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Roundtable: The Struggle to Control Information

April 11, 2006

In this email exchange with four people who have inside perspective on China's censorship in general and Web filtering/blocking in particular, FRONTLINE explores the great battle that's underway in China: In the age of the Internet, can the Communist Party regime maintain its tight control over what information is available to its citizens?


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John Palfrey is a professor of law and executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, and he is co-author of the OpenNet Initiative 2005 study on Internet Filtering in China. In February 2006, he submitted written testimony to the U.S. Congressional hearings on the Internet in China. He also keeps a blog about intellectual property law.

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Rebecca MacKinnon reported from China for nine years as a Beijing bureau chief for CNN. She is now a Berkman Center Fellow specializing in blogging and journalism. She is also co-founder of Global Voices Online, an international blog clearinghouse, and she keeps her own blog about China and journalism.

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Jeremy Goldkorn runs Danwei.org, a site covering "Chinese media, advertising and urban life." A Chinese-speaking South African living in Beijing, he has worked in media and advertising in China since 1995. Since 2002 he worked at the Standards Group, a communications firm based in Beijing.

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Yan Sham-Shackleton is an artist, writer and activist living in Hong Kong. She started her blog Glutter.org in 2003 to support free speech in Hong Kong, prompting the Chinese state to ban the Web site from the mainland. In 2004 she wrote about her personal memories of the Tiananmen Square uprising for Reporters Without Borders' "Handbook for Cyberdissidents."

Speaking to your own particular area of expertise, by what means does China censor the Web? Is China also cracking down on new technologies, like cell phones and text messages?

John Palfrey

The Chinese state has developed the world's most sophisticated means of Internet filtering.��- John Palfrey

The Chinese state has developed the world's most sophisticated means of Internet filtering. There's a centralized system commonly referred to as the "Great Firewall of China." It is enormous and ambitious, but also porous. More important, the Chinese have developed a very effective distributed set of censorship methods and tools. Internet service providers [ISPs] have to filter the Net. So do search engines. Cyber cafes have to do it, as well as track users as they enter the [premises]. Laws and social norms -- soft controls -- add to to the complex web of controls... Cell phone and SMS [text] messages are no doubt in the sights of the Chinese censors as well, particularly as SMS is increasingly a useful tool for dissidents.

Rebecca MacKinnon

... Internet service providers (the equivalents in China [to] Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon and so on) are all required to [filter] thousands of banned Web addresses and keywords. China has an estimated 30,000 government officials nationwide -- some working directly for the police, some for other government departments -- whose job it is to monitor and censor the Internet.

But the important thing to understand is that China's system of Internet censorship would be completely impossible without the active compliance of private business, including multinational companies. All Internet content companies are required to censor. Web sites providing news can only post news from government-approved sources. Search engine companies are required to filter out long lists of politically sensitive words. Chat room and message board sites, blog hosting services, music and video upload sites and other services ... are all required to police the content appearing on their services. ... Automated software either prevents users from posting text containing certain keywords or notifies an administrator when sensitive subjects are discussed, so that the content can then be examined and possibly taken down. Companies are also expected to respond to requests from government departments to take down user content that is considered politically unacceptable. Of course they police for obscenity, pornography and criminal activity as well, but studies show that the focus of the censorship efforts is heavily ... political. ...

Jeremy Goldkorn

My ... expertise comes from almost a decade ... in Chinese print and Internet media, often working alongside employees of state-owned publishers. [Since 2003], I have been editing and writing a Web site about Chinese media and advertising, and following news about China's Internet closely. I am not Chinese and do not want to claim that I can speak for all Chinese people, but I have lived in Beijing since 1995 and have seen what goes on in the back rooms of Internet and media companies.

The main method the authorities use to censor the Internet is filtering: the blocking of certain domain names and IP addresses. Such blocks are typically directed at three types of Web site: Web sites belonging to organizations that the Chinese government has explicitly outlawed, such as Falun Gong and separatist organizations; Chinese language news sources that often cover topics that are taboo in the mainland (the BBC's Chinese Web site, some overseas Chinese news sources etc.); and some Web sites that host user-generated content and have ... come to the attention of the Chinese "Net nanny"; examples include Wikipedia, the Blogspot hosting service and Geocities. ...

There is a further means of control for Web sites hosted inside China: Any person or organization running a Web server inside China is required to register with the Ministry of Information Industry (MII). China's Internet regulators will occasionally render invalid the IP addresses of unregistered servers until the owners register. Since registration includes providing contact details that are verified by MII, [authorities] have the means to stop anyone from publishing materials online that are considered objectionable.

As far as cell phones and text messages, there has not been a blocking program similar to what happens on the Internet, but then there is very little content available for cell phones that would raise objections. In addition, cell phone users who have monthly accounts are not in any way anonymous, so it is a little different from the Internet, where it is much easier to be anonymous.

There are pay-as-you-go cell phone cards available which can give cell phone users anonymity. However, [in 2006], a regulation was issued requiring ID and registration formalities from people who purchase pay-as-you-go cell phone cards. This regulation has not yet been enforced.

Yan Sham-Shackleton

Since you asked for a personal experience: in 1998, when I worked as a producer in China Internet Corporation, which is part owned by the Chinese government, I was specifically asked not to put "sensitive" information on the front pages of the site, as my editorial decisions got the site banned in China.

After that, I had to put in place a word-blocking system in ... chatrooms and message boards. I had to make a list of what was deemed undesirable as well as variations. So for example, anything to do with democracy, [the] Tiananmen massacre or, as it is remembered in Chinese, "6489" (June 4, 1989) was banned from being mentioned. ...

I tell this story because censoring the Internet is not just a technical project, there is a very human decision-making process within it as well. Technology doesn't censor, ... those in power do.

The answer to the [cell phone] question ... is yes, although we don't know how far. The technology for monitoring text messages is there; it's a matter of time before the government implements it, if they have not already.

FRONTLINE's report, "The Tank Man," makes the case that after June 4, 1989, the upper tiers of Chinese society accepted a sort of "devil's bargain": economic progress at the price of political freedom. Does the Chinese media's self-censorship -- employing censors and giving incentives to reporters whose work is approved for print -- illustrate this devil's bargain, or is there something else going on here?

Jeremy Goldkorn

The "devil's bargain" story is the common Western understanding of ... China [since 1989], and there is some truth in it. For example, many 1989 student leaders are now successful business men and women, even operating companies that do business on the mainland. ...

While the Internet is censored, the vast majority of information on the World Wide Web is accessible to anyone with a few dollars to spend in an Internet cafe.� - Jeremy Goldkorn

However, it seems to me that most Chinese people on the mainland do not think in terms of a devil's bargain. While most Chinese people I know are aware of ... the failings of the Party, it is not often you meet someone who thinks there is a better way to run the country right now. There are many disputes with ... the government all over the country, but these are often local disputes, with citizens' anger directed at local officials over local problems.

Many educated Chinese people also look at Russia, and more recently Iraq, when thinking about the questions of political reform and democracy. The introduction of electoral politics [in Russia] is seen by many in China as being closely connected with Russia's decline into economic depression and gangsterism, while Iraq is hardly going to persuade anyone that voting for leaders is necessarily good for a country.

So in a sense, media self-censorship is illustrative of a devil's bargain: China's urban elites are not going to go after the Party, and that might change if economic growth slows. But Westerners should not [think] that there is a burning desire for American-style democracy just waiting for the chance to express itself. That is just not the reality here.

In addition, as far as political and individual freedom goes, there has been real and steady progress in China since 1989. Private property rights have been written into the constitution and have been a de facto reality in the cities since the the mid-1990s. ... Homosexuality has been decriminalized. Citizens no longer require Party ... approvals for marriages, overseas trips and other aspects of their private lives.

While the Internet is censored, the vast majority of information on the World Wide Web is accessible to anyone with a few dollars to spend in an Internet cafe. This is a sea change from pre-Internet China, when state-owned media and neighborhood gossip were the only information sources available. And while unfurling a banner in Tiananmen Square will get you swift and unfriendly attention from the cops, you can sit in a restaurant in Beijing and complain about the Party in a loud voice and you will be fine.

Despite occasional crackdowns and detentions, closures of newspapers and suppressions of peasant demonstrations, in the last quarter century the protection of individual rights in China has advanced -- slowly, but also steadily and significantly.

A final point: whereas many Western commentators see the suppression of Falun Gong as the action of an evil Communist regime against a harmless Buddhist sect, many Chinese agree with the government that the movement is both highly political and a very bad idea for China. ... As a Westerner, I still treasure the ideals of freedom of association and of expression. But I am not Chinese, and I don't see Chinese people obsessing over these things in the same way Westerners do.

Rebecca MacKinnon

It's certainly true that China's educated urban population have been "bought off" to a large extent, and that includes journalists. When I worked as a correspondent for CNN in China, many of my Chinese journalist friends complained that while they wanted to do real journalism ... there was no incentive to do so. Hard-hitting journalism might make you famous in the short term but would likely get you in trouble eventually -- if not demotion, then possibly jail if you really go too far.

Journalists who do the best financially in China are those who don't bother with sensitive stories and instead take bribes from companies. ... In fact, in the 1990s, bribery ... was so rampant that at corporate press conferences Chinese journalists expected to receive a "little red envelope" in exchange for actually filing a story -- which was often just a rewrite of the press release. My office sometimes got calls from Chinese companies asking how much money we needed in order to do a feature about them. When I explained we don't do that, people were often bewildered.

There is something else going on, however. There is a new phenomenon of online citizens' media. China now has an estimated 15 million blogs. What's important to understand is that many Chinese are willing to accept a fair amount of censorship in exchange for being allowed to do more than was previously possible.

Bloggers get in trouble if they trash their leaders or try to organize a campaign to overthrow government officials. But the conversations are much more wide-ranging, culturally and socially, and much freer than they were 20 years ago. China's most famous blogger writes ... about her sex life. One of China's recent pop heartthrobs is a schoolteacher who rose to fame because so many Internet users downloaded ... an MP3 file he stuck online. The Communist Party is losing control of China's youth culture, thanks to the Internet.

After one of China's most famous bloggers, Michael Anti [Zhao Jing], was censored by MSN Spaces at the end of last year, many bloggers said he was a necessary sacrifice so that the majority of Chinese can continue to have an online space to express themselves as they choose. So the point is, compromises are being made at every level of society because nobody has the expectation of political freedom anyway.

Yan Sham-Shackleton

... I feel you can't say the situation in China is because of individuals themselves. It's not the writers themselves [who are] not saying what needs to be said. It's the system that prevents it. ...

For example, in February [2006], "Bing Dian" [Freezing Point], a weekly supplement to the China Youth Daily was shut down, and the editors fired.

Editor's Note: Li Datong and Lu Yuegang, the editors of Freezing Point, were not fired but were transferred to the newspaper's research department.

In March [2006] Ren Zhiyuan, a 27 year old teacher, ... was jailed for putting up essays deemed "subversive." Threatening people with jail time and dismissal is overt censorship, not self-censorship at all.

In ... Hong Kong, self-censorship is increasing; I see it every day. The reason media outlets are self-censoring is because the bosses [have] business interests in China that need protecting, or [they] want to break into the China market. ... [I]t's a business decision.

John Palfrey

The Chinese state has to take the good with what they perceive as the bad with the Internet. Chinese leaders have described the approach as like that of a screen door: letting in the light, but keeping out the flies. The best possible spin on the situation is that the state is carefully managing [the] introduction of this disruptive technology, with an open door to follow this screen door over time. I hope that's the case, but the facts don't support such a trend -- yet, anyway.

Who are the 111 million Internet users in China? Do they have personal Internet access or do they frequent Internet cafes? Is the average Chinese savvy enough to get around the government's filtering? Is there such a thing as an unfiltered Internet for the privileged in China?

Rebecca MacKinnon

Chinese users, like most Internet users everywhere, gravitate towards information that is easily accessed with minimal amount of hassle.�� - Rebecca Mackinnon

China's Internet users are urban, young, and concentrated in the major coastal cities, particularly Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. Many young people and students frequent Internet cafes, but a lot of white-collar workers surf on broadband from their offices. And many of China's growing middle class have some kind of Internet connection at home.

If you know how to use a ... proxy server you can configure your browser to get around the firewall. ... [O]verseas dissident and human rights groups are doing everything they can to make these tools known to people inside China. Nobody has done a systematic study of how many Internet users actually use proxy servers. ... However, I've queried a lot of Chinese bloggers unscientifically, and the answers I've gotten back suggest that only 5-10 percent or so of Chinese Internet users really know how to use a proxy server, and a much smaller number actually use them on a regular basis.

There are several reasons for this. One is that [proxy servers] are time-consuming to use because the Chinese net police are constantly blocking them, and another is that many users are worried that ... they'll call attention to themselves as being "up to something." Another reason, however, is that Chinese users, like most Internet users everywhere, gravitate towards information that is easily accessed with minimal amount of hassle. Only the true political junkies make the extra effort.

John Palfrey

The most savvy users can evade the filtering. That is true in every one of the three dozen or so states around the world that filters the Internet. But the average Chinese ... either doesn't know that much about the censorship, perhaps doesn't care to get around it, or lacks the skills to get around it, so it's likely a very effective system for the vast majority of citizens. Through the OpenNet Initiative, a joint effort between the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, the University of Cambridge's Advanced Network Research Group of the Cambridge Security Programme, the Oxford Internet Institute, and the Berkman Center at Harvard Law School, we are seeking to raise awareness about this censorship in China and in other states around the world. Hopefully, shining a spotlight on these practices will lead to more extensive Internet access [for] average Chinese citizens.

Yan Sham-Shackleton

The unfiltered privilege in China is for foreigners and the very few people who work for foreign companies because their Internet service may [not] go through the main censored system in China. The number of people who have [access] that I would say is miniscule, although the foreigners like to say it's everywhere, because it is in their tight-knit and isolated community that is rather separate from the real China.

As for [whether] the average Chinese [is] savvy enough to circumvent the firewall, as a former usability expert [who] did tests on how people use the Net, ... I would say most users aren't as familiar with ... the Internet as "professionals" often feel they [are]. It was always a struggle to explain to the hip designers that we needed things really simple because "real" people don't know how to use the Net. ...

If you think about the question in terms of [all] Internet users and not make China the focus, ... is the average American able to find information that isn't listed on Google, or Yahoo! or MSN, or any of the other search engines (which are all censored in China)? Ask yourself, would you know? And even if you [find] a banned URL in China, you also have to find a proxy ... and most proxies are also blocked.

So no, the average Chinese user cannot get through at all. A college student who [messages] his friends three times a day can for sure. That I don't doubt.

On March 8, 2006, two popular Chinese blogs shut themselves down as a hoax, causing some in China, and many in the Western media, to report that they had been blocked by the government. The bloggers, Wang Xiaofeng and Yuan Lei, said they wanted to highlight what they see as the Western media's overreaction to this issue. Do they have a point?

John Palfrey

I don't think that there's been an overreaction to this issue. The Internet is one of the primary drivers of democracy in closed regimes around the world. The crackdown by states like China against the use of Internet for dissident purposes is a series of events with historical significance.

Jeremy Goldkorn

As Westerners, we are fixated on the idea of free speech in a way that seems out of proportion to many Chinese people. On the other hand, there were plenty of Chinese Internet users who were very unhappy at the hoax, so there is a range of opinions here.

Yan Sham-Shackleton

I am personally angered by the antics of Wang Xiaofeng and Yuan Lei because it makes light of a real and contentious issue. I hope that the Western media and anyone else out there don't see them as representatives of Chinese bloggers.

What they did is a real shame because [it] disrespects the plight of people like Shi Tao [the blogger jailed after Yahoo! released account information to the Chinese government], [Hong Kong journalist] Ching Cheong, and [jailed writer and civil servant] Du Dao Bin, and all the other bloggers and journalists that have been put in jail. ... [Cyber dissident] Luo Changfu was just released [in March, 2006, after three years in prison]. ...

... [I feel] that [Western] journalists are really irresponsible ... when they present what their interviewees say as "truth" and act like China is a free country. China is not. Public statements of those who live in totalitarian regimes are never reliable indications of people's true opinions. There is a lot of "double speak" going on. ... Chinese people have learned to not say what they think because of our history. Even if I grew up in Hong Kong, I know, and have always known, what you can and cannot say in China. ...

[N]ow, after the handover, we [in Hong Kong] are part of China. I have friends who refuse to let me videotape them or answer my questions when we are at protests in Hong Kong. They say, "Yan, don't do this, I never know who sees this, and I have family and co-workers up in China, and I don't want to get them in trouble. Just in case." And this is Hong Kong; we are still guaranteed free speech. ... What do you think happens in China, when people can go to jail?

...[Filmmaker and blogger] Hao Wu, a graduate [of the University of] Michigan, who Rebecca is helping a lot, was on a BBC World Service panel with me on Valentines Day [2006]. I was really adamant that China needs free speech, and he was not. He was very careful with what he said because he lived in China. A week later he was arrested. ... [I]f you say the wrong things you go to jail, so don't expect anyone to tell you the truth all the time, especially over sensitive issues. And for journalists to act [otherwise] is really irresponsible.

Rebecca MacKinnon

... [M]any Chinese bloggers complain that the Western media focuses on censorship to the exclusion of many other important things happening online in China. They have a point. ... Chinese Internet users feel tremendously empowered by the new communication tools they have. They are expressing themselves in ways that would have been completely impossible even a decade ago. This goes largely unrecognized in the West and it's understandable that Chinese bloggers feel frustrated that the truly exciting and creative things they're doing aren't getting recognized.

On the other hand, I think Chinese bloggers may not realize the extent to which the censorship issue goes beyond China -- it's really a global issue. If multinational companies find it acceptable to censor Chinese users in response to Chinese government demands, will those same companies do the same thing all over the world?

It is also true, however, that the Western media has a way of dog-piling on certain stories and not others. And clearly the censorship issue is a hot issue right now. It's a fact that a black-and-white human rights story "sells" better to the editors back home than a ... story trying to explain ... the complex, contradictory realities of China today.

... [T]he bulk of the China story is grey and murky. ... It's a "process" story: the story of the gradual, bumpy, complicated evolution of the world's biggest country. The most important stories out of China, [the ones] that will really help you understand that country, are rarely the breaking news stories.

Recently, there have been hearings and proposed legislation in the U.S. Congress regarding U.S. IT companies' business practices in China. What are these companies (Yahoo, Google, Cisco and Microsoft) doing in China? And what, if anything, should they and the U.S. government change to address China's censorship of the Internet?

Rebecca MacKinnon

[As for what U.S. companies are doing in China], I wrote in an article recently for The Nation:

"Cisco sells routers with censorship capability built into them, but the same technology is necessary to protect computer networks from viruses. It remains unclear exactly how much training and service Cisco knowingly provides to Chinese customers whose primary intent is to censor political speech. But meanwhile, it does acknowledge selling surveillance technologies directly to the Chinese Public Security Bureau and other law-enforcement bodies in a country where law enforcement is well documented to commit rampant human rights abuses. Cisco's excuse? Selling communications technology to these organizations is not against U.S. law. If I were a Chinese dissident, I'd be grateful that Cisco had helped bring the Internet to China, but I'd also be outraged that Cisco may have helped the cops keep me under surveillance and catch me trying to organize protest activities.

"Microsoft provides instant messaging and Hotmail (hosted on servers outside China so it doesn't have to hand over data), as well as a Chinese version of MSN Spaces, which it censors in accordance with Chinese government requirements. So when Chinese blogger Zhao Jing [aka Michael Anti] wrote in support of fired newspaper editors in December, his blog got deleted. Now MSN has refined its censorship so that censored blogs only get blocked to Internet users inside China, while people in the rest of the world can still access the sites. Chinese bloggers report that a number of bloggers who have been writing in support of Freezing Point, a periodical that was recently shut down, have had their blogs censored by MSN. Zhao ... wrote that while he's angry about the censorship, he still thinks that the majority of Chinese bloggers are better off with MSN Spaces than without it.

"Yahoo! has a Chinese-language portal hosted inside China, with a search engine that filters out all Web sites and keywords deemed unacceptable by Chinese authorities. It does not inform users that the content is being censored in any way. Yahoo! also offers a Chinese-language e-mail service hosted on computer servers inside the People's Republic. Because the user data is under Chinese legal jurisdiction, Yahoo! is obligated to comply with Chinese police requests to hand over information. Such compliance over the past several years has led to the jailing of at least [two] dissidents. If I were one of those people or their loved ones, I would never forgive Yahoo!.

"Google in January [2006] rolled out a new censored search engine, Google.cn. Some Chinese bloggers have mockingly called it the "eunuch" or "neutered" Google. However, Google executives point out that the site notifies users that their search results are censored, and that the uncensored Google.com remains accessible to Chinese. They also say they have decided not to provide Chinese e-mail or blog-hosting services in order to avoid putting themselves in the position that Yahoo! and Microsoft have found themselves in. If I were a Chinese user, I would give Google serious points for considering the human rights implications of its business decisions, and for trying hard to be as transparent and honest with the user as possible while still attempting to have a viable business in the People's Republic. I would not be happy, though, that Google has helped to legitimize political censorship as an accepted business practice."

Editor's Note: Read the testimony these companies gave at the February 2006 U.S. Congressional hearings here.

[U.S.] Representative Chris Smith [R - NJ] has introduced the Global Online Freedom Act of 2006. It would seek to prevent U.S. companies from storing user data in countries like China and would censure companies that conduct censorship. There are a number of details in the bill that I think could use revision in order to make it more practicable and to prevent unintended consequences for U.S. competitiveness. But it's definitely a step in the right direction. ...

I know what it means to censor because of a job, I had to do it myself. - Yam Sham-Shackleton

The main point is that when companies say they have to do what they're doing in order to be in China at all, they are being a bit disingenuous. ... Multinational companies have a long history in China of pushing back against unreasonable regulations and official demands. They have a history in other sectors -- like the banking and entertainment industries -- of lobbying to get laws changed. ... [T]here's actually a lot they can do.

... [D]eceiving your users by not giving them full search results and not informing them that they're only getting part of the picture, blocking or deleting user content, and making user data vulnerable ... are practices that are not in the long-term commercial interest of companies whose business success depends ultimately on user trust. Furthermore, none of the major human rights groups are asking Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Cisco to pull out of China completely. ... [C]ompanies can make specific choices about what kind of business they will or won't do in China -- and how they go about conducting themselves when put in a position ... between ... users and their government.

John Palfrey

These companies are in an unenviable position. Each one is participating in the censorship and surveillance regime against their will -- in their view, as a requirement of doing business in China. ... And there are many other companies in many different states that are in a similar position. I'd note other technology security firms that sell systems into states that censor the Internet that are in a yet more ethically challenged situation. I think that these companies ... need to take a leadership position. They need to get in front of this problem and figure out how to act ethically in such environments -- or else pull out of markets that require unethical activities.

Jeremy Goldkorn

... I have often defended the presence of American Internet companies in China and will do so again. All the companies mentioned have contributed to the expansion and development of the Internet in China. Their presence here has broadened freedom of information and expression in China, even if they have sometimes got their hands dirty by making compromises of one kind or another.

Yan Sham-Shackleton

This is very hard. The answer is I don't know. I can wax poetic ... and say they should stop dealing with China, but it's true that if they pull out, there are plenty of other companies who will happily take their place.

... [T]he reason I [do] what I do on Glutter is because I just [want] people to know. ... [T]hese companies should not be getting away with it. I know what it means to censor. Because of a job, I had to do it myself. But I also think people should know this is happening. They shouldn't think it's not an issue or not important. [This] is a huge issue that doesn't have any easy answers, but it doesn't mean we should not work towards breaking down the firewall and putting pressure on China to open up. If the firewall went down, it wouldn't matter if the Chinese Communist Party controlled the press. Chinese people will get whatever information they want on foreign servers. ...

Finally, our report asks whether the case of China disproves the common belief that economic freedom leads inevitably to political freedom. As the Internet continues to grow in China, do you think that China will become freer?

John Palfrey

the Chinese state can win some battles, but not the war of Internet censorship.��� - Jason Palfrey

I do, very much so. I think that the Chinese state can win some battles, but not the war of Internet censorship. My view -- an uneducated view, I'd admit -- is that greater political freedom does lie in China's future, but on the terms and timing of the Chinese elite, and that the Internet will play a substantial role in this opening process.

Jeremy Goldkorn

... China is freer than it was 10 years ago, and it is also a lot freer than it was 30 years ago. I fully expect to see China becoming a freer place by the year. The Internet is certainly one contributing factor.

But Chinese culture is conservative. The country still faces the problems of a large, diverse, third-world nation: extreme poverty in some areas; finding the balance between development and protecting the environment; allowing the development of an entrepreneurial business culture without leaving the poor completely behind. For the foreseeable future, these problems are likely to worry the Chinese people and their government a lot more than Internet censorship.

Rebecca Mackinnon

... Over the long run China is becoming freer than before - culturally and economically. But politically it is probably less free than it was in the late 1980s. Americans often make the mistake of equating capitalism with democratization. This is a false equation. Despite being ruled by a bunch of people who still call themselves the Communist Party, China is no longer [a] communist country in practice. ... I think [a] better description of the current system is corporatist-fascist rather than communist. ... It is a party dedicated to preserving its power and enriching its loyal supporters.

... [T]he presence of free market capitalism doesn't necessarily mean economic freedom if the system is corrupt and the leaders are unaccountable to the governed. There is a rapidly growing gap between rich and poor in China right now. The government is doing its best to censor media reports and Internet discussions of unrest in the countryside. Provincial officials do private deals with local businesses to sell off peasants' land, leaving the farmers without recourse or compensation. Peasants try to protest, then journalists get beaten up by thugs in local government employ for trying to report ... what happened.

Workers go unpaid or work under substandard environmental conditions, and the press isn't allowed to report on these situations very much either -- except in a very limited and fragmented way that avoids asking the bigger questions. ... Capitalism is incredibly liberating and empowering, ... when combined with an accountable government and a functioning legal system. When combined with a corrupt dictatorship, ... it can be a tool for the elites to exploit everybody else quite efficiently.

Yan Sham-Shackleton

China is becoming freer every day, ... because of the Internet, the economic policies and just society becoming less conservative. This is a truth that cannot be discounted. It's just that there is a long way to go, and we have to start paving the way for it to happen. If no one works on it, or discusses it or educates people about it, freedom will never happen.

Follow-Up Responses from Two Panelists

Yan Sham-Shackleton

[On Jeremy's response about China's elite and the "devil's bargain"]

... China's elite is not going after the party ... because the elite is the party, or offspring or relations [of] someone ... in the party. ... [T]he only people who had the money and influence to start businesses at the time of reform ... were those who were related to the Party. ... China is ruled by nepotism. The elite of today's China and the Party of China's past [are] for the most part one and same thing.

... [T]hroughout history, the elite [have not been] the people who implement changes, as it is in their interest to keep the status quo. What Jeremy is saying is completely correct, but we have to be careful to separate what ordinary Chinese [are] thinking [from] what the elite is thinking. [Which is] not to say anyone at all is desperately wanting Western-style democracy, because they are not. I think most people in China want an end to the corruption of the government officials, and [to] have a system that does what it says it would do. The problem is, speaking out against the government or any specific party official will generally lead one to jail or [other] problems, especially at the local level where most of the disputes are occurring.

[On Jeremy's opinion of Falun Gong]

It's very true. Chinese people view Falun Gong as a cult. ... And often people in the democratic movement in Hong Kong find ourselves in a quandary of not wanting to be associated with them, but knowing their concerns of persecution [are] real. It can be frustrating to see [them] using the movement as a way to grow and become a celebrated cause...

[On Jeremy's response Chinese people's idea of freedom]

[A]s a Chinese person, I agree that Chinese people do not obsess about freedom as Westerners do, mostly because we are a practical culture and we are taught not to hope and want things you cannot get. Moreover, thinking and talking about those things leads one and one's family into trouble. Feeding one's family ... is hard enough; why bother with the esoterics of politics? ...

The real Chinese people's voices are not heard because of poverty, because of the technology gap, because they don't have the freedom to speak. Until China has free speech, and [until we] know for sure that people are telling the truth, I think it's not wise to say one knows what Chinese people think. ...

[On Jeremy's reply on blog hoaxes]

I am not sure ... all Westerners are fixated on free speech, it is ... a proportion of the population, just like it is in China. China is a huge country and making sweeping statements of 1 billion-plus people is reductive. There is a range of political thoughts within the party as well as outside.

Wang Xiaofeng and Yuan Lei do represent a specific view point, but there is a very strong contingent of ... intellectuals and academics who feel ... the only way forward for China is more freedom. In February [2006], [Mao Zedong's ex-aide] Li Ru and retired propaganda chief Zhu Haoze, plus a number of high-up media officials, put out an open letter stating that the recent clampdown on politics is "Sowing the seeds of disaster" for China's political reform.

And [in April 2006] a petition was put out [in favor of] repealing the ... strict Internet censorship policy known as the "11 Commandments," that was put in place in [September 2005], which directly targeted bloggers and non-press related writers posting on the Internet. (The petition has since been removed.)

Many activists and academics actually feel frustrated that the Western press debate whether Chinese people "want" free speech, because they feel it's hurting the movement. It is more comfortable for the West to know Chinese people don't want freedoms ... it's easier to do business with them. ... There are historical precedents of projecting contentment and lack of resentment onto a voiceless and silent population in order to keep the current power structure -- [both by] those in power and [the] business interests of those who deal with them.

Jeremy Goldkorn

I cannot disagree with what [the others] say. However I think it is important to present as many views about China as possible, especially in the United States, where the media tends to look at China in black or white [terms].

One further note: I sent the questions and my answers to Bingfeng, a Chinese blogger who writes good English. Some people call him a Commie shill; his view points are not that different from mine. Anyhow, his remarks are posted here.

Editor's note: Initially, Bingfeng was unable to post even the questions for this roundtable on his blog; apparently some word or words triggered his blog hosting service's censorship software. Curious readers can see one example of how censorship in China actually works in the words Bingfeng had to disguise in order to post Jeremy's replies.

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posted apr. 11, 2006

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