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When Viral Revolt Runs Smack into China's Great Firewall

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, February 22 2011

China's homegrown 'Twitter,' Sina Weibo; photo credit: Cedric Sam

Chinese officials, nervous about the remarkable spread of the revolutionary spirit that has gripped northern Africa and the Middle East lately, touched off by Tunisia's so-called "Jasmine Revolution," are upping online and offline efforts to smother protests in their earliest stages, reports the Wall Street Journal's Jeremy Page. Law enforcement and Internet censors, reports Page, were able to "easily" stymie plans this weekend for simultaneous anti-government protests in more than a dozen Chinese cities. And Chinese officials are now chatting in public about the best techniques for stopping agitation before it really starts.

"Strive to defuse conflicts and disputes while they are still embryonic," [domestic security chief] Zhou Yongkang was quoted as saying. On Saturday, President and party chief Hu Jintao also called in a speech for tighter Internet supervision to help prevent social unrest.

Only a handful of people turned up Sunday for the planned protests, as police detained or confined to their homes dozens of activists across China and Internet censors blocked searches for the word "Jasmine" on Twitter-like microblogging sites and other websites.

Page's entire piece is a very good read, but one point in particularly jumps out: whereas Egypt's recent revolt was marked by a government that seemed to know only how to wield a sledgehammer when it came to managing the Internet's more troublesome aspects, China has for years been refining its abilities to censor, filter, and shape digital speech. One scalpel-style technique highlighted by the Journal: making it impossible to send text messages that made reference to "Wangfujing," the Beijing district where that city's protest had been planned.

Moreover, the Chinese government is "allowing Chinese social-networking sites to flourish," reports Page, "provided they cooperate with censors by removing or blocking controversial material." One such social-networking site is Sina Weibo, a China-grown equivalent to Twitter. Bloomberg BusinessWeek has a timely look today on the growth of that platform, and in it analysts are quoted saying that nearly 90% of the time that is spent inside China on 'micro-blogging platforms' is spent on Sina Weibo. Twitter, launched in 2006, has 175 million members. Meanwhile, Sina Weibo, launched in just 2006 and available only in Chinese, is on track to have 120 million members by next year. As more and more discussion flows through such portals, it highlights that one very real component of the "Great Firewall" that restricts online speech in China is humans, as in the people who, often in an effort to stay up and running on the Chinese Internet, comply with what the Chinese government's vision of the Internet should be.

Just last week, just after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a major speech in Washington on the topic of "Internet freedom," (wherein she had less than flattering words for the Chinese Internet where "government censors content and redirects search requests to error pages"), the U.S. Embassy in Beijing reported that its postings to Sina Weibo were suddenly being held up before going live. Two days later, embassy spokesperson Richard Buangan tweeted out an update saying that his Sina Weibo postings were "still 'reviewed'" before going live, meaning that the Chinese government was effectively censoring what the United States government had to say online.

Of course, the Chinese people have, over so many years of being restricted online, figured out tricks for routing around roadblocks.'s Peter Shadbolt reported this weekend that Chinese users of Sina Weibo and similar platforms have developed shorthand ways for bypassing censors, like using 8x8 to refer to the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown; eight multiplied by eight equals 64, which is a short hop to 6/4, as in June 4th, the day that violent episode took place.

But the U.S. foreign policy world has other ways to resist. After Clinton's speech, U.S. State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley tweeted out a dig at China's online restrictions: " "While #China negotiates with #SecClinton, it is evidently trying to make her disappear from the #Internet. This is a losing proposition." (It's not entirely clear what Crowley's talking about when he refers to "trying to make her disappear from the Internet," but Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner made a similar claim in an web-streamed video chat on Friday.)

Chinese officials quoted in Page's Wall Street Journal piece argue that they're not at all concerned about Clinton's talk about digital freedom -- especially, goes the implication, not with the tools to control Internet speech they have handy and know how to use. "We don't have anything to worry about," says Chinese foreign affairs official, "but we have to prevent people from using the Internet to damage or destroy social stability."

Now, those aren't particularly surprising words of confidence from Chinese officials. But that said, we do have a report from a Wikileaks-revealed U.S. State Department cable from what happened last time Clinton made big news by making the for online freedoms, with her first "Internet freedom" speech last January. In the cable, an inside source in China is cited as warning that "there were people in China and other countries such as Iran who might see the 'shadow of color revolution' in recent USG policies promoting Internet freedom and 21st century e-diplomacy." A year later, it seems fairly prescient.