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China: Censorship is hard work
Posted by: McQ on Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The discussion here and around the blogosphere about Google's decision to self-censor its search engine at the behest of China's government yielded some interesting discussion. Most felt Google made a mistake in doing so. But some, like most of us here, felt it was better to have something rather than nothing available to the Chinese public in terms of access to outside information. After all, we reasoned, the determined always find a way around an obstacle and we felt this would be no different. Turns out, at least initially, we were right:
Such is the hunger for information and debate on the web that news providers and commentators find ways to circumvent restrictions on sensitive material. Companies such as Microsoft help the authorities block sensitive words, but bloggers and forum commentators quickly introduce slang terms to get around these walls. Some use initials, others mix English and Chinese, still more add a space or exclamation mark in the middle of a sensitive word. "When the government bans something, it just makes me want to know more about it," said the blogger, Laoyang.

There are many restrictions on online chat. Controversial blogs are shut down, and chatroom moderators kick out participants who post comments likely to antagonise the Communist party.

But no restriction is entirely effective. Despite Google's self-censorship, a search for "Tiananmen Square" on its China-based search engine produces several articles and pictures of the 1989 protests on the first page of results. Part of the challenge for the authorities is volume. The number of internet users in China has surged from 620,000 in 1997 to 110 million. It is estimated that there are between 5m and 10m blogs. Censors say they have had to change tactics.

"It is becoming more difficult to block and monitor web traffic so we need to switch to guidance," said an official responsible for internet surveillance. "Strict management didn't work. It is like trying to control a flood. Guiding is more effective than blocking."
The Chinese employ 30,000 "internet police" and yet the trickle is turning into a flood which is overwhelming their attempts at censorship. Google's introduction only helps further facilitate the flood:
"The technology hasn't reached a level that will allow us to control them. And we must also consider the trend of democratisation, which cannot be stopped," he said. "China is very big. If you want to control such a large country, mere politics is not enough. You must control minds. You need to win the battle for ideas."
As we've seen in other totalitarian nations, access to information and ideas usually lends to their downfall. China isn't any different. However China is one of the most pragmatic nations on earth and is trying very hard, at the moment, to control the change which seems inexorable. As you can see, given the switch in tactics from censorship to guidance, it has all but given up the idea it can "control minds". Access to outside information and the inability of the government to completely control that access dooms such control to failure. So now it is left with attempting to "win the battle for ideas". It will attempt that by guiding searchers to approved web sites and shutting down those websites which contain ideas contrary to those the government espouses.

But you do the math. 110,000,000 internet users (which, btw, is growing constantly) and 30,000 internet police. The trickle is turning into a flood, and the flood will eventually overwhelm the effort to police the net. With the introduction of the internet, and now Google, China is on the long road to a freer future. Just hide and watch.
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Previous Comments to this Post 

I question your understanding of the dynamics involved, and thereby your conclusion.

All that’s really needed is software to record who is going to what site. With such software... often as simple as a monitored proxy, only one manager is needed to monitor, and arrage reprisals for many hundreds of thousands of people. Ask any systems professional who is responsible for running a company proxy... or better yet, ask anyone who has lost a job, or has been repermanded over web use.

You’re quite correct in that getting around such blockages is not all that hard. What you’ve apparently forgotten is how easy it becomes to monitor who is seeing what, on a massive scale, and arrange legal reprisals for such viewing.
Written By: Bithead
Monitoring a few dozen to a few thousand employees is one thing. Monitoring hundreds of millions of people is another.
As Bruce points out, though, the numbers are not quite so high, as yet. Nor will they be for some time. Plenty of time to make with a few "examples".
But how do the 30,000 monitors even determine objectionable material?
Simple; Keyword trip.
Written By: Bithead
I wish QandO would admit that Google has acted contemptibly, even while asserting that Google’s censor-enabling kowtow to dictators is better than no Google at all.
Written By: clark smith
URL: http://
99% of Chinese are surfing the web for porn or for customers.

30,000 cops with the power to put someone in jail for many, many years will be enough in the short term.

I wonder if they shouldn’t have a plan to evacuate the princelings, etc. on the day the free elections happen? They should be thinking ahead.

I think you guys overestimate what the average Chinese is interested in...libertarian politics is definitely first world pension plan types.

What we need in China is enough property rights or wrongs to upset enough won’t happen through net searches for democracy.

Like the Boston tea party it will be a "what did you do with my money!" moment.

Written By: Harun
URL: http://
Diane Rehm’s show today was on this subject.
Written By: mkultra
URL: http://
"110,000,000 internet users...and 30,000 internet police."
I submit that the correct comparison is God-knows-how-many million sites and 30,000 internet police.

,"and arrage reprisals for many hundreds of thousands of people"
I am with Josh. There are just too many sites for anyone to monitor. As for Keyword trip, their technology must be a lot better than Google’s, or else they will block virtually the entire internet. Punishing hundreds of thousands of people for going to the wrong site would probably exhaust the resources of even the Chinese bureaucracy, leaving no resources for other problems.

"s Bruce points out, though, the numbers are not quite so high, as yet"
As yet. The relevant number, I think, is the number of attempts to access forbidden sites, not the number of users. Each user no doubt visits, or tries to visit, multiple sites, and each of these must be logged and monitored. I, for example, have visited at least three sites in the last hour.

One last thing, these internet police will not all be working at the same time, and some will be engaged in administrative tasks, so the number of effectives will be significantly smaller.

Written By: timactual
URL: http://

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