China: 40.000 Police Officers Monitor the Internet

March 22nd, 2012   Theme: Internet Freedom

China is not only the country in the world with most people but also with the highest amount of internet users. The most recent numbers indicate between 300 and 400 million users. The increase since the year before is estimated to be about 80 million and Chinese is the second most frequent language on the internet.

Most Chinese internet users have no political ambition when surfing on the Internet. They visit life style blogs, gossip at web forums, watch web TV and play online games. Computer gaming is especially popular and it happens that young Chinese gamers, at a fee, watch western gamers avatars in games such as World of Warcraft.

There is, however, a minority which uses internet for political purposes. They use blogs and discussion forums and exchange views via e-mail and social media. For those users, internet has become a sort of safe haven. One reason for this is that Chinese censors have for several years lagged behind in the technological development, but also that the authorities, to some degree, tolerates dissident views on the net. As long as activists don’t try to organize oppositional groups or reach out to a larger audience, they have generally been left alone. Though, several longer prison terms show what happens to those who step over this line.

Lately, the Chinese government has responded to the increased interest in the world wide web by developing the Golden Shield Projects, sometimes jokingly referred to as the Great Firewall of China, an extensive system aimed at controlling internet content. Authority control includes censoring search engines and blocking homepages. In addition, tens of thousands of internet polices keep homepages and discussion forums under observation.

Sensitive material and unwanted web pages have shown a tendency to disappear and once a web discussion is moving in the wrong direction, internet police are bound to intervene with ideologically correct comments in order to manipulate conversation. The most extensive control, is, however, done through self-censorship. Some issues are best avoided in order to avoid trouble.

In 2006, Google was criticised by human rights organizations and Chinese dissident for accepting the Chinese censorship laws when establishing in China. For instance, the company name was jokingly transformed into Goolag. At the beginning of 2010, Google reported being subject to a sophisticated web attack orchestrated by China. At least two Chinese dissidents had had their G-mail-accounts hacked. In addition, dozens of human rights activists had suffered computer intrusion through planted computer viruses and similar techniques. A week later, Google announced its decision to withdraw from China. The chief legal officer David Drummond commented the decision:

”We want to stay in the Chinese market; we just don’t want to filter our search results anymore. We were always uncomfortable with China having censored our search results. We thought by being there we could be a force of openness. In fact, that has not happened. Things have gotten tighter.” (The Guardian, January 25, 2010)

This statement caused vivid debate in China. Some celebrate Google’s stand against censorship and flowers have been placed outside the Google office in Beijing. Others defend state censorship claiming that it plays a vital role in preserving national stability. Yet others note that Google’s withdrawal from China was due to business reasons, not censorship. The company is bleeding money and has, after five years in the Chinese market, still not been able to put up a fight against market leading competitor Baidu. Some of the comments in favour of censorship are most likely planted by the regime whereas others reflect real support for the government.

Whatever the reason for Google to leave China, the conditions for internet users have gotten harsher. Some events in 2009 serve as examples:

– In June 2009, the Chinese government issues a decree that all computer manufacturers in the country must install the censor software Green Dam Youth Escort in newly produced computers. After intense protests, the decree has been changed, now stating that the software does not need to be installed but should be enclosed with each computer.

– In connection to the riots in the western province of Xinjiang in July 2009, all internet links from the region were severed. This meant an escalation of the internet control which was first launched in Tibet in the spring of 2008, when parts of the network were blocked.

– Many sites are only accessible within certain time frames. These sites include Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Youtube and Hotmail. The blocking is especially noticeable at sensitive occasions such as the twenty year anniversary of the Massacre of the Tiananmen Square at the beginning of June 2009.In December 2009, the regime launches a police campaign, officially targeting internet pornography, which, according to official reports result in 5.394 arrest, most of them leading to prosecution. The fight against pornography is one way of achieving the greater goal of a clean and harmonic society. In larger cleaning campaigns such as this one, the limits are far from sharp between pornography and other kinds of spiritual smear.

The Chinese authorities have proven to gradually take internet more seriously which is likely to imply an increased control. It is nevertheless important to remember that China is a quite pragmatic dictatorship. The censorship is of course about preventing dangerous ideas of democracy from reaching the general public, but it is also about preventing organized protest to reach beyond the control of the government. Examples of the latter were the protests following the milk scandal in 2008, where approximately 300.000 children were poisoned when drinking dry milk, polluted by melamine and the protests after the earth quake in the Sichuan province n 2008 where many school children were killed when poorly constructed schools collapsed.

Dissidents will likely be able to work on the internet also in the future, as long as they are careful and don’t try to reach out to too many. There are also several known techniques for side stepping the censorship – at least partially. From the perspective of the regime, it would be too expensive to track down every loophole. And to strike down on every critical voice would not be in accordance to the Chinese overall goal, besides stability: i.e. a sustainable high economic growth.

Nils Hedberg
Nils Hedberg has followed the developments in China during the last ten years and holds a master’s degree in Chinese. nils@nilshedberg.com.

Read (in Swedish) what the Magazine OmVärlden wrote about Chinese micro bloggers March 21, 2012.

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