Thursday, April 08, 2010

End Game China

A New York Times article about how "China's Censors Tackle and Trip over the Internet" presents a more complex view of how Internet censorship operates in the country than many of the stories about Google, China, and restrictions on free speech that have appeared in the media during the last year. The team of reporters who produced this investigative piece explain the role in managing popular opinion of large labor pools of human minders who spread counter-propaganda and patriotic messages in detail, They also provide more context for automatically generated high-tech solutions that often prove too dumb to be effective, as in the case of software that filters out queries based on the Chinese word for "carrot" out of fear that computer users will find subversive materials about China's president, whose name uses the same character as this common word. The story also notes that China's censorship brigades "are increasingly a model for countries around the world that want to control an unrestricted Internet."

Today, China censors everything from the traditional print press to domestic and foreign Internet sites; from cellphone text messages to social networking services; from online chat rooms to blogs, films and e-mail. It even censors online games.

That’s not all. Not content merely to block dissonant views, the government increasingly employs agents to peddle its views online, in the guise of impartial bloggers and chat-room denizens. And increasingly, it is backing state-friendly clones of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, all Western sites that have been blocked here for roughly a year.

The government’s strategy, according to Mr. Bandurski and others, is not just to block unflattering messages, but to overwhelm them with its own positive spin and rebuttals.

The government makes no apologies for what it calls “guiding public opinion.” Regulation is crucial, it says, to keep China from sliding into chaos and to preserve the party’s monopoly on power.

“Whether we can cope with the Internet is a matter that affects the development of socialist culture, the security of information, and the stability of the state,” President Hu said in 2007.

In China’s view, events since then — including the online spread of the democracy manifesto known as Charter 08 and riots in the Tibet and Xinjiang regions, said to be aided by cellphone and Internet communications — have only reinforced that stance.

In the last year, censorship has increased markedly, as evidenced by the closing of thousands of blogs and Web sites in ostensible anti-pornography campaigns, and the jailing of prominent dissidents who used the Internet to spread their views. The departure of Google’s search engine in March only capped months of growing intolerance of unfettered speech.

The paradox — at least at first glance — is that even with such pervasive restraints, China’s press and Internet are capable of freewheeling discourse and social criticism.

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