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Internet police state

Globe and Mail / Geoffrey York | January 31 2006

This week Google agreed to let China -- where cheerful cartoon icons Jingjing and Chacha watch over people's surfing habits -- censor Web pages the government doesn't like. GEOFFREY YORK discovers that The Globe and Mail's site is among them

BEIJING -- When you live in China, you soon become conscious of a shadowy presence that watches over you, monitoring everything you see and do on the computer screen and the television.

George Orwell called it Big Brother. The Chinese authorities prefer a cute and cheerful name, so they've invented two cartoon figures called Jingjing and Chacha that float merrily on your computer screen. But they have the same Orwellian task: to keep you under constant surveillance to ensure that you don't look at anything unauthorized or subversive.

Jingjing and Chacha are the invention of the Internet police in the southern city of Shenzhen. They seem happy and harmless as they surf on their tiny silicon wafers. But if you put the names together, they spell jingcha -- police.

And if you try to post a comment on any of Shenzhen's websites or chat rooms, the two cartoon characters pop up on your screen to remind you that you are being monitored.

Their official task is to "maintain order" and "publicly remind all Netizens to be conscious of safe and healthy use of the Internet," one state-controlled newspaper said. In addition, Internet users can communicate with the cartoon police interactively

This month, I've been thinking a lot about Jingjing and Chacha and their cheerful censorship. The icons are just the visible face of a pervasive system of censorship and control that extends throughout China.

A few weeks ago, for example, the Globe and Mail website was abruptly blocked by the Chinese authorities.

Was there something about Canadian democracy that offended the secret security agents who patrol Chinese cyberspace? Was there something in our election coverage -- perhaps a passing reference to a banned subject such as the Dalai Lama or Falun Gong -- that somehow raised the ire of China's Web censors? Or was it a byproduct of a crackdown on a dissident website that may have contained a link to the Globe site?

I can only guess, but you're forced to guess about everything in China. The authorities never explain their reasons.

The latest saga began early this month, when I first discovered that the Globe and Mail website was inaccessible.

A couple of days later, I happened to be working in Cambodia, and discovered that the Globe site was fully accessible there.

The irony was sharp. China sees itself as an economic powerhouse in the mainstream of global business, while Cambodia is seen as an impoverished backwater. Yet it is Cambodia where the Internet is much freer.

A few days later, back in China, the Globe website was available for a few days. Then it was blocked again, and it remained blocked this week.

For any high-tech country with global ambitions in the information age, it seems paradoxical to block information. Yet this is what China does. With an estimated 40,000 Internet police officers, China makes a massive effort to control everything you see and read.

It's the uncertainty and unpredictability of the nanny state that frustrates the most. Every week, another website seems to blink off, snuffed out by the Web censors, and it is impossible to know why. A week later, the site might be accessible again -- or it might not.

You can be happily surfing the news on the Yahoo or Google news sites, but if you click on a routine story on a banned subject -- or even a story about Web censorship itself -- you will see an error message on your screen. And then the entire site becomes temporarily inaccessible, as if to punish you for your errant ways.

The dead hand of state bureaucracy lies heavily on every sphere of information. You can be browsing at a newsstand, intrigued by an article promoted in the index of The Economist or Newsweek. Buy the magazine, get home, turn to the article -- and discover that the entire page has been torn out by government censors because of an offending passage.

You can be watching CNN or BBC (generally available only at hotels or elite housing compounds that cater to foreigners) and an announcer will introduce a story about China. Suddenly the screen goes blank. The censors know what is coming next, and they don't want you to hear it.

Simple Internet research tools, such as Wikipedia and the Factiva database of media articles, can be shut down for weeks at a time. Sometimes it is a gesture of intimidation: Negotiate a commercial deal with the Chinese authorities, or face a shutdown of operations.

Meanwhile, the world's powerful Internet companies seem happy to comply with Big Brother's surveillance. Google revealed this week that it has agreed to censor itself in China to comply with Chinese regulations. Microsoft launched a portal in China last year that blocked the use of words such as "freedom" in blogs. And Yahoo agreed to comply with Chinese demands for e-mail account details on a journalist who was later jailed for his Internet activities. (Of the 62 cyber-dissidents in prisons around the world, 54 are in China.)

The censorship is worse for Chinese-language media, of course. When a village protest in southern China turned into a bloodbath, with police firing machine guns at civilian protesters, the news was inevitably blocked from the Chinese media. Only a single authorized statement from China's state-owned news agency (blaming the protesters) was permitted, and even this was not available in most media. The official statement was posted on a couple of major Chinese websites, but readers were prohibited from commenting on it.

One of China's tiny handful of adventurous newspapers, the Beijing News, was recently stripped of its independent-minded editors, and a loyal cadre was appointed to bring it under control. Another outspoken newspaper, a weekly supplement to China Youth Daily, was shut down this week.

Less than three years ago, China was entering a brief flowering of press freedoms, linked to the SARS epidemic and the change of leadership at the top of the Communist Party. But today, with President Hu Jintao consolidating his power, China is rolling back the freedoms. While the rest of the world embraces the opportunities of the Internet, China is moving in the opposite direction.

To research this article, I wanted to look at an international survey of press freedom by Reporters Without Borders, an independent Paris-based organization. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, their website was blocked in China. To dodge the censors, I had to send an e-mail message to the hardworking librarians at The Globe and Mail's head office in Toronto, asking them to dig up the study and send it to me.

The survey, incidentally, gave China a dismal rating of 159 out of 167 countries in the global index of press freedom. Only a few totalitarian countries -- including North Korea, Turkmenistan and Cuba -- are rated as worse than China in their press freedoms. Even the war-torn country of Iraq is rated as freer than China.

I briefly wondered whether those jolly cartoon figures, Jingjing and Chacha, might want to say anything about this trend. But they were inaccessible to a reporter from Beijing Youth Daily who tried to explore these questions. "The main function of Jingjing and Chacha is to intimidate, not to answer questions," the journalist was told by an official at the Internet Security and Surveillance Division of the Shenzhen Public Security Bureau.

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