China chat: A woman peruses the online discussion site QQ.com–one of China’s most popular websites–in a Shanghai Internet café.
On March 23, the day after Google pulled its search operations out of mainland China, a woman who uses the online pseudonym Xiaomi arose in her Shanghai apartment and sat down in her bedroom office for another day of outwitting Internet censorship. She leads a confederation of volunteer translators around the world who turn out Mandarin versions of Western journalism and scholarly works that are banned on China’s Internet–and that wouldn’t be available in Mandarin in any case. That day, working in a communal Google Docs account, she and her fellow volunteers completed translations of texts that ranged from a fresh New York Times interview with Google cofounder Sergey Brin to “The Limits of Authoritarian Resilience,” a seven-year-old analysis of China’s Communist Party from the Journal of Democracy.
What happened when Xiaomi hit “Post” reveals that the government’s constraints have their limits. The pieces went live on a blog and a public Google Docs page. These links were broadcast to the nearly 4,000 people who follow her on Twitter (as @xiaomi2020), the 1,170 more who follow her on Google Buzz, and others on five Chinese Twitter clones. Although Blogspot and Twitter are blocked in China to those without circumvention software, anybody in the country can open the Google Docs page–at least for now. (The government did block Google Docs for a time last year but relented after protests from companies and universities.) Once posted, Xiaomi’s translations are often reposted 10,000 times or more on blogs and bulletin-board-style discussion sites. There, they can survive for various lengths of time, though the hosting services–which are required to self-censor–generally take them down. The total readership may be orders of magnitude higher than the number of repostings, since each post is presumably read by many people, some of whom also copy the translations into group e-mails.
Xiaomi takes steps to preserve her anonymity and avoid run-ins with the authorities. (Such encounters often start when police summon someone to the local station to”drink tea”–the euphemism for questioning designed to let people know they are being watched–and can end with imprisonment.) She uses Gmail (which is encrypted and hosted outside China) and technologies that make her computer’s Internet Protocol address appear to come from the United States (the address changes frequently to thwart blocking). When she needs to talk, she uses the encrypted Internet voice service Skype–a version she installed in the United States, not one available in China that was found to allow surveillance.
Network effects: China’s Internet has 384 million users–more than that of any other country.
What she achieves with the help of such tools is hardly the only example of free speech and protest percolating through China’s censored Internet. In recent years Internet-based campaigns–efforts that often blossom on bulletin boards and blogs in hours or days–have pressured the Chinese government to release prisoners, launch investigations into scandals such as the kidnapping of boys conscripted into slave labor, and imprison corrupt government officials. “The Internet has empowered the Chinese people more than the combined effects of 30 years of [economic] growth, urbanization, exports, and investments by foreign firms,” says Yasheng Huang, a China expert and professor of international management at MIT’s Sloan School. “China may not have free speech, but it has freer speech, because the Internet has provided a platform for Chinese citizens to communicate with each other.” And that communication can include criticism of the government.
China’s attempts to suppress Internet speech have intensified. But they have intensified partly because there’s so much more material online–maybe overwhelmingly more–for the government to worry about. China’s Internet, like its economy in general, is exploding in size and complexity. The country now has a staggering 384 million Internet users–nearly a quarter of the world total–plus 750 million mobile-phone users, many of whom use those phones to access the Web. That rapid growth of the network, coupled with the remarkable creativity and boldness of its users, is shaping the Chinese Web at least as powerfully as is government repression. “We underestimate the vitality of the Chinese Internet,” says Ethan Zuckerman, cofounder of Global Voices, a blogging advocacy group. “We hear it is censored and therefore assume every page has a red background and text from the central propaganda agency. We badly underestimate how vital and how interesting some of those conversations can end up being. This is now the largest Internet, bigger than that of the United States. Why do we have a blind spot around this? We assume censored means ‘Dead. Lifeless. Artificial.’ What ‘censored’ actually
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