China's Censors Tackle and Trip Over the Internet
Michael Wines, Sharon LaFraniere and Jonathan Ansfield | The New York Times
April 07, 2010
Type the Chinese characters for "carrot" into Google's search engine here in mainland China, and you will be rewarded not with a list of Internet links, but a blank screen.
Don't blame Google, however. The fault lies with China's censors -- who are increasingly a model for countries around the world that want to control an unrestricted Internet.
Since late March, when Google moved its search operations out of mainland China to Hong Kong, each response to a Chinese citizen's search request has been met at the border by government computers, programmed to censor any forbidden information Google might turn up.
"Carrot" -- in Mandarin, huluobo -- may seem innocuous enough. But it contains the same Chinese character as the surname of President Hu Jintao. And the computers, long programmed to intercept Chinese-language searches on the nation's leaders, substitute an error message for the search result before it can sneak onto a mainland computer.
This is China's censorship machine, part George Orwell, part Rube Goldberg: an information sieve of staggering breadth and fineness, yet full of holes; run by banks of advanced computers, but also by thousands of Communist Party drudges; highly sophisticated in some ways, remarkably crude in others.
The one constant is its growing importance. Censorship used to be the sleepy province of the Communist Party's central propaganda department, whose main task was to tell editors what and what not to print or broadcast. In the new networked China, censorship is a major growth industry, overseen -- and fought over -- by no fewer than 14 government ministries.
"Press control has really moved to the center of the agenda," said David Bandurski, an analyst at the China Media Project of the University of Hong Kong. "The Internet is the decisive factor there. It's the medium that is changing the game in press control, and the party leaders know this."
Today, China censors everything from the traditional print press to domestic and foreign Internet sites; from cellphone text messages to social networking services; from online chat rooms to blogs, films and e-mail. It even censors online games.
That's not all. Not content merely to block dissonant views, the government increasingly employs agents to peddle its views online, in the guise of impartial bloggers and chat-room denizens. And increasingly, it is backing state-friendly clones of Twitter, Facebook and You Tube, all Westerns sites that have been blocked here for roughly a year.
The government's strategy, according to Mr. Bandurski and others, is not just to block unflattering messages, but to overwhelm them with its own positive spin and rebuttals.
The government makes no apologies for what it calls "guiding public opinion." Regulation is crucial, it says, to keep China from sliding into chaos and to preserve the party's monopoly on power.
"Whether we can cope with the Internet is a matter that affects the development of socialist culture, the security of information, and the stability of the state," President Hu said in 2007.
In China's view, events since then -- including the online spread of the democracy manifesto known as Charter 08 and riots in the Tibet and Xinjiang regions, said to be aided by cellphone and Internet communications -- have only reinforced that stance.
In the last year, censorship has increased markedly, as evidenced by the closing of thousands of blogs and Web sites in ostensible anti-pornography campaigns, and the jailing of prominent dissidents who used the Internet to spread their views. The departure of Google's search engine in March only capped months of growing intolerance of unfettered speech.
The paradox -- at least at first glance -- is that even with such pervasive restraints, China's press and Internet are capable of freewheeling discourse and social criticism.
Newspapers, blogs and online chats have unleashed national outrages over a host of topics, including food and medicine contamination and local corruption. Bloggers continually tweak the censors, leaking their orders and creating an online land of mythical creatures whose names are all homonyms for aspects of the state's heavy hand.
Some exposés and satires fall on the acceptable side of an often invisible and shifting line that marks what can and cannot be said freely in China. On the other side are statements that too overtly challenge the Communist Party's hold on power, that attack or embarrass powerful politicians or that tread on a long list of forbidden topics, from unrest in Tibet to political crises like the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
Journalists and Internet publishers often discover that they have crossed the line only after their online presence is blocked, their bylines are blacklisted or they are detained or summoned to "tea" with government security officers who deliver coy but unmistakable warnings.
With 384 million users in China at last count in January -- and 181 million blogs -- the Internet poses a true cat-herding predicament for censors. Foreign entities that operate outside China are the lesser of the censors' problems. The reason is logistical: access to the Internet in China from the outside world is limited, and all traffic must pass through one of three large computer centers in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
At those centers, government computers -- the so-called Great Firewall -- intercept inbound data and compare it with a constantly changing list of forbidden keywords and Web addresses.
When a match occurs, the computers can block the incoming data in several ways, from rejecting it outright to making more nuanced trims. For example, Chinese citizens who search Google using sensitive terms like "Tiananmen" may receive complete summaries of relevant Web sites. But if the Web sites are banned, it is impossible to link to them.
Within China, however, data cannot be choked off at a handful of gateways. So the government employs a toolbox of controls, including persuasion, co-opting and force, to keep the Web in line. Self-censorship is the first line of filtering and an obligation of all network and site operators in China.
China's big homegrown sites, like Baidu, Sina.com and Sohu, employ throngs of so-called Web administrators to screen their search engines, chat rooms, blogs and other content for material that flouts propaganda directives. For four years, Google followed suit with its Chinese search engine, Google.cn.
The Internet companies' employees are constantly guessing what is allowed and what will prompt a phone call from government censors. One tactic is to strictly censor risky content at first, then gradually expand access to it week by week, hoping not to trip the censorship wire.
The monitors sit astride a vast and expanding state apparatus that extends to the most remote Chinese town. "There is an Internet monitoring and surveillance unit in every city, wherever you have an Internet connection," said Xiao Qiang, an analyst of China's censorship system, at the Univeresity of California, Berkeley. "Through that system, they get to every major Web site with content."
Under a 2005 State Council regulation, personal blogs, computer bulletin boards and even cellphone text messages are deemed part of the news media, subject to sweeping restrictions on their content.
In practice, many of those restrictions are spottily applied. But reminders that someone is watching are pointed and regular.
An inopportune post to a computer chat forum may produce a rejection message chiding the author for "inappropriate content," and the link to the post may be deleted. Forbidden text messages may be delivered to cellphones as blank screens.
Even so, screening the electronic activities of hundreds of millions of people is a nearly impossible task. Moreover, users increasingly are resorting to technological maneuvers like virtual private networks and proxy servers to sidestep the censors' blocking of banned Web sites altogether. By some reports, a million people now hurdle the Great Firewall via such dodges -- a number that remains a tiny fraction of all users, but that has spiked upward in the last year.
So the censors have taken other tacks to tighten their grip.
One is automation. China's leading instant-messaging service, called QQ, automatically installs a program on users' computers that monitors their communications and blocks censored text.
The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology tried last year to expand automated censorship nationwide through mandatory Green Dam software that could remotely update lists of banned topics. After an outcry from Internet users and corporations, the state backed off, but Green Dam or other filtering software remains installed on computers in some Internet cafes and schools. Last month, the government signaled that a version for cellphones was in the works.
Another strategy is manipulation. In recent years, local and provincial officials have hired armies of low-paid commentators to monitor blogs and chat rooms for sensitive issues, then spin online comment in the government's favor.
Mr. Xiao of Berkeley cites one example: Jiaozuo, a city southwest of Beijing, deployed 35 Internet commentators and 120 police officers to defuse online attacks on the local police after a traffic dispute. By flooding chat rooms with pro-police comments, the team turned the tone of online comment from negative to positive in just 20 minutes.
According to one official newspaper editor who refused to be named, propaganda authorities now calculate that confronted with a public controversy, local officials have a window of about two hours to block information and flood the Web with their own line before the reaction of citizens is beyond control.
Zhang Shihe, a self-identified citizen journalist and blogger with the pen name Tiger Temple, said the government ranked various bloggers by the risk they posed. "The most dangerous ones will be shut down, and some others will receive alerts from the government," he said.
Mr. Zhang's own blog posts are sometimes deleted. His workaround is to publish six blogs, hosted on different Internet sites: because censorship rules are vague and the censors merely human, a post that one blocks may be ignored or overlooked by another.
That may not last long. The consensus is that the government is rapidly getting better at its work.
Consider: One chilling new regulation limits those who can operate a site on China's .cn domain to registered businesses, and requires operators to produce Chinese identification. "In case they need to shut you down for some subversive content, they need to know how to find you," said an executive with one Beijing firm that hosts Web sites.
Major cities like Beijing -- which last year advertised for 10,000 voluntary Internet monitors -- are increasingly taking censorship into their own hands.
Pitted against this are those who argue that government chokeholds on the Internet cannot succeed. Bloggers like Mr. Zhang argue that growing restrictions on Internet speech only inflame ordinary users, and that bit by bit "people are pushing the wall back."
Or at least trying. At a recent meeting of Chinese Internet leaders in the southern city of Shenzhen, Ding Jian, who heads the Internet company AsiaInfo, proposed that Shenzhen be made a censorship-free zone as an experiment to determine whether China can stomach the chaos of an unfettered Internet. Strangling free speech, one entrepreneur argued, is likely to strangle innovation as well.
The Internet portal Net Ease published a report of the meeting. It was quickly deleted.