Thursday, March 4, 2010

Internet Censorship in China

Censorship has always been part of life in China. I began using the internet in 1997 and on a typical day I spend two to three hours surfing social networking sites such as Facebook and – a Chinese-language Facebook clone. I have faced many incidents where I found my access to certain websites blocked. If critical comments on government policy were posted in a blog, then it was deleted or "harmonised" (a euphemism for censorship). I get frustrated when the government curbs my personal freedom of expression.

I recently posted some comments on the Google incident as well as some news stories from major international media outlets on and soon discovered that all my posts had been harmonised less than half an hour after they were posted. It is frustrating to think that we are living in an Orwellian world.

Fortunately I can still access the New York Times or The Economist and view stories that are critical towards the Chinese government. It all adds up to a psychological effect, that spine-chilling feeling of Big Brother watching you.

On some of the websites I want to access, such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, I have to resort to ‘"scaling the wall", using VPN (a virtual private network) or other technologies to sneak in and out.

What is alarming is that there are many rumours that the government has funded people to post pro-government remarks on websites and that it is also deleting unsavoury opinions and comments. From the beginning of this summer, the government seems to have increased its censorship efforts by blocking Facebook, Twitter and YouTube; and, of course, there has been the climax of the recent spat with Google.

It is a sad development when I see so many prominent human rights lawyers and political dissenters getting prosecuted by the government, who might have hacked into their email accounts to get their names. I think my country is shifting into a more authoritarian and oppressive regime, similar to that in George Orwell's 1984.

Recently, the government has began curbing the activities of mobile communications companies such as Shanghai Mobile, the Shanghai branch of the state-owned mobile communication monopoly. It recently proposed that users who send pornographic messages should be cut off from the service. I think the government is using pornography as an excuse to curb freedom of speech.

In the past I was never politically active and was indifferent towards political issues and not particularly fond of opposition politics – but government censorship has radicalised me, virtually forcing to me to choose sides. My friends hate it too, which is why I suspect that government policy could backfire one day soon. Some protestors recently went to Google's Beijing office to pay their last tribute and this is the sign of things to come as there will be more such protest.

There is virtually no independent media in China but I can still go to my local coffee shop and loudly exchange derogatory, cynical or sarcastic comments on the government with like-minded friends. But I worry that China is following repressive regimes such as North Korea, Iran or Burma.

I know the risk involved if people like me raise their voice in protest against the government. I could be arrested for national security violations and sentenced to a jail term. Since there is no independent judiciary system in China I could not expect a fair trial in such a politically motivated legal case. Yet people continue to protest in their own way.

If you visit popular Chinese websites you might find bolder statements coming from citizens that are against the government’s repressive policy. Thanks to VPN technology I can reach out to people through access to Google but I wish more corporate giants – both Chinese and internationally – would use the Google example to help force the Chinese government to change its policy.

• Hong is a pseudonym. He was interviewed by journalist Rajen Nair.

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