The Internet censorship policy of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is one of the most restrictive in the world, For example, the government blocks any web site that discusses Falun Gong (a spiritual movement that has been banned), the Dalai Lama from neighboring Tibet, and the treatment of protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
China and Google
This policy clashed with that of Google, one of the world’s most high-profile companies, in January, when Google stated that it would no longer continue to operate in China unless the government discontinued the practice of filtering its search-engine results. The company also listed a series of “cyber attacks” that were intended to hack into human rights advocates’ accounts on Gmail, the e-mail service it offers. China stoically responded that anyone who does business there is obliged to comply with the country’s laws.
In March, Google closed down its search service in China and directed users to its search engine in Hong Kong, which is uncensored. While the company’s aim was to comply technically with Chinese law, government officials appeared to be angry at the move, and it seemed that the conflict would escalate, with the Hong Kong search service being blocked in mainland China.
Previously, there had been some speculation that the presence of Google in the country (although it would be censored) could help weaken the government’s stronghold on the Web and provide the people with more information. Instead, we now know that each web site in China must employ people who monitor content and delete what is considered to be objectionable, and thousand of others have the task of “guiding” bulletin board exchanges on the Internet to favor the government’s policy.
Censorship is nothing new
Last year, the Chinese government advocated—and later set aside—a requirement that a new software program, “Green Dam-Youth Escort,” should be installed on all new computers made there. This would have monitored virtually every move the user made, and the government met with strong resistance at home and abroad, which cause it to delay enforcing the rule, at least temporarily.
While people in China who have access to the Internet have always lived with censorship, the situation grew noticeably worse in December of 2008. Charter 08, a pro-democracy group that was headed by highly respected intellectuals, circulated a petition online calling for the Communist Party to relinquish its power, and their web site was shut down.
Initially, government censors launched a campaign that claimed to be concerned with issues of morality and decency, but in the end, they closed down 250 blogs and over 1,900 web sites. Many of these were instant-message groups, online discussion forums, and cell phone text messages in which various sensitive issues, including politics, were discussed.
While it has built an extremely sophisticated Internet firewall, China still has a dynamic community of 70 million bloggers, and in January of 2009, officials proudly boasted that the number of Web users in the country was approaching 300 million—more than any other nation in the world. The government also employs a number of people who pretend to be ordinary Internet surfers and act in support of the status quo. They are referred to jokingly as members of the “50 Cent Party,” because they are frequently paid 50 Chinese cents for every posting.
Ironically, as China seeks to improve its status in the global economy, officials in Beijing are trying to balance the task of censoring Web content in order to maintain control with the country’s obvious need for information from the outside world. Also, as China’s media become more commercialized, the result is increased competition, content that is more diversified, and greater stress on investigative reporting by the country’s news agencies.