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Another brick in the Chinese firewall

Gav Reilly investigates the state imposition of censorship in China, a country with a powerful desire to control its self-image at the expense of civil liberties

When most people first think of China, the mind’s eye conjures hazy images of an infinitely vast land, with a Great Wall, hearty but replicable cuisine, a mystic tradition of horoscope and prophecy, and a language that means as much to many as Wingdings. In 21st century Earth, though, and with the inevitable trait of globalism encroaching on formerly impregnable fortresses, China currently circles at a moral roundabout, desperate to keep pulling to the right but pondering being dragged leftward.

Most people will quickly identify China as being the world’s Communist behemoth and a country that has a proud and inescapably controversial history. Most would acknowledge that, in line with this, those with the power to do so would aim to curb any significant dissent among its sprawling populace. However, even with this cosmetically reasonable desire, there come occasions where the vehemence of such desire becomes questionable.

China, it seems, has some issues with self-image. This is, after all, a country that refuses, despite the longstanding will of a self-declared autonomous republic’s collective will (namely Taiwan or ‘Chinese Taipei’), to stop claiming its territory as its own; but also a country that, on a whim, can demand and implement some mind-boggling feats of engineering – the Three Gorges hydroelectric dam, which began operation in 2003 and is due for completion in 2009, will cause the state-funded relocation of up to two million people in a purpose-built city. Complaints are rife among the locals (or ex-locals, as the case is now) – a farmer 200 miles away (whose half-acre now lies irreparably flooded), He Kechang (61) has been jailed, seemingly for the innocuous deed of kicking up a fuss.

However, this is the third millennium and newer problems arise. At the turn of the decade Google was an unknown quantity; in 2006 the word has become an everyday verb. Such is the contemporary pace of innovation, and herein lies a significant problem. Enter the Great Firewall of China, a state-instigated online censorship system that does not merely examine and block specific pages, but rather systematically denies even the opportunity to search for pages that the state would rather you didn’t see. When search engine giant Google itself launched in China a few months ago, one of the first searches that the world’s media tried out was Tiananmen Square; the site of the 1989 anti-communist protests. Today, a search on Google.ie returns 3.36m hits. A search on Google.cn (and note that all Google branches work by default from an international database) yields just 52,800 results, mostly relating to Beijing tourism.

Google’s co-founder Larry Page defends this compromise of its mission statement (“to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”) by arguing, “I think it’s just arrogant of us to walk into a country where we are just beginning operations and tell that country how to run itself.” Common opinion holds, though – and perhaps hopes – that once Google gain a stronger foothold in the territory, it will try and push its power to bend the rules. Searching aside, though, even instant messaging is impeded: a message with the name of ‘Wang Dan’, a famous dissident, will always yield a ‘server timeout’.

And at the time of writing, China was still holding – without charge, and therefore seemingly in contravention of its own laws – a New York Times researcher Zhao Yan, having declared on St Patrick’s Day that his eighteen-month investigation would cease. The reputed reason for Zhao’s internment is that he was allegedly (the NYT have denied Zhao’s involvement) the source of an article proclaiming the resignation of the Chinese head of military a full fortnight before any announcement was made by the State. But why the secrecy about his charge? There are two possibilities. The first is that, according to the State line, Chief Jiang Zemin was not even contemplating resigning but was pressurised into doing so after the NYT piece was run. The source for the article is perhaps someone in a vested interest in Jiang’s departure. Zhao’s arrest, then, may have just been a (seemingly petty) revenge for the scoop – an excellent demonstration of Chinese realpolitik in that Zhao was practicing western journalistic principles while bound by Chinese, where the media is not a spectator but the State’s “throat and tongue”.

Then again, there is always the second possibility. Zhao was known for fighting the cause of smalltime farmers being trampled upon by society. Perhaps, then, Zhao’s ‘journalistic’ arrest was a front – Zhao was about to publically declare hunger strike in defence of none other than 61-year-old He Kechang.

And so the cycle continues. Kechang was arrested for kicking up a fuss. Zhao was arrested – albeit in a more intricated web – for trying to defend him. But one must wonder whether China is intent on merely pulling its weight in defence of its brighter image, or whether the State is being overtly draconian in trying to push everything back into the right turns on the roundabout.

Shame, though, that the citizen’s of China can’t try to see it for themselves: the New York Times just now happens to be another brick in the firewall.