1996 was dubbed China’s “Year of the Internet.” Only 150,000 people were connected, roughly one in 10,000. The vast majority of the mainland had never seen a computer and there were 17 people for every available phone line.
A computer engineer in his 30s, dubbed Comrade X, told Wired magazine in 1996 that the regime was determined to control the flow of information. “People are used to being wary”, he said, “and the general sense that you are under surveillance acts as a disincentive. The key to controlling the net in China is in managing people, and this is a process that begins the moment you purchase a modem.”
In just over a decade, the Communist country has become the world’s largest internet market with well over 210 million users – adding six million newbies a month – and developed a burgeoning scene that has connected disparate segments of a fractured society.
Gamers in rural areas play with city dwellers. Boys in major cities connect with girls on the other side of the country. Local officials are forced to respond to citizen’s complaints and needs. The web has increased transparency but also allowed authorities to better monitor what its citizens are thinking and writing. There are only a tiny percentage of Chinese actively involved in the political process advocating for democratic change.
The Chinese Community Party, with the assistance of Western internet firms, has established a sophisticated filtering system, known as the “Great Firewall” or the “Golden Shield.” It blocks and censors countless websites from within China and overseas, physically monitoring all information coming in and out of the country. Routers are employed to detect problematic keywords, from Taiwan to Tibet and democracy to Falun Gong. The regime is rumoured to have up to 30,000 individuals checking daily for “harmful information”. The system, however, is not infallible and many web users utilise proxies to circumvent the filtering.
The exact extent of the censorship is impossible to determine but leaks occasionally provide an insight into the mind of the regime’s paranoia. “Working instructions” from a propaganda unit emerged in early 2008 that detailed the requirements to be implemented. Some examples:
- On the assassination of [Pakistani politician Benazir] Bhutto, only report on the objective occurrences and reactions from various parties, do not associate the event with Pakistan’s internal struggles, or with Pakistani terrorist forces, thus avoiding attracting fire onto ourselves and getting involved in Pakistan’s internal problems.
- Strengthen positive guidance. Web sites should proactively guide public opinion in a positive way, highlight positive voices and create a pro-NPC online environment.
The vast majority of Chinese web users are interested in downloading films, chatting to boys and girls and playing online games. I discovered during my investigations in China in 2007 that the issue of censorship didn’t greatly bother many citizens. They knew it existed and they found ways around it. Nobody told me they felt repressed or silenced. Although most people I met were aware of filtering employed by the regime, they didn’t really understand how many sites were being blocked. Ignorance was the key driver in their attitudes. Human rights activists viewed the system radically differently, of course, but the average blogger and web user was kept blissfully clueless thanks to a supine state media.
The Western media’s obsession with the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre has clouded the ability of outsiders to cover the undoubted societal advances since that fateful event. Think-tanks are flourishing. Environmentalists are able to launch public campaigns. Local bloggers rally around parents who have had children stolen to work as slaves in brick kilns. Internet majors such as Google are being challenged for their collusion with officials, though CNN was recently caught appeasing Chinese sentiments over its perceived pro-Tibetan stance.
Despite these advances, China’s human rights record remains deeply troubling. Its control over the internet is being copied around the world. The approaching Beijing Olympic Games has revealed the regime’s true colours with leading dissidents arrested and charged on spurious charges of “subverting” the state. Hu Jia is the leading example of this trend and is awaiting sentence soon.
“Why can’t China accept that dissent and argument are part of being a normal country?”, asks leading Hong Kong-based academic and former CNN journalist Rebecca MacKinnon. “Why behave in such an insecure manner that violates international human rights norms, damages China’s international image, and distracts media attention away from the Chinese people’s genuine accomplishments over the past 30 years – as well as from the excitement of the sports competition itself?”
The August Games provide a unique opportunity to highlight China’s inherent contradictions. It is at once desperate to impress a sceptical world that it’s genuine about entering the global conversation on trade, the environment and human rights but conscious that its excesses have the possibility to expose its deeply engrained authoritarianism. Its recent crackdown on Tibetan protestors resulted in international calls to boycott the Olympic opening ceremony in protest.
The regime promised in 2007 to maintain “socialism for 100 years”, dashing any hopes of speedy democratic reforms. Internal dissent, routinely expressed through blogs and online forums, is an encouraging sign that citizens will no longer remain silent in the face of economic and political hardship. The internet may not revolutionise the nation but it will be continue to connect a young population unwilling to accept the doctrines of previous generations.
Antony Loewenstein is a Sydney-based journalist, blogger and author.