Big Brother Is Talking

Like many Chinese twenty-somethings, Lu Ruchao loves to surf the Internet. He often visits a local chat room to sample the neighborhood buzz. One day, Lu noticed that Netizens were complaining that local police often drove down the main street of Suquian with sirens blaring, disturbing half the city. Lu, himself a policeman, jumped into the e-fray. He tapped out a defense of the police, arguing that a cop car sounding its siren is responding to an emergency and shouldn't be criticized. But Lu isn't just any cop. He's one of China's estimated 30,000 to 40,000 e-police who collectively serve as an Orwellian Big Brother for the country's nearly 100 million Internet users. "We have to face knives and guns while on duty every day," Lu explained later to the Chinese publication Southern Weekend. "How can they criticize us?"

Beijing's Web commissars have made a quantum leap in their efforts to tame the Internet. Much has been written already about Chinese censors' ability to monitor Net postings; to block or delete undesirable content, and to detain Netizens deemed to be troublemakers. The larger story is the degree to which China's e-police now proactively influence Web content in ways beneficial to the regime--and pre-empt people from organizing politically. The aim is not simply to stifle dissent or to control the free flow of information, but increasingly to shape public opinion in cyberspace. In fact, Chinese propagandists worry less about the Web as an information source than as a tool for mobilizing mass movements. "Most foreign analysts get it wrong," says Anne Stevenson-Yang, a Beijing-based Internet entrepreneur. "Political concern about the Internet is totally about social organization, not about information. It's how you act on the information you have."

Last month a new set of Web rules--the latest of about 38 regulations since 1994--was unveiled to help ensure the posting of "healthy and civilized" news, as the official Xinhua News Agency put it. Most tellingly, the rules forbid Web content in two new categories. One bans "inciting illegal assemblies, associations, marches, demonstrations or gatherings that disturb social order." The other forbids conducting activities in the name of an "illegal civil organization."

That emphasis suggests authorities aim to avoid any repeat of last spring's unrest. Then, spontaneous bulletin-board postings and SMS text messages inspired thousands of youth to participate in anti-Japanese protests, catching riot police off-guard. (The authorities had tried, unsuccessfully, to defuse the crowds by sending text messages to all cell-phone users in Shanghai, warning residents to avoid illegal demonstrations and to focus their patriotism on their studies and jobs.) In many ways, China's nationalistic surge is a result of the government's successful effort to control the nation's e-dialogue. "It means people are less likely to bump into information showing the Chinese government in a bad light, and more likely to bump into information showing the Japanese or American governments in a bad light," says Rebecca Mackinnon, cofounder of a global blogging forum. "It reinforces Chinese nationalism, and skews people's view of the world."

Beijing is eager to shape the discourse even further. Local governments have recruited a growing number of Web "moles" like Lu, paying them to pose as grass-roots chat-room participants and bloggers. Their job is to tout the party line online and, by doing so, to nip unrest in the bud. Southern Weekend reported Lu's story, saying the Jiangsu city of Suqian hired him and 25 other e-cops last April to form its "Internet commentator team." (The Southern Weekend later censored itself by removing the article from its Web site.) It said e-cops join chat rooms and offer "timely explanations for pessimistic talk," such as portrayals of local cadres as "dirty" or corrupt. E-police postings were "very effective," one of them, Ma Zhichun, was quoted as saying. "[We] will lead public opinion as ordinary Netizens."

This past year a new Internet division was formed by the party's powerful propaganda bureau, which takes the lead in muzzling conventional media. Just last week authorities compelled the popular online Yannan forum to close down after it posted news and commentary about rural unrest in Guangdong. Moreover, authorities have used "enormous financial resources to set up government-sponsored Web sites at all levels of government," says Xiao Qiang, head of the China Internet Project at the University of California, Berkeley. He estimates that one tenth of all sites in Chinese cyberspace are set up and run by authorities. Such sites allow locals to register online for jobless benefits, say, as well as host chat rooms where e-cops do their thing. According to the OpenNet Initiative, a project involving researchers from Toronto, Harvard and Cambridge universities, China has "the most extensive and effective legal and technological systems for Internet censorship and surveillance in the world."

Much of that effort uses sophisticated "filtering." Chinese routers--most of them made by Cisco Systems--connect local area networks to ISPs and can be configured to block up to 750,000 Web sites. Keyword-filtering software installed on all Web-site hosting services automatically bar postings on Chinese online forums if the titles include certain buzzwords. A list compiled by the Berkeley China Internet Project includes more than a thousand naughty words--including "dictatorship," "riot police" and, especially, "truth." An estimated 64 Web dissidents are behind bars, according to the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders. In the last three months of last year, the government shuttered 12,575 unauthorized Internet cafes.

Tech-savvy Chinese can use proxy servers to access banned sites (a software program titled Boundless is especially popular among Falun Gong followers). And some pro-democracy advocates say that efforts to infiltrate cyberdiscourse show that China's e-police are desperate. "They're losing, not winning," says Xiao Qiang, who notes that the regime's Internet moles are often paid about eight cents for every progovernment message they post. Web power was manifest in the deluge of postings on an Internet site related to the immensely popular "American Idol" -inspired TV show called "Super Girl," during which millions of viewers cast SMS votes, he says. "There were hundreds of thousands of people plotting their voting strategy online. If I were a censor, I'd be scared."

Still, the notion that the Web cannot be managed is a myth, insists Mackinnon. "While the Internet can't be controlled 100 percent, it's possible for governments to filter content and discourage people from organizing." Barring a technological breakthrough, she predicts that, as long as there's a Chinese regime in power that wants to control the Web, "10 years from now it'll be doing pretty much as it's doing today." Big Brother seems to be winning the Chinese Net battle, at least for now.

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