China's Porn Crackdown May Be Aimed at Dissent

China kicked off the New Year with another crackdown on the Internet. A government-supported entity—the Internet Illegal Information Reporting Center, tasked with finding and fighting online content that violates the law—began by informing 19 popular Web sites, including Google and Baidu, China's two leading search engines, that they contain "vulgar content that violates social morality and damages the physical and mental health of youths." Only a few days later, they expanded their blacklist to 91 sites, including MSN and MySpace, demanding that they all take action to remove the offensive content. By last week more than 1,250 Web sites had been closed down and 41 people arrested. The crackdown singled out galleries of scantily clad women on tiexue.com and videos on vodone.com, as well as Google searches with links to anything that could be deemed racy. On the same day, People's Daily, an official outlet, posted paparazzi photos of the Chinese celebrity Zhang Ziyi in a bikini at the beach. The Web site of Xinhua News Agency has also run a slide show called "China's Hottest Babes."

Hypocrisy aside, calls by authoritarian regimes to curb vulgarity are often a smoke screen for the stifling of political dissent. Iran recently included several sites critical of the government on a blacklist of more than 100,000 pornographic sites, and a study by the OpenNet Initiative, a university consortium that tracks Internet filtering around the globe, found that Vietnam censors politically sensitive content along with obscenity. China's current crackdown is no exception. Bullog.cn, an edgy Chinese bloglike platform that often irked the Chinese authorities by reporting on controversial events like protests against new chemical plants, is one openly political victim of the current purges. Rebecca MacKinnon, an expert on the Chinese Internet at the University of Hong Kong, writes that "historically in China … the technology used to censor porn has ended up being used more vigorously to censor political content," and this appears to be the case again now. The thaw in anticipation of the Olympics, in which politically damaging sites like those of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were allowed to publish unhindered, may now be nearing its end.

Beijing is expanding controls ahead of several inconvenient anniversaries. It's been 50 years since the Tibetan uprising, 20 years since the bloodshed of Tiananmen Square and 60 years since the founding of the People's Republic of China. An immediate cause of the crackdown might be the launch of Chapter 08, an appeal for democratic freedom by numerous Chinese intellectuals a few weeks ago, which engendered widespread and, so far, uncontrollable online discussions.

Indeed, Beijing's sudden toughness comes just as the Internet is becoming an effective tool for exposing possible government corruption. Squads of Internet vigilantes called "human-flesh search engines" use the Web to identify and terrorize leaders whom they believe have overstepped their authority or good judgment. When Zhou Jiugeng, a real-estate official from Nanjing, appeared in an official photograph wearing a Vacheron Constantin watch, which retails for $15,000, bloggers did some digging. They reportedly found that Zhou also drove a Cadillac to work and smoked Nanjing 95 Imperial cigarettes, which cost $20 a pack. This online attention and widespread calls for his resignation triggered an official investigation into Zhou's affairs in late December.

Earlier that month, Lin Jiaxiang, the Communist Party secretary of Shenzhen's Marine Affairs Bureau, was fired after being accused of assaulting a young girl at a restaurant. The Chinese Netizens tracked his identity, circulated a video of him and the girl and demanded an investigation. In another episode, two Chinese officials left receipts from a costly tour of North America on a subway in Shanghai, which wound up being published online, to general outrage. The officials were promptly fired.

The government's methods of identifying dissent have gotten more sophisticated in the past year. Rather than having to rely on search queries, censors have begun to employ private firms ("censorship entrepreneurs") to perform data-mining operations to identify dissent. The firms are then free to demand that Web sites remove the offensive content. TRS Information Technology, for instance, claims to be a leader in the fields of "information retrieval, content management and text mining." What this means in practice is that TRS provides various Chinese government agencies (mostly police authorities) with technology to monitor online discussions that may pose a threat to the regime. In a recent interview in the Financial Times, TRS's marketing director took special pride in having installed such systems at eight police stations in Shanghai, noting that now the work formerly done by 10 Internet police offers could be done by one. TRS, which was founded in 1993, now employs more than 200 people.

Some Western nations have also begun to tighten oversight, of course. British authorities are considering asking Internet-service providers to offer parents child-safe Web services and assigning film-style ratings to all Web sites. Australia has proposed a mandatory Internet filter that would block at least 1,300 sites, most of them with violent or pornographic content. Wikileaks, a self-described Wikipedia for leaked documents, recently released a list of nearly 4,000 sites (almost all pornographic) that, it says, are secretly blocked by the Danish authorities on the advice of Danish police and Save the Children, without judicial or public oversight.

The Western anti-porn measures give Beijing cover. Eradicating smut is an easy way to show that Beijing is in control—and sometimes that's enough to inspire self-censorship on the part of bloggers. Several Chinese portals that found their names on the blacklist decided to apologize and comply with the orders rather than fight them. Of course, Western controls are always instituted with the highest of intentions—to suppress smut rather than political dissent. But controls are controls.