This China Wall Has Holes

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By Tan Bah Bah

Forget, for the time being, all the flap over air defence identification zones.  Two developments involving the Internet are taking place in the Middle Kingdom which bear watching.

 

The current size of the Chinese Internet is staggering. There are almost 600 million Internet users in China, more than in any other country in the world (the next highest is the United States, with 254 million), according to a recent TODAY Online story.

 

Among Chinese Internet users, 78.5 per cent of them access the Web using their mobile devices (compared to 63 per cent in the US). Chinese Web users are also more engaged than Americans are. In 2011, Chinese people spent more time on the Internet than they did watching TV, while in the US that crossover is predicted to happen only this year.

 

More than 75 per cent of Chinese people regularly contribute content online, while less than a quarter of Americans do. And it is likely that users in China will spend more money on e-commerce this year than Americans will, said TODAY Online.

 

Before the forces of democracy and open society throw their hats up into =the air to celebrate the true integration of China into the modern =world, they might want to note this other darker development.

 

The Chinese government has declared victory in cleaning up what it considers rumours, negativity and unruliness from online discourse, the =Associated Press reported.

 

Beijing launched the “anti-flies” campaign mid-year. =It arrested dozens of people for spreading rumours, created new penalties for people who post libellous information and called in the =country’s top bloggers for not so friendly chitchats about maintaining social order.

 

“If we should describe the online environment in the past as good mingling with the bad, the sky of cyberspace has cleared up now,” the AP reported Ren Xianliang, Vice Minister of the State Internet Information Office, as saying.

Indeed, a study by the Internet opinion monitoring service under the party-owned People’s Daily showed that the number of posts by a sample of 100 opinion leaders declined by 25 per cent and were overtaken by posts from government microblogs.

 

And here is something that sounds familiar: “The positive force on the Internet has preliminarily taken back the microphone and the positive energy has overwhelmed the negative,” said Zhu Hua, the monitoring service’s general secretary.

 

All this is in addition to the Golden Shield (also known as Great =Firewall of China). That project, started in 1998, aimed to block content by preventing IP addresses from being routed through and =consisted of standard firewalls and proxy servers at the Internet gateways.

 

The experience of China is important for us in Singapore. Here, the government is working itself unnecessarily into a corner over whether to attempt some sort of control over Internet usage, beyond what existing laws can already deal with for libel, law and order, vandalism, religion and so on.

 

Even Beijing, with all its paranoia about losing its grip on power, knows it cannot totally  interfere with what goes on in the Web. All it can do is make it difficult for what it deems as undesirable websites or blogs to function in China. It will selectively target certain individuals or groups and make an example of them to discourage other dissenters.

A popular microblogger, Charles Xue, an investor who writes under the name Xue Manzi, was arrested in August, accused of having sex with a prostitute. He has been paraded on television, looking contrite in prison clothes.  Xue became an Internet celebrity for his investing tips and commentary on social issues, including child trafficking and the plight of the underprivileged.

 

Beyond such targeting, it is really a cat and mouse game, with an incredible amount of effort needed to keep tabs. The state employs two million people to monitor Web activity.

 

The truth is that the Internet cannot be muzzled. State control or no state control, when members of the public are confronted with incompetence, they will use the Web to its fullest extent to vent their anger. The Guangdong floods in August saw an open outpouring of =frustrations with the poor relief efforts. No one was afraid of state punishment.

 

Finally, there is Google itself.  In November, Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, was quoted as saying during a speech in Washington: “We can end government censorship in a decade. The solution to government surveillance is to encrypt everything.”