originally published May 12, 2014
You may not have noticed, but while the Chinese economy is poised to plant its conquering flag upon the global marketplace, the country’s government is astoundingly fucked up. Fucked up and frightened, gauging by the unfathomable swath of censorship that it clings to. What other explanation can there be for the most populated nation on the planet blocking out such a hearty heap of online material?
I suppose when you’ve got a population of over 1.35 billion you probably want to do what you can to keep them from getting any fishy ideas that might propel them into revolt. I don’t care how disciplined your army might be, a billion pissed-off citizens is going to be tough to quiet down. We saw that twenty-five years ago when students rolled the dice and staged a massive public protest for democracy in Tiananmen Square. The government shut them down and since then it has spent a quarter-century trying to convince its citizens that the whole thing never happened.
This is the golden age of knowledge, when a strategic click of a mouse can teach us anything, from alternative political structures to who played the night-watchman on that season 4 episode of Simon & Simon (it was Bucklind Beery – there, I saved you the trouble). But knowledge is power, and clearly the Chinese government doesn’t want its citizenry getting all power-happy.
Let’s have a look at what won’t squeak through the Chinese knowledge-net.
My site, for starters. I’ve been told the blockade on WordPress has been lifted somewhat over the last year or so, but blogs contain ideas, and ideas are even more dangerous than facts because ideas can procreate. They can seduce one another and spurt out little notion-babies. Evidently the current regime isn’t wanting that to happen. You’ll also find Blogspot, FC2 (a Japanese blog site) and wretch.cc, which is based out of Taiwan, on the blocked list.
Facebook and Twitter are locked out, as are all of Google’s subsidiary services (Google+, Google Docs, Youtube). Major file-sharing sites are kept outside the gate (Dropbox, the Pirate Bay, Vimeo) because I guess the government doesn’t want its people passing around the latest episodes of Game Of Thrones. Anything that runs counter to official policy (Amnesty International, anything pro-Tibet) is out, as are adult sites. It’s a lengthy list.
They call it the Great Firewall of China. Initiated in 1998 by the Ministry of Public Security, the project aims to ensure the Chinese public utilizes the internet for ‘wholesome’ purposes. The Communist Party was worried that the China Democracy Party would be able to use the new medium to stir up support among the unwashed (but wired) masses. In order to keep the political playing field fair (or, their wholly biased version of ‘fair’), the CDP was banned and the “Golden Shield” project was begun.
But the Golden Shield is about more than keeping western boobies away from horny Chinese eyes. They are also building a massive database and a surveillance network; they’re filtering content but also compiling a fierce collection of closed-circuit television, face recognition and credit records. They want to keep tabs on anyone who might be a threat to national security. This means anyone with the gall to question the nation, I guess.
The Voice of America and the Chinese version of BBC News are on the outs because they cover topics that are considered to be ‘defamatory against China’, like the protests of Tiananmen Square, freedom of speech, police brutality… all the stuff the Chinese government wants to pretend doesn’t exist. Anything having to do with the Dalai Lama or the Taiwanese government or community is nixed. There’s even a blacklist of keywords that will gum up any attempts at using a search engine.
“Human rights”. They don’t want their people searching for this. Same goes for “Oppression”, “Genocide”, “Overthrow”, “Playboy” (bad news for fans of the Marvelettes), and the names of any dissidents or opposition parties that could give a Chinese citizen even a moment’s pause as to where their loyalty might lie. This goes beyond censorship of facts and even ideas – the Chinese government is more than fifteen years into an aggressive campaign to limit and control online thought.
Bulletin boards and discussion forums are a particular point of interest when it comes to the Great Firewall. Many have been shut down or else heavily restricted since about 2004, but as the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests approached in 2009, all portals, discussion groups and forums were ordered to close for ‘maintenance’ between June 3 and June 6. Even Chinese users of Hotmail and Flickr reported outages on those days. It’s a safe bet the same sort of thing will pop up next month for the 25th anniversary.
There was a backlash to this in China, albeit a restrained and quietly sarcastic one. Several websites who weren’t subject to the mandatory shutdown closed their site on June 4 anyway, claiming it was “Chinese Internet Maintenance Day”. On Twitter, AIDS activist Hu Jia (based in Beijing) asked his countrymen and countrywomen to wear black t-shirts on June 4 to commemorate the date and to oppose censorship. Other internet users in China tried to have a little dig at their government through the tactical deployment of an internet meme:
Sarcasm and subversive satire aren’t really on the Chinese government’s radar. They’re too busy getting frighteningly good at upholding the Great Firewall and disseminating only the information they’ll allow. Beginning in June last year, in-country searches for the Tiananmen Square protests no longer returned a blank results page, but instead a list of results that had been approved by the government. I can only imagine the spectacularly low dosage of truth within those pages.
Anyone who wants in on China has to abide by the rules, including Yahoo, AOL, Skype and even Microsoft. The one option citizens have to get around the blockade is through proxy servers located outside the country, though connections to these are not always reliable.
I don’t know what the answer is – I’m just some guy who writes on a site that gets only a moderate amount of hits from mainland China (and possibly significantly fewer after today’s article). I figure it’s important for everyone on the planet to be aware that the most powerful player in our global economy is slapping its citizens with some highly noxious restrictions. It’s a little scary.