The information war that rages on the Chinese internet

August 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

There’s an intensifying struggle in China over information and at the heart of it is the internet. As we all know, controlling the internet is virtually impossible. But that doesn’t stop the Chinese government, backed with a very sophisticated system of censorship, from trying.

In a new development, the country’s popular Sina Weibo micro-blogging platform has informed its users that they risk having their accounts suspended if they spread rumours that provoke social unrest.

You may already be aware that Sina Weibo is China’s equivalent of Twitter. It has grown rapidly in a few years to have 200 million users, many of whom rely on it as a way to stay connected to their online communities and also as an alternative source of news and information.  Here’s the China Digital Times story.

This threat of suspension has angered many of Weibo users, many of whom are suspicious that the kinds of rumours that the government refers to could be anything that runs counter to the state’s spin on news and events. There’s a feeling that government pressure is being applied to Weibo to reassert some control over the unruly world of the Chinese social net.

This is the latest turn in a battle over information and expression that is being waged on the Chinese side of the Great Firewall (GFW). The government has been shaken up by some recent scandals that have gone viral among Chinese netizens. As one experienced China watcher observed, one of the most recent cases even felt like a tipping point, as you can read in an earlier post here.

The Chinese state media fosters and promulgates news and the types of stories that are by and large ideologically supportive of the China’s ruling communist party. But increasingly, the Chinese online public is in turn becoming more sophisticated and increasingly sceptical in its interpretation of pro-government rhetoric and spin.

With a thriving independent commercial media scene, social media, soaring numbers of internet users and meteoric numbers of smart phones, Chinese netizens now have unparalleled access to alternative sources of news and information. This mercurial flow of independent information that has not been sanctioned by the government is inflicting a deepening credibility crisis on the authorities and the dutiful state media organisations.

Take this recent embarrassing episode. A hoaxer planted a fake government media release in the state media system and it was reported as fact. This fiasco, claimed many Chinese netizens, was a perfect demonstration of how one of the biggest disseminators of falsehoods was the state itself.

So the battle lines are drawn. On one side is the state which is selling its vision of a China that is making rapid advancements in improving people’s livelihoods and restoring China to its rightful place in the world.

On the other side is the mob – the rapidly growing numbers of connected Chinese who use the internet to share and organise. Among them are activists, dissidents and ordinary people with a grudge against the state. They have the tools to collaborate online to create physical world protests and publicise them before government censors can react, like in this recent protest in the city of Dalian.

From the government’s view, these kinds of incidents threaten to derail its vision for China. China’s leaders biggest fears are social chaos and overthrow. Hence the emphasis on the GFW and the system of net censorship which they argue are necessary to maintain social harmony, protect China’s territorial integrity and promote Communist Party rule.

This is why information in China often vanishes. Here’s a wonderfully illustrative China Geeks post which observes “news has a habit of disappearing; from state media, traditional media, personal blogs, microblogs and Internet forums alike”.

“After an important incident, citizens have roughly a day to opine before the government apparatus catches up. It is then that directives are issued to media outlets, outlining what can and cannot be reported; it is then that posts you swore you wrote vanish; it is then that new “sensitive keywords” are entered into a blackout database.”

For those of us outside China, perhaps the single biggest manifestation of net censorship in China is the GFW. Platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Google+ are blocked in China (but interestingly, LinkedIn is not).

To get around the GFW, many foreigners in China use virtual proxy networks. A Singaporean friend living in Beijing says it is easy to buy a VPN service by paying with a credit card. “Most people find out which service to use through word of mouth. It’s not openly discussed because the services have specifically told us not to write about anything they do in a public forum. The government has recently been clamping down on the VPNs and any extra information that we give them just allows them to shut the services more easily.”

A Shanghai-based New Zealander says censorship policies and directives change all the time. “The internet is just a bit goddamned slow here anyway, due to all the filtering, so sometimes it’ll take a few days before people realise that a site has been added to a blocked list.  An interesting case is with Google+. This wasn’t blocked, but foreign media reported that it was.  But now it is.”

Another New Zealander confirmed Google+ was blocked and that it “also happened to be the platform (the Chinese dissident artist) Ai Wei Wei first contacted netizens through, several weeks after being released from prison”.

But there are thousands of Chinese netizens already using Google+ and they say there are many other techniques for jumping the GFW. According to them, these techniques are not difficult and cost nothing. They include Secure Shell or SSH, Telex, GoAgent and hosts file modification. Here’s an informative video of how to modify the hosts file on a computer to disguise IP addresses. There’s also this useful guide on the myriad ways to access a blocked website.

It seems getting across the GFW is easy, once you know how. China has 485 million internet users and some of them joke that the internet in China is really one big intranet. But for many of China’s internet users, the GFW is not an insurmountable barrier to access that which is banned on the mainland.

The minority of Chinese netizens who cross the GFW on a daily basis are a microcosmic representative of China’s vibrant and restless internet scene. The staggering number of online citizens, exponentially growing quantities of user generated content, evolving mobile technology, improving communications infrastructure and a host of other factors all point in one direction.  The inescapable conclusion is that the booming Chinese internet is increasingly difficult to control and censorship will continue to be subverted because the expectations of millions of Chinese people – many of them young and tech savvy – are changing.

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