Last December,. a seemingly ambiguous story in the People's Daily, a state-run English-language newspaper in China, exhorted the country's youth to clean up their text messaging habits. After being told that this relatively new form of communication had 'degenerated into a haven for invective, pornography, and insidious superstitious information aimed at fouling our social ideology,' adolescents interested in cleansing themselves were invited to enter a Decent Short Message Competition cosponsored by the prestigious Peking and Renmin Universities. The article concluded that 'in addition to such soft measures . . . necessary legal provisions should also be implemented.'
To those adept at reading between the lines of China's media, what happened next came as no surprise: Two months after the article was published, the Ministry of Public Security announced that it was rolling out a statewide text messaging monitoring system. It was just another example of how China's Communist Party is contradicting the Western assumption that free markets naturally lead to freer societies.
China already has the highest number of imprisoned journalists in the world -- at least 42, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. And, in large part because President Hu Jintao's economic reforms are leaving a disenfranchised (and vocal) lower class in their wake, the government has become even more paranoid, repressive, and -- with the help of U.S. technology-sophisticated.
In 2004, in areas far removed from the glass towers in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, there were tens of thousands of protests across China in response to everything from withheld pensions to land seizures to government corruption. In an effort to keep these minor uprisings from sparking a major political movement, authorities typically sealed off areas affected by bouts of unrest and detained print and broadcast journalists on the scene.
There are currently 80 million Chinese people connected to the Internet, however, and one out of every four people owns a cell phone, so simply exerting physical pressure on the more traditional news outlets was no longer adequate.
'We are reaching the point where Web-based information is acquiring a critical mass and totally bypassing traditional censorship,' says Guo Liang, a professor of social development at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. 'The government feels it cannot just let this happen.'
To remedy its problem, the Chinese government sought out a number of U.S. technology companies, including Cisco Systems, which has developed cutting-edge word recognition and filtering techniques that bar access to more than 250,000 Web sites (including pages hosted by Amnesty International and the BBC) and scans e-mail, online chat forums, and blogs for offending information. Armed with this new gadgetry and carte blanche to spy on whomever they want, the 30,000 human monitors who now track daily Internet usage have made China 'more successful than any other country' in censoring the Web, according to the Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
In addition to monitoring text messages, which internal security experts claim dissidents are increasingly relying on to organize themselves, there's also a plan under way to create a network of 100 satellites capable of visually monitoring every inch of Chinese territory by 2020. Designed to keep watch over the natural environment and monitor urban growth, the satellite network will also monitor 'various activities of society,' according to Shao Liqin, an official in the country's Ministry of Science and Technology.
Meanwhile, magazines and newspapers, still the most widely read media and the easiest to control, remain a primary target of government censors. Several leading journalists -- including Shi Tao, a former editor for the Contemporary Business News, who criticized the government's civil rights record -- have been imprisoned. And the government has banned coverage of some 50 intellectuals recently denounced in The Liberation Daily, a Communist Party mouthpiece, for trying to 'estrange the relationship between the party and intellectuals and between intellectuals and the masses.'
Because the Daily's list includes relatively soft critics of the government, such as rock star Cui Jian and novelist Jin Yong, many people have become even more fearful that their words will be misconstrued. 'Such self-censorship is probably the worst thing,' says Chu Tian, a journalist once associated with Southern Weekend, a newsweekly in southern Guangzhou province. The weekly's Web site was closed down in 2003 after it took on issues like homosexuality and workers' rights. 'The government has become completely arbitrary in dealing with the press,' Chu says. 'Now there is not even a line to toe. A piece might go unnoticed one day, but a similar or even milder article may get into trouble the next day. This makes people stay as close to the official position as possible.'
Still, Chu, who now runs a gay rights Web site, says that like many other journalists and activists, he's not going to be fazed by the government's latest crackdown on expression. Instead he chooses his words carefully and uses allegory and metaphor when he writes about controversial issues.
'It's like getting the Ping-Pong ball to just nick the table,' he says. 'You get to make the point, but barely. Luckily, readers have learned how to decode what we say -- to read our real feelings.'
Jehangir S. Pocha is the Beijing-based correspondent for The Boston Globe.