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June 23, 2006

New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof tugs on [the Chinese internet firewall] Superman's cape


His New York Times Op-Ed page column of this past Tuesday was music to my ears.

In it, he related how he tried to put up highly inflammatory material on a Chinese-language blog he created so as to provoke one of the country's estimated 30,000 paid internet censors to block his website.

Long story short: regardless of what he wrote, no matter how counterrevolutionary — including, for his grand finale, his eyewitness description of "how, on June 4, 1989, I saw the Chinese Army fire on Tiananmen Square protesters," the material appeared on his blog.

As Kristof wrote, "even 30,000 censors can't keep up with 120 million Chinese Netizens."

Here's the piece.

    In China It's ******* vs. Netizens

    To test the limits of the Internet in China, I started a couple of Chinese blogs — in which I huff and puff as outrageously as I can.

    For a country that employs some 30,000 Internet censors, that turned out to be stunningly easy. In about 10 minutes, I started Ji Sidao's blog — that's my Chinese name — on two Chinese Web hosts, at no cost and without providing any identification.

    Writing in Chinese, I began by denouncing the imprisonment of my Times colleague, Zhao Yan, by the Chinese authorities. I waited for it to be censored. Instead, it promptly appeared on my blog.

    In frustration, I wrote something even more provocative: a call for President Hu Jintao to set an example in the fight against corruption by publicly disclosing his financial assets. To my astonishment, that wasn't censored either.

    Desperate, I mentioned Falun Gong, the religious group that is the Chinese government's greatest enemy: "In Taiwan, the Chinese people have religious freedom. So in the Chinese mainland, why can't we discuss Falun Gong?" That instantly appeared on both my blogs as well, although on one the characters for "Falun" were replaced by asterisks (functioning as pasties, leaving it obvious what was covered up).

    Finally, I wrote the most inflammatory comment I could think of, describing how on June 4, 1989, I saw the Chinese Army fire on Tiananmen Square protesters. The two characters for June 4 were replaced by asterisks, but the description of the massacre remained intact.

    These various counterrevolutionary comments, all in Chinese, are still sitting there in Chinese cyberspace at http://blog.sina.com.cn/u/1238333873 and http://jisidao.blog.sohu.com. (When State Security reads this, it may finally order my blogs closed.)

    All this underscores, I think, that China is not the police state that its leaders sometimes would like it to be; the Communist Party's monopoly on information is crumbling, and its monopoly on power will follow. The Internet is chipping away relentlessly at the Party, for even 30,000 censors can't keep up with 120 million Chinese Netizens. With the Internet, China is developing for the first time in 4,000 years of history a powerful independent institution that offers checks and balances on the emperors.

    It's not that President Hu Jintao grants these freedoms, for he has arrested dozens of cyberdissidents as well as journalists. But the Internet is just too big and complex for State Security to control, and so the Web is beginning to assume the watchdog role filled by the news media in freer countries.

    A year ago, I wrote about a blogger named Li Xinde who travels around China with his laptop, reporting on corruption and human-rights abuses. I hailed Mr. Li as an example of the emerging civil society in China — and the government promptly closed down his Web site. I wondered if I had overstated the challenge.

    But today Mr. Li is as active as ever. His Web sites are constantly closed down, but the moment a site is censored he replaces it with a new one. An overseas master site, www.lixinde.com, tells people the best current address.

    "They can keep closing sites, but they never catch up," Mr. Li told me. "You can't stop the Yellow River from flowing, and you can't block the bloggers."

    In today's China, young people use proxy software to reach forbidden sites and Skype to make phone calls without being tapped — and the local Web pornography is relentless and explicit, ranging from sex videos to nude online chats.

    "We're very relaxed now on pornography, but on politics it's very tight," said Yao Bo, a censor at a major chat-room site in China. He explained how the censorship works for a chat room:

    Filtering software automatically screens the several hundred thousand comments typically posted on his Web site every day. Comments with a banned word go into a special queue, but Mr. Yao says he ends up posting all but the most subversive of these — his Web site, after all, wants to be provocative to attract visitors. State Security periodically scolds him for his laxity, but he seems unconcerned: "I just tell them I'm dumb about politics."

    China's leaders decided years ago to accept technologies even if they are capable of subversive uses: photocopiers and fax machines at first, and now laptops and text messaging. The upshot is that China is much freer than its rulers would like.

    To me, this trend looks unstoppable. I don't see how the Communist Party dictatorship can long survive the Internet, at a time when a single blog can start a prairie fire.


    (An update: On Wednesday afternoon, Beijing time, both blogs appeared to be removed.


    By then several thousand people had clicked on them, and scores of Chinese bloggers had linked to them.)

June 23, 2006 at 10:01 AM | Permalink


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For the record, China blocks access to Wikipedia. Can never get it when I am there.

Posted by: Fred | Jun 24, 2006 2:16:08 AM

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