Censorship in China: Firsthand Experience

Censorship is an issue that is rarely considered in Western culture. We can turn on any variety of news sources and hear or see the news presented from liberal, conservative, independent or almost any other perspective. In many foreign countries however, citizens are not afforded the same freedoms that we enjoy in the Western world. During a recent business trip to China, I experienced firsthand the challenges that can arise in a Communist country. I was denied access to information that most of us take for granted.

Censorship in China isn’t anything new. However, the rise of social networking combined with the ability of mobile phones to capture higher quality video and images has created a new age of journalism. Despite Iran’s efforts to suppress news coverage of the riots and protests that ensued after elections in June, the world was able to watch homegrown coverage through videos posted to sites like Facebook and Twitter. The hash tags #iran and #iranelection dominated the top spots of Twitter’s Trending Topics for a couple of weeks, and a sea of green profile pictures ensued, supporting Iran’s Green Revolution. While it was evident that the opponents of incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad never really stood a chance, it was equally evident that Ahmadinejad resorted to corruption to ensure victory. According to the official election results, Ahmadinejad received more votes than the total number of eligible voters in several provinces and 4 provinces reported 100% voter turnout (Voter turnout in the US was 56% in the 2008 presidential election, which was the highest since 1968). Additionally, he carried over 95% of the vote in the hometown of one of his challengers, who himself had over 55% of the vote during the 2005 election. As much as Iran tried to keep Western media out of the post election furor, the nation seemed helpless to prevent information from being broadcast by these ad hoc journalists on the ground.

The recent events in Iran (which in my mind is much more hostile to Western influence) made my experience in China all the more baffling. In the weeks following the violent protests in Urumqi, China, the Chinese government effectively shut down what seemed like all access to Western media and social networking sites throughout China. Facebook, Myspace, Flickr, Twitter, and most Western news sites were inaccessible. I also discovered that my nearly always reliable email was not always connecting. In my job, I rely extensively on these sources to keep track of what is going on in the world and communicating with family, friends, clients, and candidates, so being shuttered from the Western world for the week I was in China was frustrating to say the least. I set out to look deeper into this censorship issue and discovered a rabbit trail that unearthed more of the same. My cousin, who has lived in China for the last 10 years, recently launched his own startup business in Shanghai. His websites are routinely hacked, and he assumes that his email is monitored on a regular basis. Both small business VPN routers he purchased have been hacked and are now useless. It is estimated that the Chinese government employs over 30,000 full time workers who have the task of policing message boards and chat sites. What is amazing to me is how coordinated China’s efforts are to control the internet. It was reported during the Urumqi protests that even simple searches in Google in China looking for “Urumqi protest” were automatically redirected to China’s Xinhua news service.

In 2003, China launched a massive project known as the Golden Shield Project, which is sometimes referred to as the Great Firewall of China. This $800M USD project is more than a simple firewall. The Golden Shield Project continually mirrors content and manipulates DNS, controls connection management, and utilizes URL redirection to implement a comprehensive content control strategy for all users throughout China. Amnesty International has tracked internet censorship in China since 2002, and has indicated that China has the largest number of jailed dissidents in the world. Additionally, Amnesty International has detailed the cooperation of US companies like Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo with the Chinese government to provide the technology and services to suppress information and track down dissidents.

While the Chinese government has subtly admitted some of its efforts to censor internet content, it still seems to be an issue that is largely ignored. On one hand, China has become the largest growth market in the world. It’s hard to imagine how commercial China is today, but if you were blindfolded and taken to Shanghai or Beijing, it would be hard to imagine that you weren’t in LA or NYC (except for maybe the number of Asian people and the bicycles everywhere). As China continues to expand into a global powerhouse, it is very important to keep a close watch on China and their positions on human rights and censorship. It seems that the opportunity to make money in China has created strange bedfellows, and it will be a number of years before true freedom in China is a reality.

For more information on Amnesty International’s coverage of the topic in China go here:   http://www.amnestyusa.org/business-and-human-rights/internet-censorship/page.do?id=1101572

Image credit: Gary Tamin

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