Life behind the Wall: Censorship in China

If anything, Anti believes the government has an even tighter grasp of the internet than when I left in 2002, thanks to its policy of “smart censorship”.

Services such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube offered relative anonymity, thanks to their offshore servers, but when they were banned, their Chinese equivalents set up shop in Beijing, happily throwing open their data-centre doors to the government. But just because the firms are complicit, don’t assume the people are.

In 2011, a high-speed rail crash in Wenzhou – a city of three million in the south-east of the country – left 40 people dead and 190 injured.

The event embarrassed the Communist Party, which blocked state media from reporting the incident – utterly failing to account for social media, which produced ten million outraged posts in five days, forcing the government to jail a senior official and double the compensation payment to the families. It’s a spirit-lifting tale, with a typically Communist Party conclusion.

Just because the firms are complicit, don’t assume the people are

Following the incident, a new policy was introduced, forcing Weibo users to register their ID card details – essentially their passport number – alongside their username, effectively stripping away any notion of anonymity.

It’s a scheme that will shortly be rolled out across all social networks, and there’s only one thing that can stop it: good old-fashioned greed.

“Only one ministry has the database of the ID cards, and that’s the Public Security Bureau [PSB], but the real-name policy has been set by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology [MIIT],” explains Anti, laughing down the phone.

“The PSB won’t hand out the database information to MIIT without being paid, and MIT doesn’t have the money to check so many names. Purely from a bureaucracy point of view, it will never work.”

Michael Anti

Speaking to Anti, I can see why he’s become one of China’s most important voices, reporting on the country’s censorship even as his colleagues have been carted off to jail.

This culminated in a TED talk he gave in 2012, which sought to explain the “cat-and-mouse game” being played by the government and China’s netizens. It’s fascinating and worth watching. You won’t be able to enjoy it in China, however, since it’s banned.

“You know, when I first made that video, [the government] didn’t care,” he says. “They don’t really care about English – very few Chinese people can understand English. But this year, since more and more translations of my TED talk appeared on Chinese websites, my video was officially banned by the propaganda department – meaning every website had to delete it.”

Whatever you think of the ethics of such an uncompromising move, you have to admire the bravado of it. Overnight, the government simply decided to eradicate something from the internet, and 500 million people complied.

If I had that power, there’d be digital Kardashian genocide, but with the Chinese population growing exponentially, I wonder how long the government can continue to exercise such unyielding control.

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