by Aaron Bowen, MLIS Day
The Great Firewall of China
Characteristic of the tension between change in contemporary Chinese society and efforts by the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, to maintain its influence over the lives of its citizens, there have been multiple instances within the past year of Chinese bloggers using the Internet to publish thoughts the Party finds objectionable and in turn facing consequences for their actions. The Western media has extensively chronicled stories of censorship and/or arrest of these “cyber dissidents,” to borrow a phrase from Julian Pain of Reporters Without Borders, as well as stories about censorship in connection to American search engines such as in this piece by The Boston Globe.
Part of the reason why these instances of censorship make headlines outside of China is the Chinese government’s relative success (thus far) at controlling access to information via the Internet. Offering a lucid analysis of the power of the CCP’s control over Internet sites in China, Tamara Renee Shie argues in her 2004 paper The Tangled Web that information access may end the rule of the CCP but that such an outcome will not happen soon. Tom Zeller Jr. adds that while there was a sense during the 1990s that “However efficiently [China’s] leaders might have controlled information in the old days, they would be no match for this new democratic beast, decentralized and crackling with opinion and information from the four corners of the earth….things did not exactly turn out that way.” He finishes this thought by asserting the CCP "created a multilayered regime of filtering and surveillance, vague legal regulations and stringent enforcement that, taken together, effectively neutralized the Internet in China."
Chinese bloggers themselves make similar observations. Asia Times Online writes that Liu Di was jailed for over a year for keeping a blog under the name Stainless Steel Mouse, a blog which included “criticisms of renewed restrictions on Internet cafes, a plea for more freedom of expression on the Internet and - oh, yes - a satire of the Chinese Communist Party.” The Boston Globe article above recounts the suppression of a blog by a journalist called Zhao Jing (known as Michael An Ti in the blogosphere). After Ti criticized government-ordered personel changes at a Beijing newspaper the CCP asked Microsoft (which hosted Ti’s website) to shut the blog down. Microsoft complied, but Ti was back online less than a week later at a new URL. On his new blog he expressed his opinion about what had happened by saying "It is so hard to be a free Chinese person… damn Great Wall, damn Microsoft."
The challenges of effecting societal change through digital means are clearly complex and daunting. But change is happening despite the CCP’s efforts at control, and it is proving a powerful force in terms of everyday life in Chinese society and in terms of online commentary specifically.
In terms of everyday life, many young Chinese are far more willing to partake in a throbbing, if chaotic, contemporary lifestyle than previous generations. One may find examples of this shift in many diverse media, from the grassroots change chronicled in Ian Johnson’s Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China to new societal attitudes expounded in Chun Sue’s Beijing Doll, Mian Mian’s Candy, or either of Wei Hui’s novels. A 2004 issue of Fortune Magazine described Beijing Doll as “a sexually explicit novel recounting [the author’s] search for love, truth, and the perfect punk band,” and goes on to say that “before being banned, the book sold hundreds of thousands of copies and was embraced by disaffected students throughout China.”
AThese raucous aspects of Chinese culture make their way online too, exemplified last year by a self-described dance girl and CCP member who keeps a blog under the pseudonym Mu Mu. Mu Mu offers a mix of political commentary and irreverent insights into the world of 20-somethings in China. In addition to her writings she posts images of herself from the chin down (never revealing her face) in alluring but never sexually explicit poses.
Writing that that “a party girl leads China’s online revolution,” Mu Mu was introduced to Western audiences in November of 2005 by Howard W. French. Based upon his experiences covering Chinese websites like Mu Mu’s, French wrote earlier this year it is getting harder and harder for the CCP to control the flow of Internet-based information into China. And things will only get harder for the CCP as the Internet and the blogosphere continue to expand. Ultimately the CCP must adapt to the current realities of Internet use in China (which may prove to be too much of a challenge for them) or see their control over information wane, perhaps to the point that they will no longer be able to govern China.
Fortune, v. 150: 7. October 4, 2004.
Shie, T.R. August, 2004. “The Tangled Web: does the Internet offer promise or peril for the Chinese Communist Party?” Journal of Contemporary China, v. 13: 40.