Relative to today’s article in The Guardian in cooperation with Justin McCurry in Tokyo and Jonathan Watts in Beijing, I have decided to post, ahead of time, Chapter 21 of ‘Fault Lines on the Face of China: 50 Reasons Why China May Never Be Great,’ which indicates who ChinaBounder is. This posting will also give readers the opportunity to review the work of David Marriott and Karl Lacroix without my acidic commentary.
Without a further word, I offer you an abridged version of ‘Boxing in Ideas for Mr. Marx.’
In the late 1950s, China’s military had developed a number of basic computer networks. Each network was made up of a number of workstations. Each of these stations could communicate with each other. But they could not communicate with other networks. Furthermore, each network had been built for different purposes and by different people. Each had its own set of operating rules.
In the early 1960s, one brilliant, forward-thinking Chinese scientist working in a military research program realized that what was needed was one computer workstation that could communicate with any other network, and one set of operating instructions for all machines.
The scientist began to work on a set of theories to enable this change to take place. Others on his visionary team helped design and implement the necessary protocols.
As they did so, they realized another benefit of their dream; it could be expanded to link together the country’s universities, research institutions and libraries, and it could allow cheap and efficient communication for ordinary people. In a country as vast as China, this would have been a great advantage.
But China’s military and political leaders had a different agenda. They saw that this system would make China’s secrets invulnerable to the outside world, even nuclear attack. If one research base and its computer network were destroyed, other machines linked to it in other places would be able to take over. Top research scientists from the country’s leading universities were drafted to help create this defendable system.
Several noted scientists protested about this squandering of the network’s wider benefits. They wanted to open up the new system to more academic collaboration. They wanted the entire technological community to be able to take a role in creating this new system, because they knew that in this way many new advantages would be found.
China’s military leaders firmly disagreed. They had no interest in opening up the possible benefits of the new system to the people. For them, all that mattered was the tactical advantage such a network would give them. Dissenting scientists were dismissed from the program and relocated. Some were even jailed.
The new system of networked workstations never left the research base. China’s military kept the secrets in the box.
Around the same time, China’s computer manufacturers, under direct state control as was all industry in the country, were directed to focus their efforts on the military benefits alone.
Because of this, even though computers were not user-friendly, it did not matter, as only specially trained operatives needed to use them.
And since Chinese society valued conformity above all things, there was no possibility for any young and talented student to drop out, create a start-up business at home, and invent a more easily usable system.
Though computers slowly began to permeate wider society, few were networked.
Since Chinese computer scientists remained under strict military control, no-one invented programs that would allow easy browsing of the data in the now-huge Chinese defense department computer network.
The world, of course, knew practically nothing of the system the Chinese had invented. Rumors filtered out of some great connective system whereby a computer in New York might easily communicate with a computer in London.
Occasionally, an arrest was made of a particular scientist or military specialist, who tried to reveal the secrets. But the Chinese Communist Party had a death-grip on the system.
As news leaked out into the West, the press had a field day with speculation, rumor and conjecture.
It even earned itself a nickname – they called it ‘the Internet.’
Fantasy? Absolutely. But entirely plausible if you consider the present day nature of the policies and actions of the political regime which desperately wants to put the World Wide Web back in the box.
Imagine, if the above story was true…
No World Wide Web. No Netscape or Internet Explorer or Firefox. Or Yahoo. Or EBay. Or Google. Or YouTube.
Probably the boys at Microsoft would find something else to do. And imagine what kind of poor country cousin the Nasdaq stock exchange would be.
Had China ‘discovered’ networking in the way that America did in the 1950s and 1960s, the internet as we know it today would never have been born. The world would have been a totally different place. There would be no hi-tech ‘connected’ economy, no ‘wired generation.’
Guessing alternative history or the future is an unprovable science, but presently it is very clear that China’s government desires to use the net as a tool of control, not as a tool of freedom.
In 2007, Hu Jintao, China’s president, ordered officials to ensure the internet was ‘ethically inspiring.’ He said he wanted the Communist Party to help ‘purify the internet environment,’ and said that ‘whether we can cope with the internet is a matter that affects the development of socialist culture, the security of information, and the stability of the state.’
China’s top political body, the Politburo, added ‘development and administration of internet culture must stick to the direction of advanced socialist culture, adhere to correct propaganda guidance.’
It was vital, they said, to ‘consolidate the guiding status of Marxism in the ideological sphere.’1 Perhaps the Communist Party wishes that Karl Marx had invented the internet.
But control, not ‘guidance’ is what lies at the heart of the internet for China’s government. Whereas in the West the great achievement of the internet is that it allows each user to create their own individual world, for China its purpose is to spread government propaganda and to consolidate control over society and individual freedom.
One of the strongest expressions of individual freedom that the internet facilitates is blogging. Blogging allows everyone a voice, and while the sheer number of blogs means each voice might not always be heard, the voices in most societies shout freely.
The Chinese government is terrified of what blogging represents. A society in which every voice is free to speak is the antithesis of the goals of today’s Chinese government.
Beijing would be happy to be able to be able to design a Marxist-style box to control China’s burgeoning blogosphere. In 2006 the government looked into the feasibility of requiring all bloggers to register with their real names.
Due to the complexity of such a registration system it has not, at the time of writing, been implemented. But ‘a real name system will be an unavoidable choice if China wants to standardize and develop its blog industry,’ says Huang Chengqing, head of the Internet Society of China.2
The true meanings of the words ‘standardize and develop’ can more accurately be described as to ‘shackle and restrict’ to the point of total control those who ‘anonymously disseminate irresponsible and untrue information via the internet, bringing about very bad influences not only to individuals but to society as a whole.’3
In Chinese terms, ‘irresponsible and untrue’ information is anything which does not agree with the government line.
According to Reporters without Borders, worldwide there are 61 people in jail for posting ‘subversive’ comment on a blog or website. Fifty-two of them are in China, giving the country five or six times the total number of imprisoned voices in the rest of the globe.4 “China is by far the world’s biggest prison for bloggers and cyber-dissidents” says the organization.5
The Reporters without Borders 2007 China report says that “… self-censorship is obviously in full force. Just five years ago, many people thought Chinese society and politics would be revolutionized by the Internet, a supposedly uncontrollable medium. Now, with China enjoying increasing geopolitical influence, people are wondering the opposite, whether perhaps China’s Internet model, based on censorship and surveillance, may one day be imposed on the rest of the world.”
The organization also says that “China keeps a tight grip on what is written and downloaded by users and spends an enormous amount on Internet surveillance equipment and hires armies of informants and cyber-police.”
“It also has the political weight to force the companies in the sector - such as Yahoo!, Google, Microsoft and Cisco Systems - to do what it wants them to, and all have agreed to censor their search-engines to filter out websites overcritical of the authorities. This makes the regime’s job very much easier because these firms are the main entry-points to the Internet. If a website is not listed by these search-engines, material posted on them has about as much chance of being found as a message in a bottle thrown into the sea.” 6
Another great assistance to the Chinese government in its quest to silence freely-expressed opinions is, sadly, the Chinese people themselves.
In China, the compulsion to conform creates a ‘herd mentality’ which dominates to such an overwhelming extent that those who do try to speak out with a different voice are routinely attacked or ostracized. This is masked as citizen action taken in order to subjugate those individuals who step outside preconceived notions of morality.
There are segments of Chinese society today that even free of government encouragement seek to impose a definition of right and wrong on other people.7
A clear example of this was the ‘ChinaBounder’ case, which again exposed contemporary Chinese society’s inability to deal with the freedoms that blogging offers.
The ChinaBounder blog detailed the sex life and social opinions of a Western expatriate character living in Shanghai. Within a few weeks of the blog being posted on an American blog site, it was attracting vitriolic and abusive comments from Chinese readers.
The blog really caught fire when Zhang Jiehai, a professor of psychology and member of the Shanghai Academy of Sciences, wrote a long and impassioned denunciation of the blog and its writer.
“Today, with tremendous anger, I will tell you the story of an immoral foreigner and I call upon all Chinese compatriots to get together and kick this immoral foreigner out of China” he began, going on to give a recap of some of the things Chinabounder had written about. “But what makes it intolerable for me” Zhang wrote, “is that this piece of garbage deliberately hurt the feelings of the Chinese nation… and he openly spoke to divide China.”
“This undisguised disclosure of the mind is too shocking!” wrote Zhang. “I am a researcher in psychology. There is only one reason why this piece of garbage would meticulously and laboriously write out his bedtime dalliances, and that is because he is a pervert.”8
Zhang Jiehai also sent out a clarion call to the men of China. “I also have something to tell the Chinese men: Please think about how these foreign trash have dallied with your sisters and made fun of your impotence. Do you want to say that this is no big deal? Do you still want to treat the foreigners as important? Do you still quiver when you see foreigners? Please straighten out your backbones."
Zhang’s angry protest sparked a manhunt. The ‘ChinaBounder’ story leaped into the national press and then the international press, being picked up by the BBC, CNN, Time Magazine and newspapers in every continent in the world.
‘ChinaBounder’ was in fact created and written by one of the authors of this book, David Marriott.
What was so interesting – and frightening -- about the reaction to the blog was that it laid bare some of the attitudes beneath the surface of the skin of modern Chinese society.
There were thousands of comments, both on the blog itself and through email, expressing extreme hatred and threats of violence, offering sickening sexual violence and mutilation not just to ‘Chinabounder’ but also to his father, mother, and any other relatives that he might have. Online opinion in China was outraged.
When the story hit its fever pitch in China, we were both acutely aware of the risks to ourselves. One of the blogs that sprang up in response to the ‘Chinabounder’ affair, the ‘Who Is Chinabounder?’ blog, was a site completely devoted to exposing the author.
Perhaps the author of that blog about a blog was unaware that he was relying on the very freedom that blogging allows to try to curtail the freedom of someone else.
At that time both authors were traveling internationally, and were somewhat apprehensive about being able to return to China, where we had established homes. Indeed we had to pause for reflection entering customs and immigration about a week later. Would we be stopped at the border? Fortunately we returned through Hong Kong into Shenzhen without incident.
Nonetheless, if ChinaBounder had been exposed, physical attack was possible, and political trouble was certain. We prepared for this eventuality by shredding large amounts of the printed research we had filed on China, and by destroying the hard drive of the computer ‘ChinaBounder’ had used to write the blog. That way, if the ‘knock on the door’ did come, there would be little evidence to be found, save for the guilty expressions on our faces.
We both prepared ‘grab bags’ of our most vital possessions so that we could leave our homes in the city within moments, and we took other steps to preserve our anonymity. We also decided to shut down the blog for a few months, and gradually the fickle attention of the Chinese public moved elsewhere.
A key element in the negative commentary about the ‘Chinabounder’ affair --- apart from the numerous wild threats of castration and mutilation (and that was just in English – in the Chinese language the abuse was much worse) -- was for ‘Chinabounder’ to be thrown out of the country (preferably in a box.)
‘China, love it or leave it’ has a familiar ring to it. Different culture, but it hearkens back to another era. Once upon a time, in America, the spirit of the Stars and Stripes required that you had to adhere to the voices tuned to nationalism.
Thankfully, America has left that attitude in the past.
In China, however, the attitude is still very common, and underlies the assumption of the ‘uni-nation’ – the idea that the Chinese nation is the only nation, that Chinese ideas are the only ideas, and that the Chinese voice is the only voice.
Utilizing all the negativity towards ‘Chinabounder’ Zhang Jiehai was able to publish a book about the affair, called ‘I’m Angry.’
In the end, what was written as ‘Chinabounder’ means absolutely nothing. What is important is that the character tried to say something outside the norm, beyond what Chinese people expected Western people to comment on with reference to China. In China it is not only what you say, it is also why you say it, who says it, and the medium in which you say it. To that end, ‘Chinabounder’ was successful.
In announcing that the ‘medium is the message’ Canadian Marshall McLuhan meant that the method of communication could have a more important effect than the communication itself.
He did not mean that the ‘message’ was less important than the ‘media’ carrying it, or that the content was unimportant. What he meant was that new inventions could change the world in unforeseen and non-obvious ways, and that this was their true, abiding message. It was the nature of the medium that changed society over the longer term, rather than the messages carried on it. Those messages could be individually important, but the more profound effect came from elsewhere. The medium itself could change the way society operated.
Based on McLuhan’s ideas, the true visionary is one who is aware of the possibilities of these unforeseen advantages and is ready to encourage them or respond to them. In China, a lack of fear also helps.
That being the case how would McLuhan address China’s issues? Perhaps he would suggest that the Chinese, on the whole, have singularly failed to ‘get’ the point of blogging. Chinese society is simply not open to the possibilities blogging offers, and the ways in which this new medium might transform society. In approaching the new media with old ideas, contemporary Chinese society misses the message.
China’s ‘Operation Golden Shield’ is a vast program employing between 30,000 and 70,000 operatives (estimates vary widely, but new recruits are added daily) whose sole purpose is to monitor and guide internet usage. One of the negative offshoots of this project is how eagerly Western corporations such as Cisco, Microsoft, Yahoo and Google (which has the hypocrisy to offer as its motto ‘Don’t Be Evil’) collude with China to provide the hardware and software that the government fashions into the shackles which imprison the country’s internet users.
Another part of the ‘Golden Shield’ program collects as much information as possible on China’s citizens, even if they are not part of China’s online population. This has been a remarkably effective part of the program. Since its launch in 2003, it has collected data on 1.25 billion of China’s 1.3 billion people.9
China is currently planning to greatly increase its number of ‘virtual cops.’ They are a vast army of government spies who monitor, in real time, what people are doing online. If a user reads something that does not meet with official approval, he or she is blocked.
More seriously, should a user post commentary that is viewed as being out of the boundaries or the ‘box’ of uni-national thinking, the posts are wiped. Should the user’s post receive interaction from others, there is the terrifying possibility of the ‘virtual cops’ becoming real police knocking on your door.
The ‘virtual cops’ were first used in the southern city of Shenzhen in 2006. A cartoon icon representative of a policeman was placed on large websites, linked to local police stations.
“The simple appearance of these floating icons will remind people these websites are under surveillance,” said Lu Benfu, an internet expert with the Chinese Academy of Sciences.10
The ‘virtual cops’ (housed in high-security buildings along with their own command structure) were then deployed in the city of Guangzhou, before being expanded to nine cities, with large units established in Beijing and Shanghai. Currently, the government plans to expand the surveillance system to 100 cities nationwide.11
Much like rapid-deployment anti-terrorist squads, the electronic suppression of information counter to government policies is extremely effective.
For example, when the media freedom organization Reporters without Borders set up a Chinese language website, it took China’s net police less than eight hours to find it and block it to Chinese surfers. When the group moved their site to another host, it was again shut down.12
China amazingly denies it actually censors anything. For instance, China’s representative at a meeting of the Internet Governance Forum claimed that, “In China, we don’t have software blocking Internet sites. Sometimes we have trouble accessing them. But that’s a different problem.”13
This is factually untrue. China now has the ability to block access to foreign websites at will. For instance, during the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) meetings of 2001, sites such as CNN and the BBC, long blocked in China, were opened up. China was keen to show the visiting dignitaries how open its society was. But when those same international leaders had left, access to these sites was immediately blocked.14
It is certain that exactly the same thing will happen in the 2008 Olympics. China will create the appearance of an open society for the two weeks of the games. But once they are over the gates will be slammed shut and the restrictions will be reimposed.
China’s educational facilities add an additional layer of control. Universities choose members of the student body to ‘monitor’ the university’s internet chat rooms. These monitors act secretly, pretending to be simply taking part in conversation, yet their real purpose is to steer student postings in a healthy ‘Marxist’ direction.
For example, one of these monitors spoke of her belief that, “We don’t really control things, but we really don’t want bad or wrong things to appear on the web sites…. As I’m a student cadre, I need to play a pioneer role among other students, to express my opinion, to make stronger my belief in communism.”
Another 22 year old student said, “Our job consists of guidance, not control.”15
The restriction of sexual expression, long ago left unfettered by developed economies, is only beginning to gain steam in China.
Online restrictions are gaining energy, with China launching a ‘People’s War’ on sexual freedom in one of a series of attempts to influence sexual morality.
In the first month after the campaign began in early April 2007, authorities blocked 4,800 websites and 160,000 pieces of online information.16
The ‘People’s War’ gave rise to a number of alarming statements. Wu Heping, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Public Security, said that “In recent years from the cases we have discovered, the proportion of young people guilty of cheating, rape or robbery who are given to using the Internet or have been corrupted by online filth, is very high…Our preliminary figures for arrested youth criminals is that almost 80 percent of them have been seduced by the Internet.”17
What mode of questioning or analysis of how this information was compiled has not been revealed. Far from seeing that an interest in sex is a normal and healthy part of growing up, China’s puritanical streak equates sexual images with crime.
Zhang Hui, a deputy public security minister, said that “The inflow of pornographic materials from abroad and lax domestic control are to blame for the existing problems in China’s cyberspace.”18
How nude images of Western women translate into cheating, rape and robbery has again not been indicated.
Twenty-eight year old Chen Hui ran a porn-based website in China that drew 600,000 registered users. That’s over half a million citizens freely exercising their desire to view the images provided. What might be seen as a measure of popularity, or perhaps a vote for freedom, resulted in a life sentence in prison for the entrepreneurial Chen.19
In the eyes of the Chinese legal system, running a porn website is punishable as seriously as murder.
1. 'China aims to tame internet and spread party line.’ Reuters, 23rd April 2007.
2. ‘Blog real name system not yet officially decided.’ People’s Daily Online, October 23rd 2006.
4. ‘Reporters without borders urges internet users to join in 24-hour online demo against internet censorship.’ www.rsf.org, 26th October 2006. The figure of 52 imprisoned in China comes from Reporters without Borders’ 2007 China Report.
5. ‘Blogger Hao Wu freed after being held for five months.’ www.rsf.org, 11th July 2006.
6. 2007 Annual Report, Reporters without Borders, available from www.rsf.org.
7.‘Online Throngs Impose a Stern Morality in China.’ By Howard W. French, The New York Times, 3rd June 2006.
8.Zhang wrote in Chinese. A translation of the article is available at www.zonaeuropa.com
9. ‘Basic information of 1.25 bln Chinese recorded in police data bank.’ Xinhua, 7th April 2006.
10. ‘Virtual cops to weed out Internet gambling, porn.’ By Li Fangchao, China Daily, 14th April 2007.
11. ‘China targets campus porn sites.’ Agencies/China Daily, 29th May 2007.
12. ‘China shuts down media freedom site ‘within hours.’’ AFP, 30th May 2007.
13. The minutes of this meeting, held on 31st October 2006, can be read at www.intgovforum.org.
14.‘China Again Censoring Web After Summit, Blocking of Foreign Sites Resumes.’ By Clay Chandler, The Washington Post, 23rd October 2001.
15.‘As Chinese Students Go Online, Little Sister Is Watching.’ By Howard W. French, The New York Times, May 8th 2006.
16.'People’s war against porn websites shows results.’ People’s Daily Online/China Daily, 29th May 2007.
17.‘China official blames internet for youth crime.’ Reuters, April 19th 2007.
18.‘China launches campaign to crack down on Web porn.’ People’s Daily, 13th April 2007.
19.‘Gambling and porn targeted.’ People’s Daily, April 16th 2007.