"Libera Me"

When I was preparing to come to China, I wasn't sure if it would be the police state that the West makes it out to be. Erring on the side of caution, I did what any reasonable WASP would: hide my Bible with the dirty underwear in my suitcase and encrypt the bestiality porn on my laptop. Similarly, after arriving, one of the first things we were told about teaching was to stay away from material involving the three T's: Taiwan, Tibet, and Tiananmen.

In any country, there are sensitive topics that one doesn't casually bring up with just anybody. The difference here in China is that the government takes a noticeably active role in controlling what can be said regarding the topics it has the most interest in. The most frustrating part of this for me is the government's attempt to censor the Internet, accomplished through what is known as "The Great Firewall of China." The irony is that in spite of its grandiose name, any kid could get around it - the techniques are no different than defeating the mandatory filtering software in use at a school library. The important difference to consider, though, is that the crabby old librarians back home don't have thousands of agents at their disposal nor the power to incarcerate you as a political prisoner. I'm sure they secretly would if they could, though.. anything to teach those young whipper-snappers a lesson.

If you hate using computers in the first place, this system just makes it all the more a pain in the ass. Sadly, much of the web that I find useful and interesting is blocked. Things like Google's cache feature, blogs on Wordpress or... Blogger, Wikipedia, Wikileaks, various Western newspapers, and a mix of much more (incomplete list). It's blatantly obvious when you try to go to a forbidden site as well, because to the browser, it looks as though the site is "down" and not responding to requests. Google must have an inumpressive reputation here, because it seems like their engineers can't seem to grasp the concept of stability.

Web companies based in China have to play by the government's rules as well and block access to or remove certain information. As mentioned in an article linked in the previous post, Baidu (a popular Chinese search engine) filters out keywords related to taboo topics. The Chinese extension of Google has to do the same, no doubt. Here's another incomplete list (2 years old is forever in Internet time, but banned words aren't likely to change).

As far as censorship goes, it's easy to pick on China because of how vast and blatant their system is. However, similar programs are already in place all around the world, and the trend will likely continue. It's too simple for a government (or the service providers) not to. You may have heard this quote attributed to Nazi war criminal Herman Goring: "Naturally the common people don't want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country."

It is trivial to adapt this to meet the needs of Internet censors. "Tell them horrible things on the Internet are going to harm your children and denounce the opposition as deviants or would-be molestors." That's it - easy as pie. Once the technology is in place to blacklist "offensive" sites, it's only a matter of time before other content makes the list, but you wouldn't know what's on the list anyhow. If you think this would never happen in a modern liberal democracy that valued Freedom of Speech, look no further than Australia or Germany.

"That's all fine and dandy, but what's the point?" you ask. Calm down, already. If you have the attention span of a 5-year-old, I suggest TV news instead. One week ago marked the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre (June 4, 1989). How fortuitous of me to be here for such a memorable event! Except, that's the point - it's not memorable; it was spun to death and then discarded into the memory hole. A large portion of this generation of Chinese are completely ignorant of the circumstances leading up to the protests or the bloody aftermath. Amusingly enough, while I was at work that day, one of my Chinese TAs was complaining about the situation with health care and insurance in the country. I told her she had a valid point, and there were probably many other young people like her who felt the same way. I suggested they take their grievances to Beijing and organize a demonstration on "this auspicious day."

She didn't get the joke...

At least the other Westerner in the room laughed.

Again, though, it's easy to pick on China. For those in the West, the media from that day proved unforgettably powerful. For me, "The Unknown Rebel" is one of the most powerful photographs I've had the pleasure of studying on my wall while savoring a good drink. (It's too bad some people insist on calling him "Tank Man" - a significantly less suave name...) Even if the next generation of Westerners didn't care about modern China's development, chances are good they've seen pictures from or articles about that day - it's simply too good an opportunity to push propaganda.

Of course, those same American kids might not have a clue about another infamous anniversary only one month earlier. This date marks the Kent State Massacre (May 4, 1970), where - similarly - student protesters were shot and killed by government soldiers. Both of these events are red stains on the history books that don't get the attention they deserve. In fact, it's quite funny to me how hasty a country is to criticize another over convenient omissions in secondary education history texts, when they obviously haven't looked at their own. I try not to generalize much, but I can guarantee all such books are wrought with half-truths, exaggerations, omissions, and outright lies. It can be hard enough for two people to agree on what to order for dinner, let alone what occurred in a faraway country in a completely different language and time. Have you ever played the "telephone game?" Attempting to pass a relatively simple yet detailed message from one person to the next is bound to introduce errors, and those playing don't even have an incentive to distort the truth. Objectivity in history is a wet dream at best; all one can hope to do is read as many well-researched accounts as possible and try to piece together what might have happened.

With regard to Tiananmen, one could argue that the government's censorship campaign has been a frighteningly effective success, as so many people remain unaware of it. However, I don't believe this to be the case. Personally, I know that if something is supposed to be a secret, it means that it's actually interesting and promises a challenge and reward. It's the driving force behind many hackers - exploration and forbidden knowledge - and also the curious reason for the Streisand Effect. My hunch, based on personal observations while dedicating vast quantities of time to the study of Internet culture, is that the people with the will to know already know. The rest simply don't give a shit. I only wish I knew the true percentages of people who felt one way or the other. Unlike my experiences in the US, the people here don't walk around on lookout for some unsuspecting sod with his mouth slightly agape just so they can vomit their political ideology down his throat. I'm told that behind closed doors, the Chinese can be just as political as anyone else, but my Mandarin has a long way to go before I can chat about China's long history, let alone what I did yesterday.

This is quite alright, as I am merely a spectator. I have faith that China's cyber-dissidents - its Unknown Rebels - will continue to arm themselves with the knowledge and fighting spirit that has been the mainstay of their culture since long before the digital age. And likewise, dear reader, I hope that your thirst for knowledge is never quenched. Complacency is the death of intellect.

I leave you to ponder the efficacy of censorship in the age when information can travel at the speed of light to all corners of the Earth, and where one copy of a publication can instantly and effortlessly be duplicated into millions. Here is another poignant quote from another infamous member of a one-party State:

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”
- Joseph Goebbels


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