With the Olympics underway, Americans are devoting countless hours to Googling their favorite athletes and using the Web to find out all they can about China. But how free are people in China to interact online with fellow citizens and the world?
How easy is it to surf the Web in China?
The Chinese government has worked diligently over the past decade to restrict Internet freedom. An official Internet monitoring program called "The Golden Shield Project," was conceived in the late '90s and has been in operation since the early 2000s. In the name of the shield, the state apparatus has reportedly blocked sites that run the gamut, from basic news outlets with a potentially pro-Western perspective like Voice of America and Radio Free Asia to those with a political agenda, such as the Falun Gong Web site, Free Tibet or The China Times, run from Taiwan. Wikipedia is definitively outlawed, though the user-generated reference site has over 200,000 entries in Chinese. Major news sites can be blocked as well. The BBC's English language page, for example, is accessible, but those attempting to read the Chinese version get a clear message: "Internet Explorer cannot display the Web page."
The monitoring site "Great Firewall of China" lists dozens of additional sites that are partially or completely blocked to Chinese IP addresses and notes that "the censorship methods used by the Chinese government are becoming more sophisticated, more refined and more extensive every year, involving an increasing number of local as well as foreign parties in their system."
All Web contact between China and the outside world arrives via fiber-optic cables that are limited to only three points of entry in China (versus thousands in other populous countries like India and the United States). The limited gateways create an "Internet bottleneck" that allows an estimated 30,000 Chinese civil servants to screen and flag user requests as they are typed into computers across the country. Western internet providers like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo have played along in order to register their domains under the .cn suffix.
Beijing said all visitors and journalists would have unfettered access to the Internet during the Olympics. But there were numerous complaints in the run-up to the games about blocked access to Web sites focused on Tibet and other political hot-button topics. Two weeks before the start of the Olympics, Sen. Sam Brownback charged that the Chinese government was instructing local hotels to install software that would monitor foreign visitors online.
The Communist government's control, in many cases, is severe. Chinese dissident Wang Xiaoning, who had called for multiparty rule using a Yahoo! online platform, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2003 after Yahoo released his personal information to the Chinese government. Xiaoning's wife sued Yahoo! with help from a human rights organization. The case, brought in 2007 in U.S. federal court, could have far reaching implications for Internet use and future prosecutions.
Confronted by news outlets with complaints about Internet blockage in Beijing this month, Wang Wei, the vice-president of China's Olympic organizing committee, said the group "promised free access, except for a few Web sites that jeopardize our security and the healthy growth of our youth."
High on the government's list of sites that pollute young minds are social networking and open-source Web sites like Wikipedia, YouTube, Flickr, Tripod, Orkut and MySpace. All are troublesome to access in China (Facebook is largely free and clear).
Blogspot has also been targeted by Golden Shield, but apparently with little effect—blogging has become the pastime of some 2.8 million Chinese and hundreds of thousands of separate blog accounts are registered with Blogspot.
Strategies abound for subverting government blocking efforts. One homegrown solution is totake the URL of a blocked Web site and put it into an online translation device such as Babelfish or Reverso, which will then pump out a rough, unformatted English version of the site in question. Some companies offer to create virtual private networks, or VPNs, which have the effect of tunneling under any data firewalls, allowing users to bypass proxy and content filters without an Internet service provider (or government) to know one is doing so.
Other sites, like Anonymouse, allow users at Chinese IP addresses to send requests for Web sites to their server, which "anonymizes" the data and then transmits it to the intended recipient. This can have the effect of tricking the Golden Shield. And the clever Adoptablog allows Westerners to register domains on behalf of bloggers in China fearful of state retribution.
So, yes, a few sites have been blocked during the Olympics, and some important sites like those for Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights Watch are routinely off limits to Chinese citizens. But in practice, for savvy Web users, the firewall is a frustrating, but negotiable issue.
There are billions of discrete Web sites accessible online, compared to perhaps a few hundred URLs that are not. Of course, we may never know the extent of the censorship within China until long after the streamers have come down and the Olympic torch has been extinguished. But clever fixes to state-run Web interference have gone viral via the very tool that the Chinese government seeks to hobble—which only reinforces the notion that the Internet, wherever it spreads, is a true democracy.
Can China hold it off forever?
Dayo Olopade is a reporter at The New Republic.
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