Wednesday, December 5, 2007

China's "Mental Firewall"

Today’s Wall Street Journal reported on bloggers in China and touched on two important issues discussed previously on the Ethical Blogger: trust and credibility on the Internet in China and the blogger Zola’s influential corruption coverage. The main emphasis of today’s WSJ article, however, was on the role of self-censorship, rather than government controls, as a hurdle to free speech on the Internet:

China’s 162 million Internet users are a largely young and wealthy set who typically aren’t engaged in politics. Most don’t seem intent on accessing the sort of content that would upset the authorities. They are busy amassing virtual weapons in online games and posting photos to blogs.

But when content does get political, the government doesn’t have to do all the censoring itself…

China’s Confucian values teach respect for authority and the subordination of the individual to the family and state. In China’s rigid education system, young people rarely are encouraged to express their opinions. And people have learned to keep quiet as political orthodoxies changed with the wind over the decades, with leaders coming into power, then falling out of favor as new regimes installed themselves. Finding yourself on the wrong side could lead to punishment, including exile and jail.

The Chinese government has made it very clear to the public that the tradition of harsh punishment for dissidence extends into cyberspace. In addition to placing rigid barriers to market entry on Internet companies, making it difficult for independent Internet service and content providers to compete with State controlled entities, the Chinese government has laid out rigid regulations for companies and individual Internet users to follow. Companies that skirt the rules can be subject to fines of up to RMB 50,000, closure of sites, and revocation of business licenses, while in extreme cases, individual cyberdissidents have been sentenced to life in prison or the death penalty. This alone has deterred a number of Internet users from pushing their limits.

In some instances the line between self-censorship and government censorship is blurred. A May 2006 New York Times article entitled “As Chinese Students Go Online, Little Sister Is Watching spotlights Hu Yingying, a student at Shanghai Normal University who monitors the university’s discussion boards and steers conversation away from politics or other sensitive topics:

Part traffic cop, part informer, part discussion moderator — and all without the knowledge of her fellow students — Ms. Hu is a small part of a huge national effort to sanitize the Internet. For years China has had its Internet police, reportedly as many as 50,000 state agents who troll online, blocking Web sites, erasing commentary and arresting people for what is deemed anti-Communist Party or antisocial speech.

But Ms. Hu, one of 500 students at her university's newly bolstered, student-run Internet monitoring group, is a cog in a different kind of force, an ostensibly all-volunteer one that the Chinese government is mobilizing to help it manage the monumental task of censoring the Web.

These tactics haven’t completely eliminated sensitive political discussion. Cyberdissidents in China use email spamming techniques to dispense information. Li Hongkuan, who goes by the alias Richard Long, began sending a newsletter called VIP Reference News out to roughly 250,000 people in via email. His newsletter is actually a banned website, but Li is able to provide his otherwise unavailable information to the masses because email recipients can claim that it was unsolicited and avoid punishment (although some suppliers of email addresses were jailed). Other modern communications tools like text messaging have been crucial to organizing protests, and since cell phone use is more widespread than the Internet in China’s rural areas, this may for now be a better tool for disseminating information and mobilizing the masses.

So perhaps blogs don’t provide complete insight into the spectrum of controversial activities going on in authoritarian regimes, as dissidents may be finding it more beneficial to spread their influence through multiple communications outlets.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

all hail communism