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The Great Wall of censorship

Latest update : 2008-08-07

With an estimated yearly budget of 20 billion dollars and a special task force of up to 100,000, Internet censorship in China has become a way of life.

Media censorship in China is an institution. Driven by the necessity to propagate a unique thought system, the communications branch of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) - formerly known as the Propaganda Department - is in charge of selecting information to be covered by official media.


In the 1980s, in the framework of a new legal structure, CCP chief Den Xiaoping implemented economic reforms where the written laws gradually replaced China's existing informal 'rules', which were unpublished and open to interpretation.


However, no law concerning media rights was implemented. Eric Meyer, independent journalist in China for over 20 years, says that “all organs of the Chinese media belong to the Chinese Communist Party, and are thus vehicles for their ideology. The media relays the Chinese government’s hardline messages to the people in order to modify their conscience.”


The Great Wall of Fire

The rise of the Internet at the end of the last century was a real technological challenge for China’s information watchdogs. With more than 250 million internet users in China, online censorship has taken on gigantic proportions.


In 2006, by launching the “Civilised Internet initiative”, the Chinese government outdid itself in the realm of ‘creative’ censorship. Jingjing and Chacha (featured above in main picture) are two cartoon policemen who find their way into computers to talk about ‘healthy’ Internet usage. Users also have an option to denounce any ‘abusive’ internet use to the authorities.


The number of special forces employed in internet censorship is estimated to be between 40,000 and 100,000. Thomas Crampton, former correspondent for the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times, admits that the exact number is “impossible to ascertain”. (Read Thomas Crampton’s blog)

Crampton explains that these Internet watchdogs are instructed to “eliminate all content that is contrary to the Chinese government’s interest”. For example, in 2007, some 2,500 websites were closed before and during the 17tn CCP Congress.


Censorship is not the only task assigned to the Internet police. Their work also includes 'repositioning' debates on Internet forums towards a 'politically correct' stance.


Echoing Crampton, Eric Meyer reports that thousands of students are paid around 10 euros a month to spy on Internet forums and denounce those who express their opinions on 'unauthorised ' subjects. This censorship system is nevertheless limited, as Internet users recognise these ‘spies’, and move on to other forums.


Internet giants play along

In exchange for a share of China’s Internet market, search engine giants like Yahoo! and Google have accepted these censorship guidelines. Several keywords are filtered and the results obtained by typing words like “Falun Gong” and “Tiananmen” yield results that do not resemble those obtained by a similar search in Western countries.


“Google mentions, however, that the results shown do not include all websites”, says Crampton. “Google does not keep any personal records of its Chinese users, as it does not want a situation where the Chinese government could ask them for such details.” Chinese users thus use a watered down version of Google, not having access to Gmail (Google’s e-mail service) and not being able to save their searches.

Contrary to Google, Yahoo! freely communicates personal information to the Chinese government. “Their position is that if the users are in China, they are under the jurisdiction of Chinese law", says Crampton.

This Internet crackdown seems to have borne fruit. According to a list enumerated by Reporters Without Borders, 37 Chinese bloggers were arrested in 2007, and 67 cyber-dissidents are still imprisoned in Chinese jails.

Many websites are inaccessible in China – whether they be pornographic websites or independent Chinese news sites like BBC Chinese and Boxun.

Date created : 2008-08-05