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What foreigners don’t see

What foreigners don’t see
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First Published: Thu, Aug 14 2008. 11 09 PM IST
Updated: Thu, Aug 14 2008. 11 09 PM IST
Beijing’s Internet censorship hit global headlines recently, when foreign journalists in town to cover the Olympics discovered their access to well-known overseas websites was blocked. While the government has now unblocked some of those sites, those journalists shouldn’t think the broader problem is solved. Censorship of ordinary Chinese people’s electronic communications within China has changed little. Visiting reporters aren’t noticing as these forms of censorship relate to Chinese-language content they are not familiar with.
The “Great Firewall”, the common moniker for China’s filtering system that blocks various Internet addresses and keywords, really only pertains to Internet sites and services hosted on computer servers outside China. Inside China, companies that host websites, blogs and chat rooms are held responsible for objectionable content. All of China’s blog-hosting services, YouTube-style video sharing sites and the like hire entire departments to flag and delete things that may get them in trouble with the government.
This context is key to understanding the wide-ranging conversations, many of them political, that are now happening on Chinese blogs and chat rooms. There is, indeed, a vastly larger space for public discourse on matters of public concern than even a few years ago. But that space still has limits. Chinese Web users now experience a more targeted and subtle approach to censorship.
On Monday, I logged into a number of Chinese blog-hosting services and posted the first paragraph of a Chinese-language story, based on state-media reports, about last week’s knife attack on American tourists atop Beijing’s Drum Tower. One of China’s most popular blogging platforms, Sina.com, deleted my post after a few hours. But Sina’s news portal ran Chinese agency reports about the attack. A blog-hosting service run by Baidu, one of China’s biggest Internet firms, wouldn’t let me publish the post. Yet, a Baidu news search on “drum tower” turned up several Chinese media reports about the incident.
The strategy seems clear: Give China’s professional journalists a longer leash to cover breaking news even if it’s not positive — since the news will come out anyway and unlike bloggers, the journalists are still on a leash. And, clamp down on blogs and video-sharing sites that might allow too much unfettered discussion of the news.
Not even humour is safe. Last week, a Chinese blogger who writes under the name of “deerfang” was sharing a laugh with a friend who knows some great political jokes — through mobile phone text messages sent in May. The friend tried to forward one joke about Chairman Mao and President Hu Jintao to deerfang’s mobile. “My phone received the message but in blank saying ‘missing text,’” deerfang wrote. Censorship on the China Mobile network seems to have tightened since three months ago. China’s censorship is far from perfect. Often what’s censored on one Web platform slips through on another. In the long run, censorship is bound to fail. But, in the short run this variety works well to help the Chinese Communist Party stay in power.
And foreigners need to understand that it’s happening, and how. Earlier this week, I heard from a blogger after he received an email from the Voice of America (VOA) celebrating the unblocking of its Chinese website. He complained, “...VOA does not care if there is Internet censorship in China. It only cares (for) its own interests.” He meant, unblocking VOA’s website — or any other foreign sites — won’t change the more problematic aspects of Beijing’s Web control. That’s something for foreign reporters to remember as they surf Amnesty International’s website during the Games.
The Wall Street Journal
Edited excerpts. Rebecca MacKinnon is assistant professor at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre, University of Hong Kong and co-founder of Global Voices. Comment at otherviews@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Aug 14 2008. 11 09 PM IST