By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

The Lectern In China: Students object to Internet rules

I am in China to lecture at universities in Shanghai and Xi'an (in central-western China, end point of the Silk Road and home of one of China's most-famous tourist attractions, the terra-cotta warriors). Unlike my flight last February to Singapore, the business class section of the plane was filled -- perhaps an encouraging economic sign.

On arriving in Shanghai, however, we were not allowed to leave the plane until everybody had had their temperature checked, part of the government's effort to reduce the spread of swine flu. People dressed in protective clothing resembling space suits came onto the plane and pointed hand-held devices at us. Everyone also had to fill out a special swine flu questionnaire.

Students I've been speaking with seem quite knowledgeable, and unhappy about, Internet restrictions imposed on them in China. I heard one use the student slang expression "harmonize" to refer to the government's blocking of websites or sensitive words, as in "this site has been harmonized" -- a cynical play on the government's expression "harmonious society" to describe its policy goals. Another reported that students were very aware that Xiaonei, the Chinese knockoff of Facebook, monitored status updates and didn't post any that referred to the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests. I haven't met yet a single person who has defended the government's actions involving the Internet.

There has been some coverage in the US about new software that blocks pornography, but also certain politically sensitive words, that will be required in all Chinese computers manufactured after July 1. Interestingly, the Chinese media itself has been paying attention to this issue. First, the English-language (but government-sponsored) China Daily reported on a poll indicating that most Chinese actually stated they would try to disable the software. Today the same newspaper ran an article quoting a government official as stating that the only purpose of the requirement was to make the software available -- and that people were free to disable it if they didn't want it. It seems like the government is beating a retreat on this issue.

Bloggers and websites are quickly emerging as an unofficial free media in China. Huge amounts of information about the outside world comes into China via the mostly unblocked Internet. It is hard not to believe that the Internet is not in the process of dramatically transforming Chinese society in a freer direction.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Jun 16, 2009 at 12:08 PM


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