Last Thursday the free world plunged into an uproar as it learned that the 20,000 journalists covering the Olympics in Beijing were not getting the full Internet access that China and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had promised. Kevan Gosper, the IOC's press chief, expressed surprise that some sensitive websites had been blocked by Chinese authorities. One of those "sensitive" sites, coincidentally, is the website of Radio Free Asia (RFA), my employer.
As someone whose full-time job is to bring uncensored news to China, I couldn't help being amused by the international outcry in general and by Mr. Gosper's expression of surprise in particular. They were shocked, shocked to find that there was censorship going on in China. Claude Rains would be proud.
While Mr. Gosper felt "personally galled" and "disappointed," he nevertheless attributed Internet crackdowns by Beijing to "a whole range of issues including threats of terrorism in the past few months" that have "traumatized" China.
The events of the past few months, including the Lhasa riot and the subsequent torch-relay debacle, may well have been traumatic to Beijing. The Chinese government's efforts to control the Internet, however, began way back in 1998 with the launch of the Golden Shield Project Also known as the Great Firewall of China, the first stage of the project was completed in 2006 at a cost of $800 million. It is the most technologically sophisticated system of Internet filtering in the world. Undesirable sites are blocked using methods such as URL filtering, IP blocking, DNS redirection, and connection reset.
Internet content filtering by China's 40,000 cyber-police targets not only the usual suspects - websites related to Tibet, Tiananmen, and Falun Gong - it also aims to protect Chinese citizens from one another. On July 27, the "Outlook" section of the Washington Post ran a feature titled "Rhymes Against the State," written by the eminent China scholar Perry Link. Quoting "slippery jingles" popular among China's masses, the article illustrates how these satirical poems serve as a safety valve for political discontent. Less than one week after its publication, the author learned that the Internet link to the article was blocked in China, making him, quite literally, a missing Link.
Last Friday, in the wake of worldwide condemnation over the broken promises by Beijing and the IOC, China unblocked some websites. For the first time in years, China-based Internet users were able to access Radio Free Asia without using proxy servers. But the Chinese people, the clever authors of those "slippery jingles," are such cynics. One of them left a comment on RFA's chat room bulletin board predicting that the accessibility will last only for the duration of the Games.