Surfing the Chinternet
What hides behind the "Great Firewall" of China?
7:30 AM, Jun 18, 2010 • By KELLEY CURRIE
Last week, the Chinese government issued a new propaganda piece in the form of a policy paper on its Internet control policies. It serves as a typical example of Beijing's Orwellian use of language and formalism to dress up its authoritarianism as legal and rational. In Beijing's alternate universe, the Chinese people have exactly as much Internet freedom as they need, and the real threat to their optimal online experience comes from spam, pornography, and "illegal information" that endangers state security.
A broad swath of what would be considered normal online speech in the West is proscribed like this in the piece's section on Internet "security:"
At the same time, the paper asserts that:
Somebody tell that to all those Chinese dissidents -- such as Liu Xiaobo -- who are currently in jail for "exercising their right to know, to participate to be heard" through online advocacy.
This effort by Beijing to go on the offensive, by characterizing its approach to regulating the Internet in such terms, has added fuel to the discussion both inside China, and among China-watch dogs and Internet freedom advocates who worry about the extent and nature of China's Internet censorship regime and how to best fight it. One of the more interesting items in this debate comes from the China Digital Times, which translated a posting by a Chinese blogger that uses the white paper's self-congratulatory statistics hilariously to analyze the government's efforts at "harmonizing" opinion on the Chinternet. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, the Chinese blogger analyzes the statistics the government provides on blogging to demonstrate that 98 percent of comments posted to Chinese websites are "harmonized," or deleted due to unauthorized content use. What is most interesting about this post is that it first appeared on the uber-nationalist Chinese blog Iron and Blood Forum, whose netizens generally reserve their criticism of the Chinese government to cases where they think the government is not standing up for Chinese interests vigorously enough. The blogger's mocking tone clearly demonstrates the user's strong level of awareness of, and frustration with, the blinkered nature of the Chinternet.
On the concept of "internet sovereignty," which sounds like an oxymoron but apparently is not, there is this interview by Evan Osnos, a Beijing-based reporter for the New Yorker, with Professor Tim Wu, which looks at the issue of the Chinese censorship regime as a restraint on trade. Wu, who is an expert on international law and the Internet, has the following to say on China's approach to "internet sovereignty:"
Rebecca McKinnon, one of the leading Western experts on the Chinternet, has also weighed in with a substantial and thought-provoking blog post on this issue. It is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand what China is up to with the Internet. In addition to an excellent quick analysis of the white paper, and very interesting comments on Chinese attitudes about Internet freedom, McKinnon makes this observation:
A consensus is emerging that the government has largely been successful in shaping the Chinternet as a parallel version of the Internet behind the "Great Firewall." The Chinternet provides an online experience that is heavily managed through a sophisticated, multi-layered approach that involves automatic keyword-based information control, extensive human monitoring, endemic self-censorship, large doses of government sponsored or supported content, and the cooperation of both Western and Chinese technology companies. Nevertheless, it is just loose enough that it meets the needs of most Chinese users and still presents a substantial space for public discussion and networking.
Lots of stuff to think about as we ponder the challenge by Gabriel Schoenfeld to get serious about using the Internet and online networking to support the spread of democracy.
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