China’s Other Great Wall

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.

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