The great firewall of China

My following article appeared in yesterday’s Guardian Comment is Free section:

In a country where the government maintains a tight grip on information across all media formats, recent statements by a senior Chinese Communist party official were revealing.

Wang Guoqing, a vice-minister with the cabinet’s information office, said that mobile phones and the internet were making the job of censors almost impossible. “It has been repeatedly proved that information blocking is like walking into a dead end,” he said.

Mr Wang chastised local governments for still believing information could be kept secret when, he said, they should see their roles as controlling and managing information rather than simply hiding embarrassing news.

There is a growing realisation within the world’s largest nation that China’s massive online population wants to discuss issues that were taboo only a few years ago. A collection of websites across the country has started to debate endemic corruption of low-level officials, environmental degradation and product regulation. The situation is far more complex than the portrayals by many western observers suggest. This doesn’t mean, however, that the Chinese authorities will accept these changes without a fight.

Take the recent news that authorities in the town of Xiamen are planning to force local bloggers to register with real names. As‘s China blogs dryly noted: “This, of course, has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that the internet [played] a huge role in the protests that roiled the city in early June when thousands of residents poured on to the streets to denounce a plan to build a chemical factory in a Xiamen suburb.”

It would be practically impossible to implement such rules, but this hasn’t stopped local officials talking about it anyway.

Gary Wang is founder of Tudou, China’s equivalent of YouTube. He told me in Shanghai that government officials called virtually weekly to demand that one video or another be pulled. According to bureaucrats in the censorship department, “red lines” are routinely crossed. Despite 60 million clips viewed daily and 40 million users per month, Wang recognised that the authorities were fighting a battle they could never win, but were unlikely to give up any time soon. It was simply a price of doing business in the country.

It’s something I noticed myself in China, too. There is a profound disconnect between President Hu Jintao‘s calls in January for the internet to only “spread more information that is in good taste” and the reality on the ground. At internet cafes in both Beijing and Shanghai, I saw users accessing softcore pornography and western news sites that are allegedly blocked. The task of monitoring around 140 million net users is an impossibility – something more senior officials may be starting to realise.

With the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games just over one year away, these issues are becoming more relevant than ever. Will the government care that the hordes of foreigners coming for the Olympics may be unable to access vital information online? Perhaps filtering will magically disappear for the two-week event or simply be drastically curtailed. Such “unblocking procedures” are a regular occurrence. For example, the long-banned English Wikipedia is supposedly now available, though last week it was still inaccessible. As one blogger told me, trying to impose logic on a system that was ultimately controlled by the whims of a faceless bureaucrat was pointless.

The rise of China and its massive environmental challenges is already causing some in the west to claim that these problems will keep it from becoming a truly global super-power. This is probably wishful thinking. Controls over the internet (along with blocks on satellite television) may be signs of a nation that is struggling to define itself in the 21st century, but a weakened post-Iraq America suits the Chinese authorities just fine. After all, it was only recently that armchair economists predicted Japan would be the world’s next major player. China doesn’t want to make the same mistakes.

Spend any time with bloggers, writers or journalists and you’ll soon discover that Internet filtering is little more than a distraction, an issue to be circumvented.

Text and images ©2023 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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