August 25, 2008

Slipping Over the Wall

By Nicholas D. Kristof

What makes the news from China is usually the bad news: the arrests, the raided churches, the blocked Internet sites, the overzealous security goons. That's the way journalism works - we cover planes that crash, not those that land.

Yet the underlying trend in recent years is the opposite. For all the continuing repression, Chinese live far freer lives now than when I lived in Beijing in the 1980s and '90s. Ordinary citizens can now easily travel abroad, choose their own housing and jobs, and move to whatever Chinese city they want to.

Then there is the Internet.

It's true that the government censors critical Web sites and closes down troublesome blogs. Yet there aren't nearly enough censors to manage the job, and many Chinese are quite adept at technological ladders over the Great Firewall of China. Objectionable posts are deleted by censors, but then are quickly reposted on 50 different platforms.

This is a cat-and-mouse game in which the spotlight is usually on the mice when they get caught: China has more Internet commentators in prison than any other country. But the larger truth is that the mice are winning this game, not the cats.

Over the last five years, I've regularly tested the Chinese Internet censors, trying to map the boundaries of permissible comment. The first time I did this, in 2003, all posts in Chinese chat rooms had to go through a moderator. I would post critical comments (pretending to be Chinese) and they would go up only if they were very polite and roundabout.

Then over the years the system changed. I found that my posts went online automatically, but moderators kept watch on the forums and quickly deleted anything deemed subversive. So, unless the moderator was off on a coffee break, sharp criticisms would vanish within 10 minutes or so.

This year I found the openness continuing to expand. Direct denunciations of the Communist Party and its leaders are not allowed in chat rooms, but implicit criticisms of government policies are common.

I was able to post sharp criticisms and subversive statements even on The People's Daily Web site. Some sites had automatic filtering that would catch troublesome terms like "Falun Gong," or "Tiananmen" or "human rights," and in those cases the post would go to a moderator who would delete it.

But it's easy to defeat the filter software. On one site, for example, I got around the filter by inserting a comma between the characters for "human" and "rights."

Frankly, my subversive posts in the chat rooms provoked yawns, because most netizens were less interested in politics than in finance. The chat rooms were sizzling with indignation at the plunge in the Chinese stock markets, and angry commentators were demanding bailouts.

One person responded disdainfully to my post on human rights: "Who cares about that, when we're all losing our shirts in the stock market. We shareholders love the country, but the country doesn't love shareholders."

It's also worth noting that many Chinese seem less distressed by Internet censorship than Americans. One study found that four out of five Chinese believe the Internet should be controlled, partly because of concerns about pornography.

Aside from my chat room postings, I also started Chinese- language blogs on the popular Web portal and on the Chinese version of Yahoo - it takes just a few minutes and no proof of identity to start a Chinese blog - to see what would be blocked. I posted entries criticizing the Chinese leadership and calling for freedom for Falun Gong practitioners. Nothing happened, so I pushed the limit and asked what should be done to commemorate the "Tiananmen massacre" of 1989.

All my posts on the blogs went up instantaneously and have remained up for the last week; I find it impossible to be censored. The reason is simple: Nobody reads my Chinese blogs. China has around 30 million active blogs, and as long as they don't trigger political problems, the government doesn't care. (State Security will presumably now find them and shut them down.)

I also saw firsthand how young Chinese are fearless on the Internet in a way that bodes trouble for the authorities. A young Chinese woman was helping me post my incendiary comments so that they didn't have a strong American accent, and when I stepped away for a few minutes, she idly experimented on her own. When I returned, she gleefully nodded at the screen.

"Hey, look, this went up," she said, pointing: "Let's overthrow the Communist Party!"

Horrified, I asked her to delete the post immediately so that we wouldn't both be arrested for counterrevolutionary offenses. She did so with a shrug, clearly thinking: What wimps these Americans are ...

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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