Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Kristof on the Chinese blogosphere

A frequent commenter here, Rob, also known as the Intrepid Liberal, points us to this NYTimes Op-Ed by Nicholas Kristof, which is unfortunately blocked to non-subscribers by a firewall. Kristof describes a recent experiment in Beijing, in which he set up two blogs under his Chinese name: Ji Sidao. In the blogs, he was as politically incorrect (from a CCP point of view) as possible. He wanted to see how the internet censors would react, so:
Writing in Chinese, I began by denouncing the imprisonment of my Times colleague, Zhao Yan, by the Chinese authorities. I waited for it to be censored. Instead, it promptly appeared on my blog.
He then criticizes China's leader, Hu Jintao, mentions Falun Gong, "the Chinese government's greatest enemy," says there is religious freedom in Taiwan, and boldy comments on Tiananmen:
Finally, I wrote the most inflammatory comment I could think of, describing how on June 4, 1989, I saw the Chinese Army fire on Tiananmen Square protesters. The two characters for June 4 were replaced by asterisks, but the description of the massacre remained intact.

These various counterrevolutionary comments, all in Chinese, are still sitting there in Chinese cyberspace at http://blog.sina.com.cn/u/1238333873 and http://jisidao.blog.sohu.com. (When State Security reads this, it may finally order my blogs closed.)

All this underscores, I think, that China is not the police state that its leaders sometimes would like it to be; the Communist Party's monopoly on information is crumbling, and its monopoly on power will follow. The Internet is chipping away relentlessly at the Party, for even 30,000 censors can't keep up with 120 million Chinese Netizens. With the Internet, China is developing for the first time in 4,000 years of history a powerful independent institution that offers checks and balances on the emperors.

It's not that President Hu Jintao grants these freedoms, for he has arrested dozens of cyberdissidents as well as journalists. But the Internet is just too big and complex for State Security to control, and so the Web is beginning to assume the watchdog role filled by the news media in freer countries.

A year ago, I wrote about a blogger named Li Xinde who travels around China with his laptop, reporting on corruption and human-rights abuses. I hailed Mr. Li as an example of the emerging civil society in China — and the government promptly closed down his Web site. I wondered if I had overstated the challenge.

But today Mr. Li is as active as ever. His Web sites are constantly closed down, but the moment a site is censored he replaces it with a new one. An overseas master site, www.lixinde.com, tells people the best current address.

"They can keep closing sites, but they never catch up," Mr. Li told me. "You can't stop the Yellow River from flowing, and you can't block the bloggers."

In today's China, young people use proxy software to reach forbidden sites and Skype to make phone calls without being tapped — and the local Web pornography is relentless and explicit, ranging from sex videos to nude online chats.

"We're very relaxed now on pornography, but on politics it's very tight," said Yao Bo, a censor at a major chat-room site in China. He explained how the censorship works for a chat room:

Filtering software automatically screens the several hundred thousand comments typically posted on his Web site every day. Comments with a banned word go into a special queue, but Mr. Yao says he ends up posting all but the most subversive of these — his Web site, after all, wants to be provocative to attract visitors. State Security periodically scolds him for his laxity, but he seems unconcerned: "I just tell them I'm dumb about politics."

China's leaders decided years ago to accept technologies even if they are capable of subversive uses: photocopiers and fax machines at first, and now laptops and text messaging. The upshot is that China is much freer than its rulers would like.

To me, this trend looks unstoppable. I don't see how the Communist Party dictatorship can long survive the Internet, at a time when a single blog can start a prairie fire.
For those interested in this issue, Forbes Asia had a fascinating article on how groups inside and outside China are making a coordinated attack at China's firewall:

By Richard C. Morais | Feb 27 '06

With engineering help from half a dozen Western firms, the Chinese Communist Party has erected a huge apparatus to censor free speech. A ragtag crew of hacker dissidents may succeed in tearing it down.


What fascinates me about Kristof is how much potential he sees in the internet (and the bloggers who inhabit it) in places like China and Iran, and yet the blogosphere in America is non-existent to him, at least in his writing. He certainly hasn't embraced it like some of his colleagues, such as Paul Krugman and Frank Rich, have. Instead, he makes comments like:
...the Web is beginning to assume the watchdog role filled by the news media in freer countries.
I am glad that Kristof sees the great potential of the web in China, and the need for watchdogs even in democratic societies, but has the U.S. media fulfilled this watchdog role? Is that its only function? I would like to know what Kristof thinks about political bloggers in America, particularly those who are critical of the traditional media when it avoids its watchdog responsibility, or when it simply parrots talking points and mistruths fed to it by political operatives.

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