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China’s Censorship: A Year in Review

January 2, 2012 Leave a comment

William Farris is running a good retrospective on what gets censored in China complete with screenshots from major search engines from throughout the year

Change Ain’t Good

March 3, 2011 3 comments
High Chancellor Adam Sutler (played by John Hu...

Image via Wikipedia

“And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression. And where once you had the freedom to object, to think and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission.”

V, V for Vendetta

“What we need right now is a clear message to the people of this country. This message must be read in every newspaper, heard on every radio, seen on every televisionI want this country to realize that we stand on the edge of oblivion. I want everyone to remember why they need us!”

Chancellor Adam Sutler, V for Vendetta

As a fresh faced youngster in 2006, I wanted to save China.  I wanted to shine a light on the corruption, the censorship, the human rights abuses and I wanted to open the eyes of the Chinese people, and really let them see what China was, and let them understand what the western world thought of China.

Of course, it was an utterly pointless exercise.  I got my first Chinese girlfriend, a 19 year old economics student (ok, I’ll admit that I was 27 at the time), and I really thought that I’d be able to bring her around to the western way of thinking, hoping that this article that I wrote about movie censorship, or that column I wrote about plagiarism, or the things that showing her pictures of Tankman and the 1989 protests would make her see sense.  I even dragged her around the old Qianmen area that was scheduled for demolition to make her see what her government was doing to these irreplaceably historic buildings.  I got shooed off the makeshift living areas for the homeless behind the infamous “mini great wall” behind the Qianmen bus station for taking unwanted picture of the squalor.  For all my procrastinations, for all my heartfelt appeals, for all my solemn, headshaking, I didn’t make a dent.

Her father was a government lawyer, and was having none of it.  After a couple of months, I had gotten around to the idea that her life revolved around getting a manicure in Wang Fu Jing, going to KTV, and going dancing till three in the morning and coming home stinking of cigarettes and baijiu.  Occasionally seeing me, and quite possibly buying more shoes.  Things didn’t work out between us.

I like to live in a sea of information.  I’ve got Facebook open, Tweetdeck tuned to some of the top China commentators and bloggers, the TV on mute tuned to BBC News 24, and BBC World service playing via the Internet – I do all this whilst chatting on MSN, sending and receiving text messages and answering Skype calls and downloading podcasts to my iPod for later listening.  It all adds up to the fact that I know more about what’s going on in China than most Chinese people, and I barely speak the language.  All of my information about what’s going on in China comes from English news sources.  This is a source of friction between me and the Chinese people that I talk to, basically because the news isn’t always good news and Chinese people don’t believe that western news sources can be trusted.  This is a rather inconvenient situation for foreigners, because nearly all Chinese people don’t actually know that it’s illegal for Chinese journalists to work for foreign publications.  So how the hell else are we supposed to get the skinny on what’s happening in China?  What is interesting though, is that the things that I’m interesting and repost on Weibo or Kaixin, aren’t the same things that my Chinese friends are interested in.

Starved, in the first few months of my return to China from Japan, of Facebook, I signed up with Kaixin which slaked my thirst for constant new news.  Last week I disabled my account, mostly because what my Chinese friends on Kaixin were blogging about was pretty much diametrically opposite to what I was blogging and reposting about.  That and I was getting pretty pissed off with everything I was reposting as “newsworthy” was pretty much instantly deleted by the censors

And this is where we come to part one of my theory of why everyone in this part of the world defends their culture so much.  It’s a cliché, and it’s not going to be popular, but in a nutshell: everyone looks the same in this part of the world and the historical and cultural background is the only thing that can help people differentiate Korean from Chinese from Japanese.  Part two of my theory attempts to answer a question that was posted last weekend about why the Chinese government is so good at “playing the crowd” at home, but not particularly good doing it on an international scale.  Every citizen has a certain preference as to how they perceive their country.  The Chinese government has the advantage because for a long time, it’s told people how to perceive their country.

Let’s take a look at the Japanese for a moment.

The Japanese prefer to think of their country as small.  You’ll say you want travel somewhere, and they will almost faint away in shock at the very thought of the great distance you want to travel.  You’ll meet someone in Osaka, enthuse about the country to a certain extent, and hear about how small the country is.  Then you’ll mention that you want to travel somewhere like Himeji (a mere two hours away from Osaka Station on the limited stop service).  Hands will fly up in horror, girls will faint away in a swoon, sirens, klaxons and alarms will sound and Japanese special forces will abseil down from the ceiling and crash through the windows as the Japanese people you are talking to try to contemplate the great distances involved in the epic journey that you are planning and very likely may not survive.  Japan is small, but everything is Very Far Away. And Japanese like to think of it like that.  And it’s the same with China, Chinese people have certain preferences that they adhere to when they think of their country.

Chinese people prefer the idea that China has been ruled in a ceaseless, uninterrupted chain of dynasties and emperors.  The actual details of wars, in-fighting, assassination attempts, treachery and other insidious parts of Chinese history are not important.  What is important is that the rule of China as one country has been how it has been, and it is the way that things will be to come.  This is why slogans like “a thousand years of the CCP” and suchlike were so popular.  It made Chinese people feel secure that someone was actually going to be watching over them, that something would be there.  In China, there’s no corruption.  Corruption is just a means to the end of being comfortable about knowing the outcome – the accumulation of money is incidental.

Chinese people prefer to know what’s going to happen – my love life is littered with Chinese girlfriends who thought obsessively about the future – they wanted to know if I had a life plan, if they should have a life plan, if they should have a monthly or 6 monthly plans.  My most recent ex was given the advice that if she didn’t get a promotion in the next six months, she should quit the company.  That was last June, and as far as I know, she’s still at the same place.  One of my go-getter Chinese friends sits down and writes a yearly schedule for herself every January 1st.  Last year, one of my students wouldn’t even move to Xian because (amongst a myriad thousand reasons), she was afraid of what might happen.

Fear of failure is rampant in China, and it all comes from the Chinese education system.  Students are repeatedly told that they know nothing, that they are empty vessels and they need to be filled with instructions on how to carry out the simplest of tasks (one of my students in the English school I was working in last year asked me to do a class on how to tie a tie) without instruction, without clear leadership, without the feel that they are being told something that they didn’t already know, Chinese people are lost.  Into this steps the CCP, which rather than being run as a voice of the people, sees itself (and calls itself) the ruling party of the country and indeed, of Chinese society.  Chinese laws don’t so much protect individuals, but they protect social and economic stability, a legal situation, and a national mindset that goes in completely the opposite direction to the western ideals of protecting individuals first.

The Chinese Communist Party is very proud of the fact that they have “opened up China”, with their policy of reforms and, er, opening up.  In actual fact, no one actually did anything, rather, the Party stopped interfering with people’s lives, and let them get on with whatever they wanted to get on with.  The problem with opening up has been that the focus in China has shifted from the collective “China” to the individual “Chinese”, and the laws in China, as already pointed out do not take into account protection for the individual.  There are no independent courts, no due process, and very channels for legal protection for the average Joe Chun.  The people are left with one alternative: The authoritarian protection of the ruling CCP.

Google Whacked

January 13, 2010 2 comments

There’s a myth that China needs saving from evil dictators, or that Chinese people need to be somehow civilized.  That’s simply not true.  The truth is that there’s little in the way of mass oppression as there once was, and most of the so-called political maneuvers are more than likely to be economically motivated than political – so much so that that when the Chinese government blocked the movie portal IMDB in China, I instantly commented that there must be a Chinese–backed version of the site to open in mainland China soon.

I don’t think that western countries have the best way of doing things, (in much the same way that I don’t think the Chinese way is the best way) as anyone who has been through an election year in the UK can testify.  No, it’s just that when I see a good idea rejected for no good reason, I don’t really see any reason to waste time, energy and money on getting the idea accepted.  I don’t think, for example that IMDB should be blocked in mainland China, I don’t think that “because of the Korean War” is a good excuse to give to me when I ask why can’t I exchange Won in Beijing and I don’t think that the answer to winter heating is to sling another block of coal on the Aga.

All of these things and more hurt China and Chinese people, and they hurt China in the worst possible way, they are rules enforced for the good of the minority that will benefit only in the short term.  The foreigners sure as hell aren’t going to hang around if Beijing air starts to melt their fillings, but thanks to the shortsighted government policies, Chinese people have little choice but settle back in with a bottle of Tsigntao to watch The Happy Show while their face melts.  Sure, the laowai are going to uproot their families and they may never eat gong bao chicken ever again, but then again, who wants to drink milk that could land you in the emergency room?

The one reason why I like the Internet is that it’s a major pain in the ass for the Chinese government.  The Internet is a problem, not only because it allows the free flow of ideas, but because it allows people to easily compare their living standards.  At one time in China it was easy to tell people that they were doing good work and that they were beating the evil Americans when it comes to wheat production.  Nowadays, it’s not so easy.  The Internet is open and accessible to everyone.  Peer review has never been so easy – anyone can look at it, and anyone can poke holes in it, sniff it, lick and get up close and personal to it.  The only problem is that the Chinese are not really used to people being able to look at it and poke holes in it.  Only last week a large fraud was discovered by an obscure science journal in papers that were authored by Chinese scientists.  Acta Crystollographica Section E found that all that Chinese researchers had done was to alter certain, existing crystal structures by one or two atoms with the intention of making the structure seem entirely new.  The discovery led to the withdrawal of the papers by the two groups that submitted them in the first place – a total of 70 between them.

The big money in China these days is to be made in the online sector – after all, it’s the largest in the world.  The problem is, there isn’t one large Chinese dotcom that isn’t a copy of an existing western site – Facebook has Kaixin, Flickr has Yupoo, Google has Baidu and Youtube has Youku.  The sad truth is that the Chinese can’t do much on their own.  They can’t even make a good movie with a panda in it.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the Chinese cyberspace.  Chinese companies take and existing western idea, add various China-centric bells and whistles to it (for example, Kaixin has a hugely popular car-park based game that would only be successful in China) and then market it with the usual censorship and the all important Chinese character set.  Even the censorship software that was produced at the government’s behest used a blacklist and source code that was pirated from an American company.  It’s a game that been well played in the US movie industry – we suffer endless remakes of Mission:Impossible, Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk, ad nauseum – good ideas that worked in the past are much safer to invest in.

American companies have taken a lot of heat for even setting foot in China.  Yahoo!, Cisco and Google have all been hauled up in front of the US senate to explain just what the hell they’re up to in China.  Getting into bed with the commies still rattles some cages up on Capitol Hill.  Cisco has been suspiciously quiet about supplying hardware and software that runs the Great Firewall, Yahoo! handed over emails that got a human rights activist thrown in the slammer, and as for Google.  Well.

Google made a convincing argument when they started running Google.cn.  They pointed out that a limited search engine is much better than no search engine at all.  For a long time, they had me convinced.  They spouted at length the need to comply with local laws, as did Yahoo!  But that was before they felt the sharp end of Chinese business practices.  But that’s all changed for the time being.  For the time being, it’s Google vs. China.

It’s not the first time that big business has gone head-to-head with the Chinese government.  Green Dam/Youth Escort (remember that?) was effectively retired after a number of Chinese companies complained that the deadlines imposed by the Chinese government were impossible to abide by, and that the software itself was buggy beyond belief.  It was the first time that business had won out over the mandate of the Chinese government.  Now it looks like Google is trying to do the same thing.

There’s a lot riding on this.  Apart from the thousands of people that are employed at Google China – and it’s a good bet that a number of fine upstanding party members have sons and daughters working there – a growing number of businesses and individuals have become increasingly reliant on Google technology.  The grievances that Google has are pretty serious, it’s been well known that Chinese hackers have not been shy in recent years, to the point that they’re now posing a serious threat to the US.  The problem is that that Google has discovered that at least 20 other countries that have had major security breaches inflicted upon them that originated in the Chinese mainland.  While these companies haven’t yet been named, what should concern the Chinese is if Google has enough clout to convince the others that operating within Chinese law and getting your hand bitten for your trouble simply isn’t worth it.

UPDATES

Since the above was put together while I was waiting to make phone calls to some of the good folk of Beijing, much has beeen written in the last 8 hours, so here is a short collection of links that didn’t exist at the time of writing.

Imagethief
James Fallows (The Atlantic)
Global Voices Online
The Peking Duck
Shanghaiist
China Hearsay

Keep Repeating to Yourself, It’s Only a Movie

November 19, 2009 Leave a comment

The old chestnut of how Chinese people are represented in US blockbusters has once again risen up and the patriotic morons who populate the Chinese web forums (most whom I would warrant could benefit from six months being beaten senseless in an Internet addiction therapy centre).  This time, it’s none other than 2012 – a movie that is based on the idea that Mayans knew when the world was going to end (in 2012).  Reaction to the movie has been well, stupid, with stupid Chinese people asking “could 2012 be real?” (no, it’s a only movie) and even stupider Chinese people asking “should 2012 be banned in China” (no, it’s a only movie).  The truly moronic amongst them have even thought that writing in newspapers about it about the fact that it is too horrific for children – especially Chinese children who live in a socialist utopia, and spend their free time dancing in the sugarpulm rainbow fields skipping through the wheat with gumdrop smiles  – with one critic suggesting that even he, a fully grown man (and actor, no less) with a driving license and everything, was too terrified to sleep after watching it.  Hong Jiantao wrote:

“…ever since 9:30 last night when I finished watching the film, I haven’t been able to get to sleep. I’ll nod off for a few moments but then I’m startled awake by my dreams, which consist entirely of horrifying scenes…I could still not help being convinced that disaster was really about to strike. Really, you absolutely cannot take children with you to watch this movie. A teenage girl sitting behind me was so scared she started crying, and my own palms were slick with a cold sweat”

From what Jintao writes, 2012 is nothing more than The Exorcist for our generation.  At this point, it’s seems fair that anyone who thinks that the world is really going to end in 2012, and who thinks that Los Angeles sliding off into the ocean (something that, till now, has been nothing but an oft-prayed-for fantasy), despite reams of geological evidence, and common sense that this seems hugely unlikely, should not be let anywhere near a computer, a blog, or a cinema without first being doped up real good.  Also, in my experience it’s not that hard to find a film that a Chinese girl will cry at.

Ignoring for one moment that there mustn’t be too much in the way of mass media that Chinese people find offensive, and ignoring for yet another moment that it’s a only movie, and for a further moment still that it’s a Christmas blockbuster  and not really meant to be taken seriously.  Movies of this ilk are two minute cigarette breaks, a five second orgasm, they’re not supposed to be Zen-like mediations on the existence of God, death, life the universe and everything.   The real problem seems to be that Chinese people are mostly represented as pig-farmers with money who made it to the bright lights of the big cities, and are mostly helpless without the aid of big brother America coming to save everyone’s skins.  And since when do the Chinese want validation from the Yanks?  I didn’t leap on my word processor when all those action movies came out in the 80’s that had the bad guys spouting Shakespeare in bad English accents.

The accusation that the movie is creating a negative social effect is ridiculous because it gives the impression that the world will end in three years echoes the equally ludicrous notion that Kung Fu Panda exploits the memories of the people who died in the Sichuan Earthquake last year.  This of course is not true, because it’s a movie.  Asking Roland Emmerich to direct a movie about the end of the world is like asking Ted Bundy to do the catering at your wedding – you’ve got a pretty fair idea of what the content is going to be.  If the overly patriotic Chinese bloggers (and there are a lot of them) think that they can get a movie withdrawn because a girl cried, (and dear Lord, grown adult men have got to be pretty hard up for publicity if they readily admit that watching this bilge gave them nightmares), then they are demonstrating a naiveté not seen since Mao turned to his troops and said “don’t worry, it won’t take us long to get there.”

I mean, it’s only a movie.

The Triumph of the Geeks

November 18, 2009 1 comment

Apart from pandas giving birth (or at the very least, two pandas looking at each with a twinkle in their eye), there’s not much else from China that will grab the front pages like a presidential visit.  The trouble is that while there are was a lot of style, there wasn’t much in the way of substance.   Unless you count 6 hours on The Great Wall and taking photos of the The Forbidden City, that is.

But all that was to be expected.  As Gady Epstein pointed out on his Twitter feed, Obama wasn’t about to step on Chinese toes on their home turf. Beyond the “town hall meeting” in Shanghai (essentially a televised English Corner), there was nothing much else for the President to do.  A press conference turned into a press meeting, with no questions allowed, and public appearances were kept to an absolute minimum.  Previous presidents had pushed for changes in the law with regards to human rights (Clinton) and had even accused the country’s leadership of currency manipulation (guess who).  Barack Obama, at least officially, seemed to be in Beijing for what everyone else is officially here to do – enjoy the culture and the history.  In fact, given the lack of any decent TV coverage, the cancellation of press conferences, and all the rest of it, you wouldn’t be overly shocked to be told that not many Chinese knew that he was in town at all, let along talked to students in a university somewhere.

What was interesting was that the meeting was broadcast on the Internet by the White House tech staff themselves and – get this – the feed is unblocked on the mainland and it was accompanied by a live word-for-word translation of the whole thing.  In Chinese.  Anyone with an internet connection (which is a lot of anyones in China) could log onto the White House and see a Chinese students discussing Internet censorship by the Chinese Communist Party, and then see what the world’s most powerful man had to say about it.  It’s one way of staying ahead of the game – the blocking of the White House website could be seen as a diplomatic slight, so whatever was on it, within reason, would be pretty much available to all and sundry in China.  Whoever thought of the idea of adding a Chinese translation is either a devious prankster, or a certified genius.  It’s odd the way that those two often crossover.

It’s about this point in the article that you’ll understand from my gushing that I’m a geek.  A nerd.  I’ve got a blog and more than one email address, you don’t really need much more than that, do you? While most people were gearing up to make themselves ready for Windows 2000, I was wrestling with my first command line on SuSE Linux 6.2.  I worked my way through several Linux distros, including SuSE, Mandrake (now Mandriva), Red Hat and finally Ubuntu – Windows finally matured into something that I could use satisfactorily and I’m currently running Vista Ultimate.  I had a website, a couple, in fact, both had a couple of visitors a month if I was lucky, and I was a lurking member of Slashdot long before it was made the owners of that blog into millionaires.  It’s not unsurprising to learn that most of my angst was directed at the Great Firewall.  Now, it seems, I’m not alone in casting aspersions on this monstrosity, as Barack Obama was quizzed on whether people should be allowed to access social networking sites like Twitter this week in Shanghai – the questions about Internet censorship were asked by handpicked members of the Chinese Communist Youth League.

Censorship and the Great Firewall are my personal bugbears when it comes to talking politics in China.  The specific beef that I have with the Internet censorship in China is that it doesn’t work.  At least half my friends who live in the Chinese mainland are able to post messages of Facebook, and I’m still able to see Tweets from the various journos and commentators that I follow on Twitter.  The Great Firewall of China doesn’t work, and it’s costing the Chinese people around $300 million a year to keep going.   That’s $300 million that could be spent on giving people a new hospital or rebuilding a decent school in Sichuan.  Another wild idea would be that that money could be used to actually make people happy rather than make them repressed – it would surely cut down on the monthly tally of protests that turn violent in China.  The Uyghurs would be a little bit happier if they got a bit extra money here and there, and the Tibetans might even welcome the odd donation to keep a remote temple open.  But that kind of thing just doesn’t wash with the Chinese Communists.

The odd thing is that while I’m doing my best to be a do-gooding, interfering busybody who, the Chinese are just getting on with it, and even though they aren’t living in the US, they are finding ways and means of getting the work done.  How about we look at education?  Surely a communist developing country can’t have a better education system than say, Japan or the UK, or the US?

The fact of the matter is that more Chinese students than ever are enrolling and foreign universities – the pool of intellect in China in the next five years will be astonishing.  The old system of having your degree chosen for you is long gone, students are free to choose what they want to study.  Because they are interested in the subject, they study harder and get better degrees, and the whole thing sets a virtuous circle into motion.  Overseas Chinese students numbered an impressive 98, 510 last year, which is a whopping 21% increase on previous years (India still leads, but not by much, with 103,260 overseas students).  60% of all US universities surveyed in the autumn reported an increase in the number of Chinese students they enrolled.

Essentially what is happening is this: because of the one-child policy, children in China are now taking advantage of the best educations in the world while they’re waiting for their own home-grown institutions to mature.  They’re not just saying “we’re going to have great universities”, they’re saying “we’re going to have great universities, and while we’re waiting for them, we are sending our kids to great universities.”  The Chinese are essentially outsourcing their students to the US.  The fashion for an American education is such that a book has just been published by three Chinese undergrads studying in the US.  Called “A True Liberal Arts Education”, it describes life at a small liberal arts college, and the concepts of liberal arts.

People are absolutely right when they say that censored version of Google or Yahoo is better than no Google or Yahoo at all – having the tools that organize and make sense of the Internet are vital.  What comes with the ability to sort through information effectively is that ability to compare your circumstances with those others have in other countries.  Even if the students were handpicked and even if the whole thing was stage-managed, as one Chinese Twitter user commented, for a brief moment in China, people were able to discuss the problems of censorship and one-party rule, and these are subjects that could only really be discussed with a foreign leader.

When it comes to letting the Chinese in on the secret that if they had a more open Internet, they’d be able to make more money is something that they’re going to have to figure out for themselves.  The last time that the Chinese were running full tilt boogie, they came up with the compass, the printing press and gunpowder, who knows what they’ll do when they finally get the genie out of the bottle.

Hot, Flat and Repressed

September 10, 2009 Leave a comment

China, in its present state of government will never be the global power that it wants to be.  The reign of the ruling Chinese Communist Party will only last so long as they have the energy for the Chinese people.

The unprecedented growth and industrialization of China is, by any measure, remarkable, and fuelling this growth is, well, fuel.  Specifically, oil.  China has little in the way of its own oil reserves – optimistic estimates say that there’s about 14 years of oil left given the trend of growth and consumption.  The government needs to import oil.  A lot of it.  The problem was that most developed countries that were willing to sell oil to the Chinese would always add the condition that one of the situations, be they the human rights situation, organ harvesting, censorship or any other of the distasteful activities that the CCP indulges in should stop.  The rather inventive solution to the problem was to invest in countries that didn’t have the money or the resources to drill for their own oil, and these are usually the countries that don’t have the best human rights situations themselves, so they’re in no place to pile criticism on the Chinese government.  The upshot is that the Chinese are ruffling more feathers in the human rights community, signing million dollar deals with countries that White House hawks would consider rogue states.

The big question that is asked by most young Chinese is: “When America and Europe were industrializing, they didn’t have anyone telling them they should use less coal or burn less oil, or pipe less gas.  They polluted with wild abandon and everyone in the west is rich and fat because of it.  Why can’t we do the same?”  The answer is: China can. Not only “China can”, but “China can and I want it to do so”.  Why?  Because the interest in renewable energy sources is gathering more and more momentum every day.  More tax dollars and more private companies are pouring money into solving the world’s energy crisis.  They’re not doing this in order to save the world, they’re spending money because they know that renewable energy will become, in the very near future, the next global market.  Holland exports its wind turbine technology, and Holland has 2% unemployment.  It’s no coincidence that they were one of the first countries to reduce their dependence on Middle Eastern oil to zero, while also becoming one of the first countries to seriously invest in renewable energy technology.  The more time that China wastes arguing with Japan about where it can drill for oil, the more time Europe, America and Japan (Japan, being the most energy efficient developed country, which will be able to exploit a market of 1.6billion people in China) have to be the first to make a product that everyone will be relying on.  Of course, I want this product to be designed and patented by a British firm, rather than a Chinese firm.

And if you think that this is all just prevarication, the bad news that this has already happened.  Pennsylvania train maker GE Transportation is selling energy efficient, eco-friendly train locomotives to Chinese rail and freight companies.  The American trains last longer, don’t use as much fuel (they have 10-cylinder engines instead of the Chinese 12-cylinder) and don’t break down as much as the older, more inefficient engines that China has been using for years.  Already an American company has a foothold in the Chinese economy.  All of this has been done while the Chinese are partying hard, singing Hu Jintao’s praises and raising a glass to Wen Jiabao.  While the officials are taking bribes and looking after their own, the Americans are starting to take over major Chinese industries, thanks to their clear regulation and inventive innovation.  Some money is going to the Chinese, it’s true, but the big money is going to the US.

How does innovation follow on from regulation?   When the auto industry in American was told that they must install all their cars with catalytic converters, only one company looked at how it could get around these rules that were, on average, adding $1300 to the production cost of every car.  The chairman of Honda told its engineers that they must look at how to reduce emissions before they got anywhere near the tailpipe.  The result was a new engine with a pre-burn chamber that reduced the toxicity of the gas/air mix before it went into the piston chamber to be ignited.  Honda not only created a solution that saved their company millions of dollars and helped to combat climate change, they also started licensing the technology to other automakers.

When the movie Kung-fu Panda was released worldwide, there were two camps in China that were critical.  The first crackpot camp claimed that the move exploited the memories of those who had died in the Sichuan earthquake.  The second group asked the rather more valid question of why hadn’t the Chinese movie makers themselves been able to produce a smash hit animated comedy set in ancient China?   Americans were selling Chinese to the Chinese.  With the government still in control of the TV and of movie production, this is the way that it’s always going to be.  China will always be the one picking up the crumbs, living off the pale imitations and pirate copies of things that other people produce.   Americans make movies that sell, the Chinese have to make movies that conform to a haphazardly enforced political and moral agenda.

There’s regulation in America, but there’s little in the way of censorship.  And look what has happened there – there are hundreds of companies now that actually sell people software that will censor the Internet for them.  Worried parents don’t want their kids to be able to access redhotanddutch.com, so they pay companies to give them software that will block pornographic websites or websites that can teach teenagers how to make pipebombs.  If the Great Firewall was removed, then it would free up a monopoly that Chinese companies would be able to take advantage of.  If there was an open list available and updated reguluarly by the government, then companies would be able to take that list and create filtering software around it.  Laws could be passed that made sure that whichever institutions the government wanted these filters to be installed at had the software properly set up.  It’s still censorship, but it’s honest censorship, the criteria would be in the open, and everyone would know where they stood.

What’s happened is that people are scared to develop and innovate, because there are no clear guidelines telling people what they can and can’t do.  Copies of existing works are being made because they’ve been around for a while and haven’t caused trouble in other countries.  What the Chinese Internet needs isn’t censorship and prison terms, it’s stable, reliable, open regulation.  With the regulation will come innovation, Chinese software engineers will be able to clearly see what they can’t and can do, and soon they’ll start creating rather than copying.  Copying is only a short-term stop-gap solution, sooner or later, foreign companies will get tired of having their products pirated, and they’ll start coming down hard on the Chinese manufacturers by imposing hefty taxes on Chinese imports.

So, let’s assume that there’s a rising middle class in China, and that incomes, on average, are going up too.  The money that’s generated from taxes collected from the wealthy middle class give the government a huge pool of money with which to effect massive social improvement.  There’s more money to get the best doctors in better hospitals which now have the best equipment.  The parks are clean, as is the water that’s piped into the apartments.  On sunny days, lovers may stroll in the many clean, quiet parks dotted around the city.  The public transport system is being overhauled with new subway lines and cleaner buses being introduced.  In short, there’s enough money going spare to pour into big, flashy projects that do two important things: they keep people happy, and they keep people from asking questions.  If you’re happy and you know it, then you’re less likely to demand accountability and transparency from your government. The CCP is still able to bank on the growing economy to keep people happy because the famines and the hardships that were endured during the Chinese civil war are remembered by people who are still alive, so it’s easy now to sing the praises of the CCP and the apparent economic wonder that they’ve orchestrated.   The trick of politics isn’t to make people happy, it’s to keep people happy.  In order to keep the Chinese people happy, and to keep the lucrative manufacturing contracts China now finds itself reliant on an unsteady foreign oil supply, and oil is a resource that is definitely close to extinction.

The fact that the CCP can so effectively crush opposition shows that the government has enough money to not only to keep the people happy on a superficial level, but they’re also able to spend large amounts of cash developing sophisticated internal intelligence services, and preventing groups that have an agenda different to that of the ruling political party from forming.  The rise of China’s middle class and the migration of ethnically Han Chinese to remote areas of the country has made it easier than ever for people to compare their economic status with that of others.  Needless to say, these people at the losing end of the equation are not happy.  Thousands found solace in the sword verses of the Koran, not because they found Allah, but because they were sick and tired of being the losers all the time.  The Muslim men that were unemployed and destitute in their home countries are the ones that migrated to the terror training camps, and they turned that dissatisfaction into a hatred so directed and so pure that they were willing to commit acts of mass murder.  There’s no billionaire oil sheik on the planet who feels he needs to sacrifice his life and kill countless others in order to enter paradise.  Wherever there are have and have-nots, there’s always terrorism.

The creation of a Chinese middle class has given the Chinese government access to a money pot deeper than it could possibly fantasize of, and so long as people are getting richer and are paying their bills, the more money the government has to strengthen its grip on dissidents.  The problem that comes is when the energy that is needed to finance the business ventures that enables the rich to get richer runs out, there’s going to be a problem.  More than likely, the CCP will be forced to do as Bahrain had to do – reform its basic, fundamental ideas of how society is supposed to be run.  People are not likely to give it all up and go through another North Korea-style great struggle; they aren’t going to trek for miles on the second Long March and dig for coal with their bare hands.  They’re much more likely to riot in the streets, and demand that the government fulfill their half of the bargain.

The balancing act that Beijing is faced with in unenviable.  While their yearly 8%/9% growth is spectacular, and the effect that this has on the nation’s millions that live on $1 a day has been a phenomenal achievement for a country that started its days 60 years ago bankrupt with no gold supplies, there is no question that this growth has to be sustained.  Or else.   What has been created now is a strange economic cycle where the economy grows, and must keep growing to satisfy the general population (and to help secure to continued governance from the CCP), in order to keep the economy growing, the country needs oil.  The country doesn’t have oil so it has to import from rogue states and at some point, that’s definitely going to come up at the next WTO meeting.  If you think this is a big problem, I haven’t even mentioned that America is going after the same oil supplies in order to sustain its own addiction to the black stuff.

After all the fear-mongering and doomsaying, for the first time in a long time, I have hope for China.  To put it more accurately, I have a little more hope than I did.  The hope comes in the form of the members of the very same middle class that are, according to one economic theory, helping the CCP stay in power, the ones who own the massive Chinese companies, and the ones who protested so vehemently about the absurd idea to install the Green Dam/Youth Escort software on all the computers that were to be sold in China this year.  It’s the biggest victory that the Chinese people have scored over their government in a long time.  One thing that is apparent after spending so much time in China is that people are able to tell you how great the country is, but the list of achievements is always in the past tense. China and it’s people must look to the longer term, they’ve got to turn their “did”s into “will”s, and the one thing that they can’t afford to do is to wait till later to clean up the mess, once they’ve become rich; they’ve got to clean up to become rich.

Cyber Spies and Heinous Lies

April 23, 2009 Leave a comment

“I could hardly stop It was so exciting,” the boy mumbled. “I went to the Internet cafe almost every day, and was dreaming of making girlfriends.” Half drunk one night, Xiao Yi sneaked into the student dormitory and raped a 15-year-old girl. “If I had not seen the porn websites, I would not have done such a thing,” the teenager says wistfully. Sadly, Xiao Yi is not an exception. Jin Hua, deputy director of the Beijing juvenile facility, said about 20 percent of the offenders last year committed rape, and almost all of them said porn websites were to blame.

In 2006, an article appeared in the China Daily (and subsequently on the China Daily website) that told the story of Xiao Yi, a seventeen year old who had been jailed for 10 years for raping a fifteen year old girl. “If I had not seen the porn websites, I would not have done such a thing,” he told a reporter.

The CCP began its campaign to “purify the internet environment” with a crackdown on porn sites in April 2007. As AP reported, Zhang Xinfeng, deputy public security minister, was under no allusions as to where the roots of the darker side of the Internet reside. “The boom of pornographic content on the internet has contaminated cyberspace and perverted China’s young minds. The inflow of pornographic materials from abroad and lax domestic control are to blame for the existing problems in China’s cyberspace.” What followed were a few arrests for hosting “cyber strip shows” and a major clampdown on the myriad blogs and search engines hosting in China. Cai Wu, director of the Information Office of China’s Cabinet, told Xinhua that as more and more illegal and unhealthy information spreads through the blog and search engine, we will take effective measures to put the BBS, blog and search engine under control.”

Throughout the year, the government produces a list of guidelines for ISPs and Internet companies to follow. China Digital Times publishes translations of the latest set of rules, which says that posts the criticize the Chinese political system should be “absolutely blocked or deleted” – information about the tiger being skinned and beheaded should be deleted, and all sorts of other rather distasteful stuff, including the rather chilling “Strengthen positive guidance. Web sites should proactively guide public opinion in a positive way, highlight positive voices and create a pro-NPC online environment.”

The technological savvy of the CCP is its strength. While the Soviet Politburo aged into a distant and disconnected leadership, the CCP has not only seen how technology can be of benefit to the country’s economy, but they are also very aware of how a technology could be subverted into a tool that, in a worst case scenario, could lead to them losing power. The Party has long since acknowledged that controlling the Internet is crucial to maintaining their political supremacy. Western investments and web companies therefore face something of a dilemma – they must fall in line with the draconian censorship laws that exist in mainland China in order to capitalize on the largest market in the world. Fortunately, the American companies that supply hardware to the Chinese government to facilitate censoring have already made their decision, as well as Yahoo, and now, Google – the company that once prided itself on not being evil – is now under the thumb of a totalitarian dictatorship.

The initial motivations of preventing the perversion of political ideals have been the basis of the argument in favor of policing and restricting activities on the Internet. That’s what some people would argue. Other people make a slightly more convincing argument, and it has nothing to do with keeping the people pure of thought. The pervasive theory is that while media websites such as Youtube and Flickr have captured a large portion of worldwide users, Chinese copycat start ups have been having a hard time establishing a user base. The answer was fairly obvious – block access to the foreign sites which would force users to use the Chinese sites, and essentially poach business from existing companies.

The motivation for blocking access are therefore little to do with politics and more to do with commercial concerns, after all, Yahoo has helped to track down and jail online dissidents by handing over emails that were held on their servers in mainland China. Since Flickr is owned by Yahoo, it seems unlikely that the Chinese authorities would block a site that is owned by a long time collaborator of the Chinese regime. Flickr had plans to establish version of it’s photo hosting site specifically for Chinese users, but this would be based in Taipei, something of a smart move to evade the CCP’s demands for Internet censorship in the mainland. In the case of Victor Koo’s Youku service, a copy of Youtube’s video hosting site with the added advantage that due to China’s lax enforcement of copyright laws it hosts full length movies and TV shows.

Far from being terrified into not using the Internet, Chinese internet users have taken over the medium. Today, there are more Internet users in China than in any other country. How Chinese people use the Internet is much different from the way that westerners use the Internet. Instant messaging and streaming online music and video are the most popular pastimes for Chinese netizens.

Cyberspace is also where you can find the worst side of Chinese mob mentality. Incensed by the poor design of the Chinese Olympic Team’s official uniform, Internet users swore to hunt down the designer and ruin his career, and the online reports of Chinabounder, who wrote about his casual sexual encounters with Chinese girls, most of whom where his students, caused a national outrage – the protest was led through an article posted on a weblog. The online voices are the most extreme, and sadly, the ones that always seem to make the headlines, it appears that while no one seems to put much stock in the online opinions of Americans or British ‘net users, people are quite ready to accept the online comments of Chinese people to be something of a barometer of public feeling in China. The Chinese press has certainly leapt on the helpfully nationalistic outrage that seems to stream constantly from Chinese netizens.

Stories of Chinese hackers breaking into US computer systems are nothing new. The Chinese have taken the blame for everything from stealing World of Warcraft passwords to the numerous zero-day vulnerabilities in Windows Vista and Office 2007. A recent CNN story detailed one particular hacker team that claimed to have gained access to the Pentagon’s internal networks, more tellingly, they said that they were hired by the Chinese government to penetrate secure networks in America. Rather than being hired electronic terrorists, the Chinese government might just be protected its own networks – if the security at the Pentagon can be breached, then surely the software that runs the Great Firewall of China wouldn’t present much of a challenge – by giving encouraging overseas targets, attention is deflected from Chinese Internet infrastructure.

So what of the discovery of Ghost Net? The covert network was discovered by a Canadian research team called InfoWar that was asked to investigate suspected breaches in the security of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

Over a period of 10 months, InfoWar uncovered a large-scale cyber-spying organization based on the worm Gh0st Rat. The Gh0st Rat Trojan enables, amongst other things, a hacker to control the sound and webcams of a remote computer. Although the network was mostly based in Hainan, China, there was no conclusive proof that the Chinese government was directly involved, independent research has shown that the Chinese government made decisions that could only have been influenced by information gathered by the network.

Using unique IP addresses, information was traced back to government servers that were owned and operated by the People’s Liberation Army intelligence arm. The Chinese embassy in London countered the cyber-spying allegations, saying that “China is opposed to and would seriously deter hacking activities, and had enacted clear laws against hacking. Rumors about Chinese cyber-espionage are completely unfounded, and those attempting to smear China in this way would not succeed.” This comment was made despite 300 businesses being alerted to Chinese infiltration by the Director-General of MI5, Jonathon Evans.

According to the results of the investigation, published in the InfoWar Monitor, embassies of India, South Korea, Indonesia, Romania, Cyprus, Malta, Thailand, Taiwan, Portugal, Germany and Pakistan and the office of the Prime Minister of Laos had been penetrated and the foreign ministries of Iran, Bangladesh, Latvia, Indonesia, Philippines, Brunei, Barbados and Bhutan were also targeted.

While the vehement denials of any involvement with any kind of cyber-espionage have poured forth from both Beijing and Chinese embassies, the truth is that the Chinese government is probably as involved with country-to-country hacking as any other government is. The report from the investigative team itself says “Attributing all Chinese malware to deliberate or targeted intelligence gathering operations by the Chinese state is wrong and misleading… The most significant actors in cyberspace are not states…. In China, the authorities most likely perceive individual attackers [ie, teenagers in internet cafes] as convenient instruments of national power.” It’s just fashionable to accuse the Chinese of secretly and stealthily taking over the world one computer at a time, and the delicious irony that a country synonymous with Internet censorship should be famous for using it as a tool for world domination is just too hard for western hacks to ignore.