China's Other Great Wall

While the new superpower opens its doors to the world, its government cracks down on voices of dissent

| July / August 2005

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.'