Net Nanny’s Slip is Showing

I hesitate to resort to a blogging cliche, but Philip Pan’s latest piece in the Washington Post, on how the internet has fundamentally changed political discourse in today’s China, really is a must-read:

The top editors of the China Youth Daily were meeting in a conference room last August when their cell phones started buzzing quietly with text messages. One after another, they discreetly read the notes. Then they traded nervous glances.

Colleagues were informing them that a senior editor in the room, Li Datong, had done something astonishing. Just before the meeting, Li had posted a blistering letter on the newspaper’s computer system attacking the Communist Party’s propaganda czars and a plan by the editor in chief to dock reporters’ pay if their stories upset party officials.

No one told the editor in chief. For 90 minutes, he ran the meeting, oblivious to the political storm that was brewing. Then Li announced what he had done.

The chief editor stammered and rushed back to his office, witnesses recalled. But by then, Li’s memo had leaked and was spreading across the Internet in countless e-mails and instant messages. Copies were posted on China’s most popular Web forums, and within hours people across the country were sending Li messages of support.

The government’s Internet censors scrambled, ordering one Web site after another to delete the letter. But two days later, in an embarrassing retreat, the party bowed to public outrage and scrapped the editor in chief’s plan to muzzle his reporters.

The episode illustrated the profound impact of the Internet on political discourse in China, and the challenge that the Web poses to the Communist Party’s ability to control news and shape public opinion, key elements to its hold on power. The incident also set the stage for last month’s decision to suspend publication of Freezing Point, the pioneering weekly supplement that Li edited for the state-run China Youth Daily.

If you follow China news, you’re probably already familiar with the bare bones of this controversy. But what I found particularly illuminating in Pan’s piece were the explanations of how China’s net censorship system functions, and how, with ever-expanding web outlets for discussion, it’s almost impossible for the Cyber-Police to keep up, even with the help of cute cartoon cops:

Every Friday morning, executives from a dozen of China’s most popular Internet news sites are summoned downtown by the Beijing Municipal Information Office, an agency that reports to the party’s propaganda department.

The man who usually runs the meetings, Chen Hua, director of the Internet Propaganda Management Department, declined to be interviewed. But participants say he or one of his colleagues tells the executives what news they should keep off their sites and what items they should highlight in the week ahead…

…The meetings are part of a censorship system that includes a blacklist of foreign sites blocked in China and filters that can stop e-mail and make Web pages inaccessible if they contain certain keywords. Several agencies, most notably the police and propaganda authorities, assign personnel to monitor the Web.

The system is far from airtight. Software can help evade filters and provide access to blacklisted sites, and Internet companies often test the censors’ limits in order to attract readers and boost profits. If an item isn’t stopped by the filters and hasn’t been covered in the Friday meetings, the government can be caught off guard.

That is what happened with Li Datong’s letter. Minutes after he posted it, people in the newsroom began copying it and sending it to friends via e-mail and the instant messaging programs used by more than 81 million Chinese.

“We had to move quickly, before they started blocking it,” recalled one senior editor, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Pu Zhiqiang, a lawyer and advocate of journalists’ rights, said he received a copy at 10:20 a.m., 11 minutes after Li posted the original. He forwarded it to 300 people by e-mail and sent it to others using Microsoft’s MSN Messenger program. Then he began posting it on some of the bulletin board sites that have proliferated in China.

At 11:36 a.m., Pu put the memo on a popular forum called Yannan. Then he noticed that someone had posted a copy on another part of the site.

About the same time, the editors’ meeting at the China Youth Daily ended and Li Erliang rushed back to his office. Colleagues said he contacted superiors in the propaganda department and the Communist Youth League after reading the memo.

Neither the government’s censors nor the editors at the major Web sites had begun deleting the letter, yet. Some editors said they waited because it didn’t challenge the party’s authority or discuss subjects that were clearly off-limits, such as the Tiananmen Square massacre. At the same time, the official censors either failed to spot the memo or hesitated to act because they were worried that some senior officials might support Li Datong’s views, editors said.

As they waited, the letter continued to spread.

At 12:17 p.m., it appeared on an overseas news site run by the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, and minutes later on others managed by exiled dissidents. These sites are blocked in China, but many people access them using software that slips past the government’s firewall.

By 1:30 p.m., a prominent blogger, Li Xinde, had downloaded the memo. He said he sent it using China’s top instant messaging service, QQ, to more than 20 chat groups, each with 30 to 40 members. By 2 p.m., the memo had been posted on popular university Web sites.

The document was spreading so fast that many people received multiple copies. A writer in Anhui province said that when he went online to check his e-mail at 2:30 p.m., four friends immediately offered to send him the memo on MSN Messenger. But two copies were already in his inbox, including one that had been sent to 1,000 people.

It was midafternoon before someone in the party bureaucracy decided Li Datong’s letter should be removed from Chinese cyberspace and government officials began calling executives at the major Web sites.

Some said they were contacted by the Beijing Municipal Information Office, others by its national-level counterpart, the State Council Information Office. None reported receiving a formal notice or any legal justification for the decision. As usual, they were just told to delete the offending material…

…Even as Li’s memo began disappearing from some Web sites, it went up on others the authorities had not contacted. Shortly before 10 p.m., it was posted on the popular Tianya forum. At 11 p.m., it became a featured item on Bokee, China’s top blog and portal site.

Almost everywhere the letter appeared, users added hundreds of comments backing the reporters of the China Youth Daily. Inside the newsroom, spirits were buoyed. Some journalists posted notes on the internal computer system supporting Li Datong.

The next morning, officials continued calling Web sites, but readers started posting the memo on sites that had already removed it. Some Web site managers said they tried to drag their feet or leave copies on less prominent pages. One said the memo was viewed 30,000 times before he took it down.

But other Web sites added Li Datong’s name to keyword filters used to block sensitive material from being posted.

Looks like the censors may need to to hire more cartoon police…

The Discussion: 6 Comments

It’s all so inevitable. A complete waste of time ,money, resources etc…… really. I’ve always wondered why they don’t put all of these people to good use cleaning up the country or something.

February 19, 2006 @ 2:05 pm | Comment

Dang, I was still editing when your comment showed up!

IMO, Hu’s media crackdown is the single biggest mistake and most counter-productive thing he’s done – and so ill-conceived that it makes me question his competency to guide China through a very complicated era…

And those cartoon cops are just creepy.

February 19, 2006 @ 2:08 pm | Comment

Information on the internet now spreads faster than gossip in a Chinese village.

February 19, 2006 @ 11:53 pm | Comment

If the CCP can’t stop it, who can?

February 20, 2006 @ 12:11 am | Comment

Well said, Kevin. The internet enables a quicker dissemination of information than any other previous form of communication. And the CCP is fighting a losing battle.

Lisa, it might be pointless but he had to do it to keep face in the Party. After all, there’s no way the CCP can survive if people were free to criticise it – it would just come crashing down eventually.

Perhaps this is a desperate attempt to cling on to power, rather than just a blip on their otherwise “iron grip”.

February 20, 2006 @ 12:09 pm | Comment

I hear ya, Raj. I try to keep that possiblity open. I really hope that it’s true.

February 20, 2006 @ 11:39 pm | Comment

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.