply this- though many Chinese may be satisfied with the level of freedom and prosperity they may presently enjoy – and though – decidedly that is a good sign; SHOULD they be satisfied with the levels of dignity and justice afforded to minorities in their midst? Each kind of person has their special place and dignity in this world. It shouldn’t be required for you to first be Han or Atheist or wealthy for example for you to enjoy some common framework of justice and dignity in a nation both culturally and legally. In the states we liberally preserve rights of all religions, ethnicity, ideas and political ideologies. At least that is the letter of the law- when it is carried out. I would argue the stability of the nation positively depends upon this fact- far from it being a source of danger to our political system. In the past- on multiple occasions failure to live up to such humane standards nearly tore our nation apart you will no doubt agree.

February 20, 2010 @ 5:53 am | Comment

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