If anything, the screws are being tightened. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both revealed how officials are attempting to silence "trouble-makers" – and the internet is a key battleground.
With over 210 million users – and 200,000 new netizens logging on every day – China has probably now surpassed the US as the world’s largest online population.
Recent news from the Ministry of Public Security highlights the levels to which authorities are taking the online "threat":
"… thirteen Chinese ministries have been taking a joint action since last month to regulate online order, with the emphasis [on]cleaning out … such content as candid snapshots, nude pictures and ‘unhealthy’ adult literature.
"… [the ministries]will focus on cracking down on four kinds of illegal behaviour, including spreading … erotic information to make profit [using the]Internet and mobile phones; launching bawdry websites in a foreign country to spread unhealthy content to and develop members in China; organizing obscene online performances or prostitution-related activities; and committing … online fraud, theft, gambling and sale of forbidden goods."
Such directives are now issued regularly in an attempt to "cleanse" any potentially "subversive" material from an increasingly networked society capable of challenging the one-party state. Despite reports that China may ease internet restrictions for foreign journalists during the two-week August games, the country’s internet users are faced with a barrage of restrictions and censorship, often assisted by Western internet multinationals. China has the most tightly controlled internet in the world.
The Atlantic Monthly‘s James Fallows writes in a recent essay that despite US technology firm Cisco becoming one of the regime’s cosiest friends by providing mirroring routers that monitor every piece of information coming in or out of China, the system is far from perfect. Fallows explains how the "Golden Shield Project" is successful because it combines both web censorship and social control. To survive and even thrive online in China means conforming to a host of regulations and rules. Not doing so will result in automatic banning, imprisonment or worse. Only a handful of Chinese dissidents are willing to challenge these dictates.
One 17-year-old female blogger from Guangdong Province, known only as Ruyue, posted instructions on how to access the often-blocked YouTube. "I don’t know if it’s better to speak out or keep silent," she said, "but if everyone keeps silent, the truth will be buried. I don’t want to be silent, even if everyone else shuts up."
Although China is also battling a seemingly unsurmountable pollution problem, the regime appears determined to ignore Western calls for greater openness. "Why can’t China accept that dissent and argument are part of being a normal country?" asks leading Hong-Kong based academic Rebecca MacKinnon. "Why behave in such an insecure manner that violates international human rights norms, damages China’s international image, and distracts media attention away from the Chinese people’s genuine achievements over the past 30 years?"
But outside pressure may be starting to have an effect. When Hollywood filmmaker Steven Spielberg recently announced his withdrawal as an artistic director for the August games, the Chinese regime responded with indignation. The director claimed that Beijing was doing too little to pressure the Sudanese Government over its behaviour in Darfur. But the New York Times now reports that, in fact, "China has begun shifting its position on Darfur, stepping outside its diplomatic comfort zone to quietly push Sudan to accept the world’s largest peacekeeping force." Beijing is clearly listening and remains determined to avoid an embarrassing Games hijacked by human rights agendas.
Companies such as Yahoo, Microsoft and Google have all accepted, with varying degrees of collusion, China’s internet rules. There is massive money to be made by doing so, and corporate social responsibility has often been an afterthought at best. But news that Yahoo is urging the Bush Administration to pressure Beijing to release dissidents jailed thanks to the internet company’s assistance suggests a growing awareness that an American company’s actions in China has negative effects on its public image. Naming and shaming works. Google in China is even facing a lawsuit from an irate user who claims his name was excised from its local search results.
Nonetheless, it’s hypocritical to hear Western leaders, often complicit in their own crimes around the world, chastising the Chinese for silencing dissent. UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband recently said in Oxford that his country, despite "mistakes" in Iraq and Afghanistan, must continue to support "movements for democracy" around the world.
The rise of China, he said, meant that the global community could no longer take "the forward march of democracy for granted". His pleas for democracy would have been more sincere if he didn’t have to acknowledge last week that the Blair Government had allowed "extraordinary rendition" flights to land on its soil.
Researching my forthcoming book on the internet in repressive regimes, including China, I discovered that the web in many countries isn’t simply a democratising tool as defined in the West. It may allow a user easier access to local officials. It may allow a woman to more easily meet a man. It may facilitate a debate between a citizen in a rural area and a city-dweller. But only a handful of people are interested or brave enough to agitate for serious political change. The introduction of a Netizen Party in China, while admirable and potentially revolutionary, is limited to a tiny, elite audience.
The leading Communist Party newspaper has issued a stern warning to local or international players keen to discredit China. These moves were destined to fail, it wrote, because "no country in the world will compromise its core interests to host the Olympics".
From Taiwanese independence to Tibet, and human rights to internet repression, the August games remain an ideal time to highlight issues that the Chinese regime would rather ignore. Athletes may even blog about them. Besides, since when has the Olympic Games ever just been about sport?
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