Since riots broke out in Tibet last week, authorities have imposed martial law and tried to control the flow of information into and out of the region. The government has banned journalists and tourists from entering Tibet. And officials have imposed strict controls over the Internet in an effort to spin what happened in Tibet and neighboring provinces to conform with Beijing's version of events.
That's resulted in some typical blackouts. Not surprisingly, Google's (GOOG) YouTube, (BusinessWeek.com, 12/06/07), which the government often targets, was down over the weekend in China after someone posted video clips of Tibetan monks protesting. In-house censors at blog-hosting companies have excised any comments that are not in line with those from official state-owned media such as China Central Television (CCTV) or the Xinhua News Agency. One Internet user who goes by the handle "Rensheng jiushi fanfu" wrote in a comment under a posting about tourism in Tibet on the popular online bulletin board Tianya, "CCTV has reported it. Xinhua News Agency has also reported it. But Tianya cannot."
China's most popular search engines and portals are sticking to the official line, too. The only mention of Tibet on Baidu.com (BIDU), China's top search engine, is in a Xinhua story alleging the Dalai Lama is plotting to destroy social stability in Tibet, an effort that Xinhua says is doomed to fail. The Chinese versions of Yahoo! (YHOO) and Microsoft's (MSFT) MSN are running the same Xinhua item. The Chinese edition of Google News has links to the Chinese Web sites of the British Broadcasting Corp., Voice of America, and Taiwanese newspapers, but those sites are blocked within China (BusinessWeek.com, 10/20/07).
A 2005 Wakeup Call for Chinese Censors
The ability of Beijing to control information about the crisis points to the limitations of the big U.S. Web brands and others when news breaks that the Chinese government doesn't like. "There are a lot of people that think the Internet is going to bring information and democracy and pluralism in China just by existing," says Rebecca Mackinnon, assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong's Journalism & Media Studies Center. "I think what we're seeing with this situation in Tibet is while the Chinese government's system of Internet censorship controls and propaganda is not infallible by any means, it works well enough in times of crisis like this."
In many ways, large-scale anti-Japanese protests in Chinese cities in 2005 served as a wakeup call for the government's censors. Despite a blackout of the traditional media at the time, Chinese protestors sent each other e-mails, instant messages, and text messages to organize protests through the streets of Beijing and Shanghai. As a result, the government issued a series of regulations shortly afterward forcing Internet content providers to register with authorities and held them responsible for their user-generated content. Also, censors made improvements on the Internet filtering system that blocks thousands of sensitive key words.
After blogger Richard Burger, an American living in Beijing, posted about the riots in Tibet on his blog, The Peking Duck on Mar. 16, his blog was blocked in China. Burger says his blog has been blocked in China several times since he started it in 2002 after blogging about sensitive topics. "The huge computer networks that the party uses to filter and funnel every word that goes through the Internet is going to catch those words and it's automatically going to shut your blog down for a period of time," says Burger. "You realize it's nothing personal."
Using U.S. Servers to Avoid Censors
With the censoring of Chinese blog and BBC postings that do not reflect the government's position, most of the Chinese postings left standing tend to present an overwhelming resentful attitude towards Tibetans. "Tibetan mobs are a group of ungrateful people. They enjoy many unique advantages, such as more than one child, much lower requirements for university admission, protection policies on the region, and paramount investments," writes a blogger in English on a site called "Chinese Lives."
However, there are some exceptions. After a number of friends asked entrepreneur Zhou Shuguang, who lives in Hunan province in south-central China, about what was going on in Tibet, he collected pictures and news articles about the riot from not just the official Chinese media but also Chinese translation of foreign media articles and posted them on his Web site, zuola.com. Censors have tried to shut down his Web site numerous times, but Zhou set up his Web site on Internet servers in the U.S. and also posted it on Google Docs to get around the blocks. "The more you try to censor something, the more people will want to understand it, so I posted it on my Web site," he says. "It was easy."