China’s internet: the wild, wild East
The Chinese internet, for all the state censorship and other disturbing abuses, is an anarchic playground that is the closet thing to the Fourth Estate the country has, argues Jeremy Goldkorn
Published: 7:23AM BST 26 Aug 2009
Translated: 2:08AM 4 Sept 2009 Hangzhou
Most Chinese net users, who go online primarily for entertainment, don’t notice or particularly care about censorship, as long as they can chat to their friends, play games, listen to music and watch videos, but for some it is the Fourth Estate.
The Chinese Internet is not for ninnies.
On the one hand, the government regulates websites and Internet services with a heavy hand.
On the other hand most of China’s more than 300m Internet users are under 30 and highly excitable.
When it’s fun, the Chinese Net seems like a wonderfully anarchic playground; when it turns nasty, it’s a nightmare from Lord of the Flies.
In many ways, the Internet simply reflects the diversity of Chinese society offline: you can find everything from Internet groups dedicated to social and environmental causes to prostitutes who exclusively use the QQ instant messaging platform to solicit clients.
The government frequently cites pornography as the most important reason for China’s controls on the Internet, but right now, the censors are particularly nervous for political reasons including the recent riots in Xinjiang, and the possibility of something going wrong on October 1, when the People’s Republic celebrates the 60th anniversary of its founding.
This means that censorship is currently very heavy: large numbers of foreign websites like Twitter, Youtube and Facebook are blocked, while domestic websites have cranked up self-censorship, preferring to delete any kind of user generated content that may cause trouble and keeping a close watch on news stories and blog post that may be considered sensitive.
American media hype about how Twitter was bringing democracy to Iran was noted on this side of the Pacific: not only is Twitter blocked, but most of China’s home grown Twitter clones have been ordered by the government to shut down, indefinitely.
Savvy Chinese Internet users know how to use proxy servers and other technologies to get around the Internet blocks: Chinese government Net censorship works not because it’s impossible to open websites the government does not like, but because it’s inconvenient to access those sites.
So most Chinese net users, who go online primarily for entertainment, don’t notice and don’t particularly care about censorship, as long as they can chat to their friends, play games, listen to music and watch videos.
Nonetheless, a vibrant, anti-establishment culture does exist.
A recent example: Six bloggers were detained in July in the southern city of Xiamen for publishing information about a rape and murder case where the alleged killer had close government ties.
A nationwide campaign by other Internet activists that included sending postcards to the jail where the bloggers were detained may have been responsible for their release.
A similar postcard campaign was launched to protest against the detention of an activist lawyer named Xu Zhiyong.
He was released on Monday, August 24 2009.
Although his name and most articles about him have been deleted from Chinese web servers, the intense citizen interest in the case on the Chinese Internet, even from usually apolitical bloggers and websites, was almost certainly a factor in the government’s decision.
In contrast to a small minority of liberal activists, however, there are millions of ‘fen qing’ or angry nationalist youth who comment on websites like the jingoistic Tiexue.net (Iron Blood) Internet forum and write about Western media bias against China on sites like Anti-CNN.com.
One of the more sinister-sounding behaviours of China’s angry youth online is the ‘human flesh search engine’.
This refers to large groups of Internet users digging up any information they can find about a person who has done something considered morally offensive.
Recent examples include the hounding of an ad agency employee in Beijing whose wife blogged about his extra-marital affair before committing suicide, and the targeting of a Chinese student at Duke university in the US who appeared to take the side of free Tibet demonstrators on her campus last year.
In both these cases, the individuals’ ID numbers and residential addresses were published on the Internet and the harassment continued offline: the Duke student’s parents had human faeces dumped on the doorstep of their apartment in China, while the ad agency employee had to resign from his job and go into hiding to avoid the wrath of the human flesh searchers.
But even the human flesh search engine phenomenon has a good side.
Despite the heavy censorship, the Internet is still China’s most open platform of public expression.
Corrupt officials increasingly find themselves the target of human flesh searches for petty and gross malfeasances and private companies that pollute the environment or cheat consumers can no longer bribe journalists with hush money and expect their crimes to remain secret.
The Chinese Internet, for all its problems, is the closest thing the country has to a Fourth Estate.
Jeremy Goldkorn is the founding editor of Danwei.org, a website about Chinese media, currently blocked in China
the fourth estate :
第四权.在西方社会，新闻媒体号称是民主社会中的第四权(the fourth estate)，独立于行政、立法及司法外之外，是公众发挥对于国家机器监督的力量。