Life behind the Wall: Censorship in China
It was a clumsy tool at first, only capable of blocking websites, but now it can block individual pages and even strip out controversial results from search queries, tricking users into believing their search wasn’t tampered with.
Of course, the Chinese government isn’t only worried about what people see. There are more than 500 million internet users in the country, and their every online post is automatically compared to a list of 4,000 keywords, including old chestnuts such as “democracy” and “corruption”.
Posts that raise a red flag are shot up the line to one of a rumoured 5,000 censors, who make the final decision on whether a comment is worthy of deletion, preservation or the writer’s imprisonment.
Heaven help you if it’s the latter. According to civil liberties watchdog Freedom House, the Chinese authorities detained dozens of activists and bloggers in 2012, “holding them incommunicado for weeks and sentencing several to prison”.
More troubling was the case of artist and blogger Ai Weiwei – one of the designers of the Beijing Olympics’ “Bird’s Nest” stadium – who was abducted and held without charge for 81 days in 2011. “During 2012, he was barred from travelling abroad, his appeal in a politically fraught tax case was rejected, and the licence of his art company was revoked,” adds Freedom House.
Despite the threats, Miao and her friends remain stubbornly political, lambasting the government and politicians at every chance they get – although only one of the students admits to doing it online.
“There are lots of ways of getting around it [the censorship],” says fellow computing student Wei Long. “The Chinese language is very rich, so if there’s something you want to say that’s censored, you use the phonetic spelling of the word, or a pun. It’s like another language now.”
Unfortunately for our internet pioneers, even speaking in code isn’t enough to keep the censors off their backs. The Communist Party pays ordinary people to spout pro-government propaganda in chatrooms and on social networks. At other times, they’re tasked with deflecting attention from the stories the government wants stifled. Members of this professional trolling network are called the 50 Cent Party, and they’re as popular as a razor blade in a box of Cheerios.
“Everybody’s heard of them,” says Xu Guan. “They try to pretend they’re not working for the government, but it’s obvious who they are. You can be talking about how good the England football team is, then somebody will say ‘Hey, what about the Chinese football team? They’re very strong this year.’ That’s them. When one appears, the forum empties. It’s like somebody with a bad smell has just walked into the room.”
No country for free men
The common perception in the West is that the internet is a tool of democratisation, capable of spreading ideas and unshackling people from state control. When I make this point to Chinese journalist Jing Zhao, better known as Michael Anti, he just laughs.
“Weibo was founded exactly one month after Twitter was blocked,” he tells me over the telephone from his home in Beijing. “That means from the beginning Weibo convinced the Chinese government it won’t become a stage for any sort of threat to the regime. So, anything you post like “meet up” or “get together” is automatically logged, data mined and reported for further analysis. If you plan a large gathering in China, by the time you get there, the police will be waiting already.”