Hard to beat China's cat-and-rat computer games

By John Hancock, in Beijing
Special to The Wild East

Type in freedom proxy server and this comes up. Is it the word "freedom" or "proxy server" the net nannies here don't like. Neither is the answer. Democracy and free expression are thriving in China — in cyberspace.

While Big Brother asserted himself in 2009, this did not prevent foreign ideas from invading his Internet space and there has been a renaissance in self-expression, comparable to the invention of movable type printing during the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

Netizens stayed one virtual step ahead of the censor by finding new ways to circumvent controls, and using “human flesh search engines” to expose abuses of power.

It wasn’t always pretty. The rioting in Urumqi, on July 5, caused at least 197 deaths and about 1,700 injuries. The Chinese authorities said it was spread by texting and Facebook.

In response they suspended international calls, short message services and Facebook. Six months later normal service is being resumed, but Facebook is still off the grid, along with YouTube, Twitter and anything ending blogspot.com.

But hold on. Try googling Facebook, in China, and at the top of the page is the entry: “ Want to Access Facebook? But you can’t because it’s blocked? Surf any foreign site. $12.95/month.”

Any surfer worth their salt here knows about proxy servers and virtual private networks (VPN). Everything and anything is accessible.

While it is more difficult to access porn sites and blogs and entering words like “Tiananmen,” “Falun Gong”, “Tibet” and “Taiwan”, is frustrating because of the need to bypass the blocks, it is doable. Freedom of information takes more time and effort.

Equal and opposite efforts on the part of the authorities to restrict access includes a fund that pays individuals to report pornography, to The Internet Crimes and Vulgar Information Reporting Center, even though there are already more than 30,000 paid cybercops patrolling the Internet.

But these measures have not prevented the number of X-rated websites from rising, as shown by the recent crackdown on some major portals, such as Tudou.com (土豆网).

Many of these sites were repeat offenders. Basically they were ignoring government warnings and kept posting “vulgar” content because it’s popular. A lot of other websites are still doing the same. And will continue to do so. When they are closed they morph into another portal doing the same.

As hard as the government works to keep a lid on free expression, the more steam seems to rise. The argument can be made that cyberspace in China is one of the most freewheeling and exciting forums in the world.

For instance, go to “Google Music” on www.google.cn and you can listen to and download a mass of music. It’s legal, free, but only in China.

As for downloading videos and music elsewhere, there was a crackdown last month that saw 530 BitTorrent websites wiped out. Nevertheless, Chinese downloaders still have the option of going to foreign sites.

Contrast this with the situation in the United States, for instance, where individuals are prosecuted under the No Electronic Theft Law. Out of necessity, surfers here are more international and outward looking than, say, the US or Europe. While Americans and Europeans don’t have a clue what’s going on in Mandarin, many Chinese surf their sites.

Since there is so much selective blocking, Chinese have become experts at getting round firewalls.

Internet sensations are born every day, hot topics flare up and die down quicker than anywhere else, simply because there are more Internet users.

After decades of prohibition it is tempting to think that in response there has been a flood of free expression and whistle-blowers. For instance, human flesh search engines, basically concerned netizens, have relentlessly hounded down officials and wrongdoers, publishing private information about them, trying to right wrongs. Blogger Wang Shuai accused Lingbao officials of an illegal land grab. True, he was detained for defamation, but he was later released and the officials were investigated.

While in the West the “gatekeepers of freedom” are the media organizations with ties to big business or the government (think BBC or CNN), here it is individuals, linked by a modem to the Net.

From fashion to photography, from politics to ecology, millions of blogs are entertaining and provoking a tsunami of opinion that washes around unchecked.

It’s information overload. The flood can’t be controlled. There is little the government can do except put its finger in the dam and hope it won’t break.

The Green Dam project that intended to pre-install censorship software on all computers, came to an ignominious end in August when its backers realized it would do more harm than good.

While anti-pornography campaigns catch a few mice, they keep breeding. Selective blocking puts a break on information, but cannot stop it. The alternative would be a return to the Stone Age.

The result is a lively, popular and freewheeling Internet environment that is hard to beat.

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