Wednesday, September 28, 2005

On reflection ...

Azure Cloud temple
Originally uploaded by jiulong.
When I arrived in Hong Kong from Beijing I passed through a branch of WH Smith. There on prominent display were books by the Dalai Lama, Jung Chang's latest screed on Mao and the tell-all memoirs of Mao's personal physician, Li Zhisui. It shouldn't have surprised me but it still does, even now, almost 15 years after my first visit to the PRC, to see the contrast between societies with an open and closed flow of information. In my Herald Tribune on the plane I read about the latest crackdown on internet news sites in China. Maybe that explains why Google News doesn't work any more - I presume that falls under the category of a news distribution site - banned with immediate effect.
This all seems to be the work of the new Hu Jintao-Zeng Qinghong partnership and their hardline approach to information freedom.
Looking back on my China Daily experience - all two months of it, I found it gave me a fascinating insight into just how far China has come in opening up, and just how many barriers remain. Back in 1990 when I first strolled across Tiananmen Square, the tank-track marks from the June 6 massacre were still visible on the roads. And the only English news available in the capital was the dour propaganda and statistics of the China Daily. I don't think there was even a CCTV9 back then - just a summary of news in English on the main CCTV channel.
To find out what was really happening in the world you had to hike over to the Friendship Store and go to the foreigners-only section to buy an expensive copy of yesterday's SCMP.
How things have changed. Despite the cyber-nanny you can now get news on just about anything via the internet in China. There's a lot of roadblocks if you want to find out about Tibet, Fal*n G0ng, or any of the leaders of the CPC, but it's do-able. You expect censorship from the Communist Party authorities, and they are still obsessed with reining in the access to information. And yet, while there may be a few people in China interested in democracy or more liberal causes, I think most people have other priorities. If the Chinese "broad masses" want a more open society, I think they would fight for it themselves. At the moment it doesn't seem to be something they get worked up about, unlike say, hating Japan or getting their kids to an American university. What I find most disappointing is the enthusiastic cooperation being shown by western companies like Yahoo and Google in helping the CPC to suppress information. Go to Beijing and watch what happens if you type in something as incuous as "Zhongnanhai" into Google. You get locked out for about half an hour.
Companies like Google say that this is the price of doing business in China. I would say that price is too high. Leave it to the Baidus, Sohus and the Sinas. Haven't Google got something in their mission statement about "doing good stuff" or some other vaguely benevolent slacker-like intention? Completely meaningless.
Anyway, I return to Australia and find myself glad to live in a society that [so far] treasures freedom of speech.
Having worked briefly at China Daily I find myself seeing it as a bit like the Truman Show. I was one of those workers behind the scenes, trying to keep the 1.3 billion Chinese Trumans living in a fantasy world of sunlight and smiles. Where Chinese leaders are always warmly welcomed on their overseas trips, and visiting speakers always say kind words about the Chinese Communist Party, even in the case of Li Ao, when they don't. If one single thing summed up the absurdity of working at China Daily, it was last Friday when Li Ao gave his speech at Beijing University. As I have already mentioned, the China Daily ran only a brief article noting his comments about life being better under Communist Party rule. At the same time, the staff at China Daily - and presumably even the person who wrote that article - were all avidly hanging on to Li Ao's every word from the limited access cable-TV broadcast. These were the same words that they wouldn't publsh themselves.
But I don't think the Trumans of China are going to have a defining moment when they hit the false horizon and disover there is another world out there. The CPC and its Ministry of Information, my former employers, are all too adept at serving up to Chinese people what they want to hear and see and believe. When the mobs turn up outside CCTV headquarters with bricks and petrol bombs, it will probably be because the station has broadcast a documentary sympathetic to Japan, challenged the myth of Luding bridge crossing or revealed that Da Shan has been lip-synching for the last 20 years.

Thanks and goodbye for now.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Go to Beijing and watch what happens if you type in something as incuous as "Zhongnanhai" into Google". What utter (paranoid) nonsense!! I live in Beijing, and yes, typed the said word into Google. And no, I wasn't "locked out" for half an hour (or for any time at all)!! You must have just been using a rubbish computer!!

3:58 pm  
Blogger Zhuan Jia said...

Well yes, I was using the China Daily ones.

5:41 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Utter (paranoid) nonsense?

Wired magazine Jan 2003:

Today, Chinese who use Google to search on terms like "falun gong" or "human rights in china" receive a standard-looking results page. But when they click on any of the results, either their browsers are redirected to a blank or government-approved page, or their computers are blocked from accessing Google for an hour or two. "They have a new mechanism that can block the results of certain searches," Brin says. Did Google help China find or obtain the filtering technology? "We didn't make changes to our servers" is all he'll say.

6:09 pm  
Blogger Zhuan Jia said...

The OpenNet Initiative has carried out in-depth testing on what happens with search engine filtering and censorship in China,:

Here's a sample:

Although China no longer blocks Google entirely, a Chinese user will have a very different experience when using the search engine for some queries due to the state’s filtering practices.

We found what appears to be greater specificity and better targeting by China’s filtering system: the largest declines in inaccessibility were for sites related to relatively vague English language search terms, such as “revolution” and “equality.”

7:26 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nonetheless, your beliefs about the extent of Chinese net monitoring (specifically, what they're interested in) are erroneous. They don't block, for example - it returns all results, it's just that if you click on a blocked site you won't get there. does return filtered results, of course.

They don't block individual computers to specific domains, though. That's just the ISP being a bit rubbish.

There's a feature coming up in the Times Higher Education Supplement in the next couple of weeks on the subject of net access and academics freedom you may find interesting, by the way.


12:26 pm  
Blogger Zhuan Jia said...

Thanks Tom,

I don't usually count the THES in my regular reading but I will look out for that article. In the meantime, ask Rob to try the Zhongnanhai search at China Daily and see if he gets the same result. The reason I tried it was I heard you could now get a satellite photograph from Google of the whole leadership complex at Zhongnanhai. I couldn't, though it is available at Google Earth. I also got the same "lock out" when I tried Google searches for Zeng Qinghong and Jia Qinling. They are obviously very sensitive about any information on themselves. Maybe it's just the China Daily computers or their ISP that blocks these searches.

PS Look forward to hearing the Party cover of "This Corrosion"

9:20 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Add to Technorati Favorites