The Tank Man: Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 – Jeff Widener (The Associated Press). Also see NY Times “Behind the Scenes: Tank Man of Tiananmen“
You might be aware that I’ve been on a blog hiatus since I writing on my dissertation on Cyberactivism in China. With the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square this week, I’d like to brain dump what I’ve come across so far. Please let me know what you think.
When veteran filmmaker Antony Thomas went to China in search of “The Tank Man“, he showed this iconic picture to undergraduates at the Peking University. Back in 1989, this university served as the nerve center of the Tiananmen Square protests.
None of the students recognized the photograph.
Lacking any context, the four Chinese students mustered their best effort and proposed that it was some kind of military parade (watch 1 minute into video).
While illustrating this in the Frontline documentary, it became fairly obvious that the Chinese regime has managed to erase the infamous Tank Man’s image from Chinese memory. This effectiveness highlights the China regime’s central effort to control information through widespread filtering of the Internet. Such a complex undertaking is not performed alone, but in unison with Western corporations such as Yahoo!, Microsoft, Google, and Skype. In order to tap into the thriving Chinese market, these companies have had little choice but to be complicit in China’s censorship strategy.
China: Now with the most netizens in the world
This year, China dominates with the largest population of Internet users in the world. On January 13, 2009, China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) released the “23rd Statistical Survey Report on the Internet Development in China“, which shares detailed statistics on the country’s virtual well-being. According to the report, by the end of December 2008, the amount of Internet users in China had reached 298 million, with 279 million being broadband users. Out of this massively networked population, 162 million (54.3%) of them had blogs.
Owning a blog is one part of the equation, returning to update it frequently is another. While the blogger population grew, so did activity in the Chinese blogosphere. Around 105 million users were updating their blogs on a regular basis (that’s 35.2% of Chinese bloggers). This figure helps legitimize the Chinese blogosphere as a public commune for mirroring and mediating everyday culture. In addition, the CNNIC report shared that the introduction of Social Networking Services (SNS) played a role in promoting the growth and influence of bloggers.
Chinese netizens are rhetorically sophisticated
Just how much impact does social media, particularly blogs, having on China’s national agenda?
In 2006, NPR reported on the Chinese blogosphere, and found that only a few are political. There were unusual ones, such as Mumu, a Communist Party member who has clips of herself doing sexy dances, but the typical Chinese blogger is more like Jasmine Gu where “It’s all about me, myself and my life”. Reports like these reflect the matching diversity of blogs to the aspirations of citizens. Not everyone is naturally into political sophistication, yet similarly complex rhetoric can also be found in the relative safety of entertainment media.
For instance, the Anglosphere is familiar with the television series “Sex and the City”. While the show has never appeared on the Chinese airwaves, it has certainly been well-received among China’s college students and young professionals. They have started to have increasingly sophisticated needs; natively undersupplied by their developing society, while artificially fulfilled through the distribution of pirated DVDs and online copies. As they watch the show to learn English and get a glimpse of life in New York City, the globalized Chinese is realized. Their interests may not be directly political, but the accumulation of cross-cultural granules eventually amounts to a greater potential for openness and acceptance of international opinion.
All this happens while the Chinese government filters the media, and particularly, the self-publishing Internet. Western nations have typically taken the stance that the Internet would bring about democracy whether authoritarian regimes realize it. This technologically determinist sentiment was no better remembered than when Bill Clinton, who in referring to Chinese Internet censorship in the 1990s, remarked that “trying to control the Internet is like trying to nail Jell-o to the wall”. To some extent, censorship can be circumvented. Multiple studies and tools have emerged to prove this, including Rebecca McKinnon’s demonstration that not all Chinese blog platforms censor consistently, where some are more relaxed than others. On the whole though, the Chinese government has been successful in hindering easy publication and access to what they deem as nationally sensitive information.
Ethan Zuckerman and Rebecca McKinnon elaborate from this point about China’s complicated culture. There appears to be an equilibrium, since for every push the government makes, an equal push is made from netizens opposed to their idea of censorship. Talented Netizens start developing sophisticated satire as a means to aggregate thoughts and spread awareness of their messages. Such culturally absurd products have included a harmonious image of a “river crab dressed in three watches“, as well as “Song of the Grass-Mud Horse“, which phonetically translates to roughly as “Cao Ni Ma” or “f*ck your mother”. As seen below, this cao ni ma music video is a cleverly vulgar rhetoric on how Chinese netizens will always find a way around online censorship:
The Great Firewall of China (or Iron Curtain 2.0)
In filtering information flow around the Chinese network, China’s Great Firewall is often mentioned. It refers to the censorship system that controls the flow of information into and within China. While technically elaborate, it still cannot filter every piece of sensitive information shared online. Instead, by making it inconvenient to read certain sites, the Chinese government can keep politically charged issues from surfacing in the national discourse (James Fallows, March 2008). Rebecca MacKinnon elaborates on the Great Firewall (aka #GFW on twitter) by stating that it merely accounts for “a small part of Chinese Internet Censorship“.
Lokman Tsui contributed his idea of the Great Firewall as being the Chinese equivalent of Iron Curtain 2.0. In reference the Cold War, his telephone survey showed that the Great Firewall myth is the belief that China’s efforts to censor the Internet must ultimately fail, and that the internet will eventually lead to the country’s democratization. Lokman then argued that this myth affects the way we perceive how China, and how the United States form policies around it (such as to build filter circumvention and jamming tools). In reality, the Great Firewall of China is a mere deterrence, but one that is sufficient at steering most netizens towards more accessible, perhaps entertaining points of interest on the Internet. As such, the Great Firewall is not simply controlling web access; it’s filtering the social and political discourse of Chinese netizens.
In a surprising move on June 4th 2009, the Communist Party’s made their agenda clear through the People’s Daily (specifically the Global Times):
“Twenty years after the June 4 Tiananmen incident, public discussion about what happened that day is almost non-existent in mainstream society on the Chinese mainland. It’s still a sensitive topic. Scholars, officials and businessmen declined interviews with the Global Times on the subject. And searches for ‘June 4 incident’ on the Chinese versions of Google, Baidu and Yahoo were blocked.” (via Straits Times)
Assassination of Foreign Web 2.0
Ramping up to Tiananmen’s 20th anniversary, the Chinese government dealt another blow to the globalized Chinese conversation by blocking off Twitter, Flickr, Hotmail and Bing in China. After news of China’s network filters broke, I recognized that this would be the perfect opportunity to see if Berkman Center’s Herdict Web project stood up to the challenge.
The Herdict Web aggregates reports of inaccessible sites, allowing users to compare data to see if inaccessibility is a shared problem. By crowdsourcing data from around the world, the project is able to document accessibility for any web site, anywhere. In order popularity on Herdict, twitter, flickr, Youtube, TOR, tibet.net, Microsoft’s Bing (including CN.bing.com), Hotmail, Blogger.com and even Plurk were all reported by users as inaccessible.
As you’ll see on Herdict, Youtube and Tor (anonymity tool) were blocked earlier on as well. China isn’t the only country to have blocked Youtube; Bangladesh, Pakistan, Thailand and Turkey temporarily shut off access to the site after users uploaded content the countries’ governments considered politically embarrassing.
Frank Yu’s response reiterated to me that China truly wanted domestic control over the Internet services used by the Chinese population. By cutting off access to popular Web 2.0 services in the States, the China regime seemed to be assaulting the intellectual reach of the cosmopolitan Chinese. This would seem to me like a modern day act of a biblioclasm, where instead of burning books, external far-reaching channels of communication are disabled in order to stifle the flow of critical knowledge and information in and around China.
Where (and Why) Web 2.0 fails in China
Frank’s tweet also reminded me of the talk I watched which renown journalist and researcher, Michael Anti (Zhao Jing), gave during the Berkman Center Luncheon Series (Nov 2007). As documented by David Weinberger…
What happens when decentralized, open blogging meets the centralized, closed Chinese society? From 2004-2005, most dissenting news of China came through blogs. After that, it comes through chat rooms. Chat rooms started in Chinese in around 1998. Now China has gone back to that — very Web 1.0, Michael says. Email and mailing lists are also important for sharing dissenting news about politics, religion, etc. “We don’t use Web 2.0. Why not?” Web 2.0 is democratizing and decentralizing. But blogs aren’t really decentralized because they need centralized servers, which make them easy for the government to control. It is much harder for the government to find chat rooms and shut them down.
To me, this was the first instance where Web 2.0 services (e.g. twitter, youtube, flickr) were explained as being disadvantaged for online discourse. Being centralized and locate-able meant that they were easier to block, compared to earlier generational Web 1.0 services which were anarchic, massive and perhaps fragmented (e.g. IRC, IM, mailing lists), thus easier for netizens to find cover in informational complexity for stealthier communication.
The Chinese Exception
While Michael builds a credible case, Frank Yu’s hint of QQ’s globalization points to another interesting aspect of China’s censorship practices. Tencent QQ, generally referred to as QQ, is the most popular free instant messaging computer program in Mainland China, and is said to be the world’s third most popular IM service (IndiaTimes, May 2007).
The significance of QQ here is that the Chinese govt appears to have no issue with international communication via their instant messaging service, since they didn’t appear to disrupt it during the June 4th lockdown. The probable reason for this is because the QQ service was home-grown and legally bound in China, this made the logistics of controlling both business and the regulation of online content much easier.
A similar rationale was given by Michael Anti on how China developed Red Flag as a knockoff of RedHat. His reason was that “[t]he government doesn’t trust RedHat. It only uses Red Flag. Microsoft gave much of the Windows source code to the government so the government verify there are no back doors.” (David Weinberger, Nov 2007)
Ultimately, “China is becoming Singapore”
While there are the visible networks of elite Chinese personalities like Frank Yu and Michael Anti (e.g. on twitter, Facebook), there are also the more obscure chat rooms and mailing lists they participate in. Michael notes that these are the two faces of the online social discourse in China.
Michael points out how liberal the modern Chinese actually are, in comparison to Europe and America. As hinted earlier in the “Sex in the City” story, this could be attributed to how they had no rule which prevents “sex before marriage, are more tolerant of homosexuality, have no conservative party, and they have no God”. He sees the Chinese people as accepting of this freedom from the government, to the extent that they were willing to exchange it for political restrictions. In fact, he believes that at least 95% of people don’t care about censorship, so only the weird ones do.
This begins to sound like Singapore, except that there’s barely any need for censorship in the country; our citizens are accustomed to self-censoring. When asked about the Internet bringing about any possible change in China, Michael said that he didn’t think so. Rather than the Internet turning China into the likeness of the United States, he goes so far as to explain that China was becoming a “big Singapore”, where we have “happy citizens without any political ideas”, (David Weinberger, Nov 2007).
While there may be this sociological mirror between China and Singapore, there has been technological policy sharing between both countries. It’s worth nothing that in 1996, China had sent senior information official Zeng Jianhui to Singapore to learn about Internet policing practices. Upon returning to the Mainland, Chinese officials followed the Singapore example of more selective restriction, and a greater reliance on the threat posed by the mere possibility of monitoring (Craig Hill, April 2009).
I welcome further insights you might have. Really, go ahead and drop me a note.
UPDATE (June 6th, 2009):
The Rambling Librarian send me a plethora of articles relating to the Singapore government’s “light touch” approach to online discourse. I’ve re-read through them, and while the approach is encouraging, I found little change in the current situation. As I’ve mentioned in the comments, “[t]he light touch discussion so far appears to liberate discussion online, but this may already be moot as Singaporeans have arguably been conditioned not to push the grey areas. [In addition], the “fear of govt action” as a local myth as well as “citizen driven propaganda” [perpetuates this condition].”
On a related note, this article he sent me legitimizes the Singapore condition I mentioned: Political observers expect more alternative voices over next 50 yrs, by Imelda Saad of Channel News Asia. From the article, observers estimate that it will take more than just the next 50 years for Singapore to see a two-party system. The reasons include how the political process is trying to compensate for fundamental biases that come with representation by proxy, while pursuing greater equality and transparency. Beyond a legitimate excuse, this reflects the present Singaporean condition. My argument lies in how there is a lack of opportunity for citizens to display any political sophistication, because the dominant PAP party has been both forward-looking and efficient. It’s a peculiar problem. Also see Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s previous comments in New Zealand concerning the “efficiency” of single party government.