Monday, March 22, 2010

Watch Your Words

I subscribe to the Skeeter Bites Report, a Vermont-based news analysis and commentary site. Yesterday I received notice that this site has been infiltrated by Chinese hackers, compromising the email addresses of all its subscribers, forcing Skeeter Sanders to suspend publication.

Skeeter believes his site might have been targeted because of an article he posted on the bloody riots in Xinjiang Province last summer.  "Apparently, somebody in China didn't like what I posted," he writes.

Google is aware that its e-mail accounts for journalists and human rights workers are being broken into by Chinese hackers,[1], [2] and has been reviewing whether to continue their business operations in that country. A Stanford University sophomore, Tibetan student Tenzin Selden, also the victim of a sophisicated cyber attack, was told by Google that someone from China was logged onto her email account at the same time she was.

I sometimes post information and opinion about the human rights situation  in Tibet,  China and Burma, particularly with regard to  writers.  I have a Gmail account and this blog is also hosted by Google.  Should I be concerned?

Google has a third of the search engine market in China, which is currently dominated by Baidu. China has the biggest internet population  in the world, with more than 300 million users.[3]  China warned Google's major web partners to continue censoring, even should Google leave.

"Publish and Be Deleted"

Not only do search engines risk censhorship in China but social network sites fall under close scrutiny as well and they can be summarily yanked and deactivated if they don't tow the line.  "You're always keeping your phone switched on and waiting for that emergency call from the authorities requiring deletion of a post," says Zoe Wang, a veteran website developer on a social network service site. Translators, apparently, must also be careful: Yeeyan, a Chinese website that translated articles from The Guardian newspaper in London, had been forced to shut down. 

There are 14 general laws and regulations governing illegal online behavior, all vague and lacking in detailed, practical provisions, according to Li Yonggang, a professor of Internet politics from Nan-jing University, in his newly published book Our Great Firewall: Expression and Governance in the Era of the Internet.  "As a result, it's difficult to draw a line when operators and Web users censor, apart from the well-known restricted field of political issues" ..... There are more than 10 government organs entitled to supervise the Internet, Li said. [4]

"What Chinese Censors Don't Want You to Know"

Some examples from the official Chinese government censorship guidelines:

#5.      No negative news allowed on the front pages of newspapers
           or the headline news sections of Web sites.

#8.      For the “poisonous cowpea incident” in Hainan, only use news
           articles from the Xinhua News Agency, People’s Daily and the
           official Hainan media. [Cowpeas from Hainan Province were
           found to be contaminated with a toxic pesticide, setting off
           criticism about why the cowpeas  were sold to other

#12.    Do not sensationalize or feature reports on the joint
          editorial of 13 newspapers advocating reform of the
          household registration system.

#15.   Do not report on cases of detention center inmates
         dying during sleep.

Questioning a government's actions--or non-actions, can sometimes be the basis for retaliation:

Chinese artist/activist/blogger Ai Weiwei and others sent open letters to all the delegates to this year’s NPC meetings calling for transparency in the handling of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Ai and some volunteers also posted the letter on a popular social micro-blog run by Wednesday morning. But the accounts containing extracts of the letter were suspended, and more than 70 accounts containing the characters Ai or Wei were “killed” by the webmaster Wednesday, Ai told the Global Times. A customer service employee at said the reason for the suspension is the posts in those accounts contain sensitive material. [5].

Ai Weiwei recalls having been forced to burn the books of his father--the poet Ai Qing--"before the Red Guards came to punish the family with having such material."  (His father was sentenced to be "re-educated" and the entire family sent away to Xinjiang province.  Weiwei grew up there in a labor camp.)  Burning books, obliterating the printed word, will not quell the need to question, to read, to write, to speak out.  Weiwei feels that "To use art is not enough, to describe your view, in the old traditional forms, such as painting, sculpture… as a citizen you need to express your views, writing, blogging, giving interviews, is a part of that..."[6]

Of mounting concern--still--is the continuing physical restraint and imprisonment of people simply asking for the truth to be told.  "Activist Tan Zuoren, who had been investigating the deaths of schoolchildren in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, has just been sentenced to five years in prison for inciting subversion of state power believed to be linked to his quake investigation as well as essays he wrote about the 1989 student-led demonstrations in Tiananmen Square that ended in a deadly military crackdown." [7]

Last month, prominent writer and  retired university professor Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years' incarceration (eleven years!!!) for writing and advocating democratic reform. "It was the third legal defeat this week for veteran Chinese activists ... Asked whether China's treatment of dissidents might negatively affect its image overseas, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu responded, "There are no dissidents in China." [8]

I realize some readers will have been put off by the sheer length (and information overload--all those links and references!!) of this post today. But perhaps someone who wasn't aware of the extent or seriousness of the problem and wants to know more may find it useful.  Some of these news items I, myself, actually had not recently heard about--I initially intended writing only about a single fellow blogger being forced to stop writing on his blog.  That's the problem with the Internet--one link leads to another, then to another, and another .... In any case, it seemed somehow more important today than trying to wrack my brain to come up with a new story or poem, to prove I'm not pencrastinating.  Which I do, but ...

It will be interesting to see where this goes.  Will true democracy ever come to China?  Will Google pull up stakes and let Baidu rule the search waves there?    Will bloggers everywhere be more cautious in future about saying what they truly think, or will we one day find our websites routinely scanned, tagged, and databased for eventual shut-down?  Inquiring minds want to know.

March 22: Officials at Google confirm that the company is redirecting its search engine for China to Hong Kong ... "The Chinese government could react by blocking access to Google's services, much as it has completely shut off Facebook, Twitter and the Google-owned YouTube."[9].

For Mainline China service ability for Google (as of March 21, 2010), click here.

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