The Net Revolution: Chinese Netizens vs. Green Dam

Celebrations that Beijing has bowed to global pressure and scrapped an order to use filtering software in all personal computers have turned out to be premature. On July 1, a Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) spokesman said that while Beijing had, on June 30, postponed the installation of the China-made Net-screening device, “the government will definitely carry on the directive on Green Dam.” While Green Dam allegedly targets only pornography, foreign and Chinese experts alike think its real purpose is to censor “subversive” material and to prevent the country’s 300 million Netizens from fomenting dissent on China’s growing information superhighways (CNN.com, June 30; InformationWeek.com, July 2). Also indicative of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) determination to combat Net-based anti-government activities are plans to convict leading dissident Liu Xiaobo on charges of “inciting subversion to the state and the socialist system.” Dr. Liu is an internationally known writer who was a key organizer of the Net-empowered Charter 08 Movement, which the CCP deems one of the most potent challenges to its authority since the mid-2000s. Beijing leaders also appear to have been taken aback by the so-called “Twitter Revolution” in Iran, where liberal activists have used the Internet and allied vehicles to broadcast their opposition to the controversial presidential polls held last month.

The ostensible reasons behind Beijing’s postponement of the deadline for installing Green Dam on all new PCs are virulent protests by the U.S. Government and a dozen-odd chambers of commerce representing European and Asian corporations. Well-known American computer and software manufacturers have also complained that the utilization of Green Dam, which has “spyware” functions, would amount to an infringement of intellectual property rights. Most significantly, several domestic Net-anchored NGOs and lobbying groups, including one led by famous artist Ai Weiwei, have called upon Chinese PC users to boycott the much-maligned software (The Associated Press, June 27; Wall Street Journal, July 1). Yet a more probable reason for the censorship moratorium is that MIIT technicians have spotted problems in the policing software. The official Xinhua News Agency reported late last month that MIIT engineers had “assigned some staff to repair program faults.” The daily quoted IT expert Ma Pengfei as saying that “it will take a long time before the MIIT can improve the technical level of the software.” There is widespread report by American IT engineers that the faultily written Green Dam is an easy prey for hackers (Market Watch, July 2; Xinhua English News Service, June 27).

Given that the Chinese leadership has, since the turn of the century, boosted its Internet police force—a division within the Ministry of Public Security that currently employs more than 30.000 officers—why are the censors suddenly redoubling efforts to weed out Net-based dissent (New York Times, October 2, 2008)? Seasoned analysts in Beijing point to two apparently unconnected events that have prompted the Hu Jintao leadership to push through the draconian Green Dam campaign. One is the unexpectedly successful Charter 08 movement, and the other, the Internet-empowered opposition movement now sweeping Iran.

Late last year, 30-odd intellectuals led by Dr. Liu launched Charter 08, an Internet signature campaign that is based on a manifesto demanding that the CCP give all Chinese universally recognized liberties including freedom of speech, religion and political organization. It was modeled upon the Charter 77 movement of Czechoslovakia, which played a catalyst’s role in hastening the collapse of a host of former Eastern European Communist regimes. Within six months, close to 10,000 Chinese—not just intellectuals but also workers and housewives—from different provinces have given their signatures in support of the manifesto. Dr. Liu was subsequently placed under house arrest in December. His lawyers fear that the ill-defined, catch-all charges laid against him could lead to a stiff sentence of up to ten years (Times of London, June 25; Ming Pao [Hong Kong], June 27).

Political observers in China see the probable incarceration of Liu as the CCP’s warning to Net-based radicals and assorted “troublemakers” about the use of cutting-edge technology to propagate "subversive" materials on the information superhighway. Liu had said famously a few years ago that “the Internet is God’s present to China. It is the best tool for the Chinese people in their project to cast off slavery and strive for freedom.” The past few months have seen major cases of civil unrest whose detailed audio-video footages were broadcast on Chinese websites, and then picked up by news media in Hong Kong and overseas. These included the confrontation last month between police and some 20,000 villagers in the Shishou town of Hubei Province (See China Brief, “CCP Campaign for a New Generation of ‘Red and Expert’ Officials,” June 24). Given the popularity of cell phones and PCs in China—and the increasing availability of cheap but sophisticated technology—more Netizens are making videos with their phones and broadcasting them on the Net. Others are circulating juicy materials on the Chinese equivalents of Facebook and Twitter. Equally disturbing for the authorities is the Internet’s effectiveness in mobilizing public opinion. The corruption scandals of several medium-ranked cadres were first exposed on the Net. Lu Jun, a propaganda official in Zhengzhou, Henan Province was pillorized by tens of thousands of Netizens for asking a reporter this question: “Do you speak for the Party or do you speak for the people?” Also consider the case of Deng Yujiao, a massage parlor hostess in a remote Hubei town who accidentally killed an official in May while resisting his sexual advances. The overwhelming Cyberspace support that Deng received was deemed a key reason why she was let go during the trial that took place a month later (Ming Pao, June 22; People’s Daily, May 21; Global Times [Beijing] June 5; Times of London, July 4).

Given the sensitive nature of the post-election political drama in Iran, it is hardly suprising that there is little coverage of the protests—particularly Net-empowered ones—in the Chinese press. Official media stories have focused on Beijing’s support of “the choice of the Iranian people” as well as its opposition to interference by Western forces. The reports also honed in on Tehran officials blasting Washington and London for allegedly stirring up unrest among Iranian opposition parties (Xinhua News Agency, June 21; Chinaview.cn June 23). Yet there have been enthusiastic exchanges in Net-based forums across China on how the Internet and socializing Net hubs such as Twitter and Facebook have enabled political participation in both China and Iran. Several Chinese Net aficionados have opined on www.fanfou and www.taotao, which are Chinese equivalents of social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter, “that the Iranian situation today is reminiscent of events in Beijing 20 years ago.” The Internet police, however, soon intervened and blocked out discussion about Iran on these sites. Such actions, however, did not prevent a few hundred members of a Net-based NGO from holding a party to celebrate the postponement of the Green Dam stricture (Yazhou Zhoukan [Hong Kong weekly]; Christian Science Monitor, June 24; Ming Pao, July 2).
 
As a famous Chinese saying goes: “While the Dao [morality] may be 12-inch thick, the Devil is ten-foot tall.” Irrespective of the Net-nannying efforts by CCP censors, China’s resilient and resourceful Netizens have always been able to get around the firewalls and prohibitions. Indications are that Green Dam—or even an improved version to be rolled out later this year—may not be able to silence Net-based dissent. For example, inexpensively priced “anti-Green Dam” software has already hit the Chinese market. It is ironic that the CCP’s one-time nemesis, the Falun Gong spiritual sect—which was the first anti-Beijing group to have used the Net to mobilize its supporters—had offered free technological assistance to opposition intellectuals in Iran to help beat the regime of silence imposed by the Mullahs (Radio Australia, July 2). And more anti-censorship software put together by the Falun Gong and other overseas human rights groups may make its way into China.

Meanwhile, as the countdown to the all-important October 1 celebration of the 60th Birthday of the People’s Republic has gotten under way, the authorities are taking no chances, particularly with Net-enabled dissent. Moments after a riot broke out in Urumqi, Xinjiang last Sunday, in which 156 residents were reportedly killed and at least 800 injured, the authorities blamed the World Uighur Congress (WUC) for “instigating” the mishap. Xinhua quoted the authorities as saying that the WUC “had used the Internet and other channels to urge [troublemakers] to ‘be bolder’ and to ‘hit it big’.” The disturbance erupted as a protest over alleged government mishandling of a fistfight between Han Chinese and Uighur workers in a toy factory in Guangdong late last month. On Monday, the Internet was shut down in Urumqi, and the Net police removed several videos of the rioting that had circulated on several popular websites (Xinhua News Agency, July 6; Ming Pao, July 6; Reuters, July 7).

In an article in the just-released party theoretical journal Seeking Truth, Director of the CCP Propaganda Department Liu Yunshan warned that “various non-Marxist thoughts and ideas have grown and affected social harmony and stability.” Liu, a Politburo member, added that “how to utilize, develop and scientifically manage the Internet has become a major and pressing task” for the country’s law-enforcement apparatus (People’s Daily, July 4; Xinhua News Agency, July 3). While Liu and his Politburo colleagues seem confident that a retooled Green Dam might help the CCP keep destabilizing forces at bay, the warfare between Net-empowered activists and the authorities seems destined to remain both ferocious and protracted.