Games won't tame China's internet guard dog

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'China's Internet Guard Dog', by Chris Johnston With China attempting to show the world they are ready to implement a newfound freedom towards the foreign press, many journalists are right to wonder if this isn't a façade that will fade quickly once the Games are over.

Both the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Chinese government have claimed the Games will bring a historic change for the better in China's stringent media boundaries. But the Human Rights Watch has recently reported what many feared — that China has not been keeping to its end of the bargain.

A number of foreign correspondents have faced threats of an Olympic ban if they do not report positively on other issues. Intimidation tactics on foreign journalists have also been implemented, as have firewalls on sites such as Amnesty International, which recently released an in-depth report on China's human rights violations.

This should come as no surprise. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has always been on its toes when it comes to allowing the free voices from democratic nations to reach the ears of their people. A strong example of China's ability to turn a powerful tool for freedom of expression to their own advantage is the internet.

It was commonly believed that, during its formative years in China, the internet would play a key role in voicing the opinions of disgruntled citizens, and would become a new medium for public debate.

But former CNN Beijing Bureau Chief Rebecca MacKinnon disclosed this year that 'as China's pool of internet users increases, it appears that a decreasing percentage take advantage of technologies such as proxy servers that make it possible to circumvent internet censorship'.

Surveys reveal that most urban Chinese internet users trust domestic news sources more than they trust foreign news websites. MacKinnon claims 'nationalism and xenophobia have found a fertile breeding ground on the Chinese internet, while a pro-democracy movement has been prevented from growing there'.

China's government has always had an interesting approach to the net. Many academics agree the CCP was initially reluctant to apply the internet to mass media, fearful that the fast exchange of information would undermine government authority.

However, the CCP has done an impressive job of using the internet to strengthen its propaganda. In 2006, former Time magazine South East Asia Bureau Chief William Thatcher Dowell wrote that 'Chinese authorities are proving unusually sophisticated at reigning in the internet's free wheeling nature'.

The CCP allows its citizens a false sense of freedom on the net by permitting the free flowing exchange of information on trivial topics such as sports and entertainment. But when users attempt to search for news and opinions around the world, they are often blocked by what is known as the Great Firewall of China — a complex system that uses IP blocking, DNS filtering, URL redirection, and other techniques to filter most web content.

An average Chinese internet user would be hard pressed to find information on topics such as the International Tibet Independence Movement, the Falun Gong, or the Taiwanese Government. The CCP has also discovered that American software designed to protect children from pornography is ideally suited to political censorship.

This balance of openness with control is nothing new to the CCP. What is more fascinating is that rather than just becoming the internet's guard dog the CCP has decided to use it to its advantage. The CCP has realised that in order to have their propaganda reach a younger audience, they must turn to the online world. It has created numerous online forums and weblog sites that encourage and spread positive publicity for the government.

By targeting the Chinese youth through a media outlet that is familiar to them, the CCP will be able to keep their message alive. MacKinnon goes so far as to suggest 'one could even argue that the skilful management of the internet might buy the CCP another few decades in power'.

The Beijing Games have been touted by many as a chance for the Chinese government to showcase a positive change towards their views on foreign journalism. But if China's control over their internet is an indication of anything, it's that they're not ready to allow outside voices entry just yet.

China's ability to turn a threat like the internet into an asset can easily be mastered by other totalitarian nations with the same goals. What's more, the internet's status as a tool for freedom of expression could be undermined if China continues showing the world it can wield the net's power for its own agenda.


Cat JuanCat Juan is a writer currently based in Sydney. She is busy this year doing her post-graduate degree in Media Practice at the University of Sydney.

 

Topic tags: Cat Juan.beijing olympics, press freedom, great firewall of china, censorship

 

 

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Existing comments

Surprise! Surprise! The Comm Party of China is Suppressing free speech.
Hope your article will prompt OZ supporters of extreme left and their allies in the ALP to stop accusing those of us who actively oppose Communism as being guilty of hysteria.
Bill Barry | 11 August 2008


Thank you, Cat, for fresh insight into the Beijing terrorist regime's sophisticated and comprehensive use of internet to ramp up Chinese nationalism. Bill, it's not about communism. That ideology died in China two decades ago. Corruption = wealth = glory is the new reality.
Neil Tolliday | 19 August 2008


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