The latest in the saga triggered by the Google cyber-attack. China’s Great Wall has stood the test of time and in many ways, shaped Chinese thought – insular and superior, is best. Let’s see how the ‘Great Firewall’ stands up to the test of modern pressures. I suspect it will hold. But just like how China’s northern neighbours found opportunity from time to time to creep in, and invade, China’s new wall surely cannot keep everything in, especially if its own people want to get out.
Quotable Quotes – “Basically, in China, the Internet is mainstream media. Whatever happens on the Internet, the whole nation knows, and that gets on the government’s nerves.” Professor Xiao Qiang, China Internet Project at the University of California at Berkeley
Highlights -“China has the most Internet users in the world – 384 million by the end of last year – and there are more than 150 new users every minute. Ordinary Chinese use the Internet for work, chatting, games and entertainment. Increasingly, many also use it to rally around social causes…”
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Up against the ‘Great Firewall’
By Sim Chi Yin
Source – The Malaysian Insider, 24 Jan 2010
JAN 24 – Each time Web portal executive Li (not his real name) receives an e-mail from his political masters telling him to remove certain posts and articles, he curses under his breath – and then immediately carries out the orders.
Heavy-handed – and tightening – censorship was a key reason cited by international cyber giant Google for possibly quitting China, the world’s largest Internet market.
But it is a daily reality for the thousands of fresh-faced Chinese who work in China’s “Silicon Valley”, Zhongguancun, in west Beijing.
Mostly graduates of top local universities, many struggle with the sort of “schizophrenia” Li professes to have – yearning for free flow of information but having to block an ever-growing list of “sensitive” words and content.
Even as United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a loud call for global Internet freedom last Thursday, foreign Internet companies in China, including Google, play by the same rules as local firms – for sheer survival.
Beijing-based technology analyst Kaiser Kuo noted: “There’s widespread acceptance of it. It’s just how business is done here.”
But enough is enough, said Google, whose dramatic move was apparently triggered by an audacious hacking attack, originating from China, on it and more than 30 other US companies.
The world’s leading search engine company, which had drawn much flak for agreeing to self-censor when it set up shop in China in 2006, said more than a week ago that it would stop filtering search results on Google.cn
Google, which has about one-third of the Chinese search market compared with chief rival Baidu’s 60 per cent, might shut down its China operations if the negotiations it is seeking with Beijing fail.
Former Google China executive Dan Brody, who left the company in 2008, said: “Inside the company, we were never fully comfortable with the censorship, but we thought offering something was better than nothing. It was distasteful but overall we saw a net positive. And we said we’d continue to monitor the situation.”
Beijing-based Brody, who is now chief executive of Internet investment firm Koolanoo Group, added: “Now the calculus has changed. It’s got more, rather than less, difficult, so it’s become a net negative.”
There is little doubt the screws of control have tightened of late in Chinese cyberspace’s “most bitter winter”, as blogger Tan Yifei put it.
Since the start of last year, Beijing has been carrying out a crackdown on “vulgar” websites, ostensibly aimed at stopping rampant pornography in Chinese cyberspace, but also netting politically sensitive content.
In the past year, the authorities have also started blocking Web 2.0 social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, and some of their Chinese equivalents like Fanfou.com.
“They are more worried about sites that allow dissemination of information among many to many,” noted Kuo.
Beijing has been trying to control cyber access since it wired up ordinary Chinese to the Internet back in 1995.
When an initial plan in 1996 to get all Internet subscribers to register with their local police became untenable because of the ballooning population of users, Beijing introduced the “Golden Shield Project”, which had public security officials playing gatekeepers online.
Today, a two-tier system exists. The first – “Great Firewall” – uses keyword filtering technology or human monitors to trawl the Internet and block objectionable material. A list obtained by the China Internet Project at the University of California at Berkeley found that more than 1,000 words were automatically banned on China’s online forums, including “dictatorship”, “truth” and “riot police”.
The second and “more pernicious form”, noted Kuo, is that which “compels companies under pain of shutdown to enforce their own censorship”.
This strategy, which Beijing has increasingly relied on in recent years, holds Internet service and access providers responsible for their users’ behaviour.
“Not a single day goes by” without such directives from several Chinese Communist Party and government agencies, all of which have their own Internet-monitoring arms, said a Chinese Internet company executive who has been in the business for a decade. Not enforcing them swiftly means the company may have “points” docked and its licence not renewed.
Even seemingly non-political social networking sites like kaixin001.com – a Chinese site similar to Facebook – are said to employ an army of hundreds of human censors.
China has the most Internet users in the world – 384 million by the end of last year – and there are more than 150 new users every minute. Ordinary Chinese use the Internet for work, chatting, games and entertainment. Increasingly, many also use it to rally around social causes.
Professor Xiao Qiang, head of the Berkeley project, noted: “Basically, in China, the Internet is mainstream media. Whatever happens on the Internet, the whole nation knows, and that gets on the government’s nerves.”
Some Internet company employees flinch from having to enforce these rules. Others “just do as the Communist Party says”, as another Internet company employee put it.
Even among users, some of whom presented bouquets – literally – to Google for finally standing up to Beijing’s censorship, many see little meaning in such an affront.
As Baidu’s chief product designer Sun Yunfeng said in a Jan 14 blog post that was quickly removed: “Every enterprise or every individual must dance with shackles. Actually it’s the same in other countries, just a difference in degree.”
Some two-thirds, or 66 per cent, of Chinese surveyed in January 2008 in a University of Maryland poll said they “should have the right to read whatever is on the Internet”.
But another poll by the Pew Research Centre in the US and the official Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, published in the same year, showed that more than 80 per cent of respondents thought the Internet should be managed or controlled.
Kuo noted: “Many in China who appear cosmopolitan and are perhaps even Western-educated still accept the argument that throwing open the floodgates and allowing a fully free Internet could destabilise society.”
Lin Jun, author of a new book on the history of the Internet in China, said: “It’s understandable that the authorities want to control the Internet. The leaders who made certain political decisions in the recent past that they don’t want the public to discuss are still around.”
But he added: “Information flow really cannot be blocked. People who have higher aspirations for more information can always fan qiang.” This is a Chinese netizens’ term for “scale the wall” – using software and Web-based proxies.
Their ranks are probably growing. But the average Chinese – like office worker Qiu Yun, 35 – does not try his or her luck, out of an amorphous fear of Big Brother. On Jan 14, when Google.cn’s image search temporarily appeared unfiltered, she saw – wide-eyed – the iconic 1989 photograph of a Chinese man confronting a line of army tanks at Tiananmen Square for the very first time.
Beijing’s cyber censorship regime is getting more powerful, but it is also “creating many more enemies”, said Prof Xiao.
Li and other reluctant cogs in the machine plod on with a resigned optimism.
“Ordinary Chinese are getting smarter. We use homonyms to mock officials’ words until they are embarrassed to use those same terms,” he said.
“Anyway, good things live on for a longer time. Bad things die off.” – Straits Times