Saturday, December 17, 2005

It's not if you win or lose...'s how many internet sites you can keep under wraps.

At least thats the thrust of this Washington Post piece about recent Chinese cyber-unrest in the wake of the shooting of protesters earlier this month.

I'm generally not a big fan of the Post's international reporting, but this piece is really well done. It covers many sides of the challenges and opportunities presented to the Chinese by the internet. Not strangely, it also leads with echos of protesters and dissidents past: veiling protests as commentaries about historical events.

What struck me as most powerful, though, was the brilliant simplicity of one of the protest memes. No coordinated attack, not a polished message. Just a direct message, sometimes cleverly delivered, sometimes without frills. In it's simplest form:

I Know.

Because, really, if you held power in a regime that maintained its position by restricting access to information, what would be more frightening?

As the Post story reminds us, the Chinese are excellent censors. The government hires hundreds of people to monitor chat rooms, blogs, bulletin boards, and numerous other means of sharing ideas. This isn't what makes the censorship effective. Most of us usually forget this.

Most censorship is self-imposed. By publishers, or companies, but most often by the writers themselves. Why do they censor themselves? Like most countries, China has laws prohibiting the publication of "state secrets." Unlike U.S. law though, Chinese law is (intentionally?) vague on exactly what is a state secret. And usually its not something one finds out until a story has been published, and someone in a position of authority decides he didn't like the story.

The Congressional-Executive Commission on China, a U.S. government policy shop has a pretty good summation of the way state secrets work, here.

"Chinese laws require that anyone intending to disclose information relating to state secrets, national security, or the nation's leaders must get prior government authorization. The law then defines these terms to encompass all forms of information pertaining to politics, economics, and society. The government therefore has the right to censor any information on these topics, and anyone who publishes such information without prior authorization has violated the law, regardless of the actual contents of their writings (see, for example, the case of Zheng Enchong, discussed below)."
I wonder if anyone in the CCP has had conversations with Alexandr Solzhenitzen, Vaclav Havel, or Nelson Mandela about the effectiveness of censorship.

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