Table of Contents

Comment Icon0 Ramping up to Tiananmen’s 20th anniversary, the Chinese government dealt another blow to the globalized Chinese conversation by blocking off Twitter, Flickr, Hotmail and Microsoft’s Bing search engine in China. After news of China’s new wave of network filtering broke, Berkman Center’s Herdict Web project started showing numerous websites blocked across the region as seen in Figure 29.

Figure 29: The Herdict Web Country Report for China on 4 June 2009.

Comment Icon0 The Herdict Web aggregates reports of inaccessible sites, allowing users to compare data to see if inaccessibility is a shared problem. By crowd-sourcing data from around the world, the project is able to document accessibility for any website, anywhere in the world. In order of popularity, as reported inaccessible by users via the Herdict Web, were Twitter, Flickr, Youtube, TOR, Tibet.net, Microsoft’s Bing (including CN.bing.com), Hotmail, Blogger.com and Plurk. As seen on Herdict, Youtube and TOR (a popular anonymity tool) were blocked before the anniversary’s lockdown. However, such time-sensitive censorship is not unique to China. For instance, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Thailand and Turkey have periodically shut off access to Youtube.com after users uploaded content that was considered politically-embarrassing by either government.

Comment Icon0 Since a number of Chinese personalities were actively discussing this issue over Twitter, a popular micro-blogging service, I asked renowned mobile entertainment developer, Frank Yu (also known as @frankyu on Twitter) what he thought of the censorship (Lim, 2009). In particular, I said that although Hotmail and Twitter were blocked, would Chinese netizens be bothered since China has its own email and Twitter clones, including Fanfou, Jiwai and Zuosa (as seen in Figure 30). Frank Yu publicly explained that the elite and educated Chinese netizens tend to socialize on international web sites, while native teenagers and general lay people tend to use the local online clones. In contrast, Frank Yu also noted how China’s Tencent QQ messaging service had also gained international users (as seen in Figure 31).

Twitter / Kevin Lim: @frankyu Though hotmail an ...
Figure 30: Author interviews Frank Yu about domestic web services (Lim, 2009).

Twitter / frank yu: @brainopera l337 and educa ...
Figure 31: Frank Yu explains how Chinese netizens use the Internet (Lim, 2009).

Comment Icon0 Frank Yu’s response reiterated how the Chinese government has always maintained domestic control over online public spheres used by the Chinese population. By cutting off access to popular social networking services in the United States, the China regime would seem to be assaulting the intellectual reach of the cosmopolitan Chinese. This could be likened to a modern-day version of biblioclasm, where instead of burning books, external far-reaching channels of communication are disabled in order to stifle the flow of critical knowledge and information into and around China. Frank Yu’s opinion on online intellectual spheres was actually elaborated on by renowned journalist and researcher, Michael Anti (also known as Zhao Jing in China). From Anti’s talk at the Berkman Center Luncheon Series, he tried to explain what would happen when decentralized, open blogging met the centralized, closed Chinese society (Figure 32).


Figure 32: Michael Anti talks about Chinese blogging at the Berkman Luncheon Series (Weinberger, 2007).

Comment Icon0 As transcribed by technology pundit, David Weinberger, Michael Anti said that “[f]rom 2004-2005, most dissenting news of China came through blogs. After that, it comes through chatrooms”. Chatrooms started in China around 1998. “Now, China has gone back to that — very Web 1.0,” Michael said. Email and mailing lists are also important for sharing dissenting news about politics, religion, etc. “We don’t use Web 2.0. Why not? Web 2.0 is democratizing and decentralizing. But blogs aren’t really decentralized because they need centralized servers, which make them easy for the government to control. It is much harder for the government to find chatrooms and shut them down.” (Weinberger, 2007).

Comment Icon0 Web 2.0 is described as the second generation of web design and development. The general idea of Web 2.0 refers to how earlier generation of the Web was passively read-only, while the second generation allows users to actively read and write on the web, allowing readers, not just the original author, to update the content accordingly. Web 2.0 concepts have led to web-based communities, hosted services, and applications such as social-networking sites, photo and video-sharing sites, wikis and blogs (O’Reilly, 2005).

Comment Icon0 While the modern world hailed the democratic features of Web 2.0, the intellectual Chinese are perhaps the first to describe an instance where Web 2.0 services (e.g., Twitter, Youtube and Flickr) have disadvantages for online discourse. Being centralized meant that they were easier to block, compared to the earlier Web 1.0 services, which were anarchic, massive and perhaps fragmented (e.g., IRC, IM and mailing lists) but easier for netizens to seek refuge in information complexity for stealthier communication. Building on his Web 1.0 proliferation argument, Michael Anti accurately predicted Twitter.com’s June 4 demise in China during an interview with Danwei.org in May 2009.

Comment Icon0 While Michael Anti had built a credible case about foreign Web 2.0 services being blocked in China, Frank Yu’s hint of Tencent QQ’s globalization pointed to another interesting aspect of China’s censorship practices. Tencent QQ, generally referred to as QQ, is the most popular free instant-messaging computer program in mainland China, and is said to be the world’s third most popular IM service (India Times, 2007). The significance of QQ here is that the Chinese government appears to have no issue with international communication via their instant messaging service, since they did not appear to disrupt it during the June 4 lockdown. The probable reason for this is because the QQ service is a home-grown service which has legal jurisdiction in China. This makes the logistics of managing e-commerce and the regulation of online content much easier for the Chinese authorities.

Comment Icon0 Finally, there’s the perspective of national security China has always been legitimately concerned about. Refusing dependence on foreign software, Michael Anti gave an example of how China developed “Red Flag” as a knockoff of the RedHat Linux distribution. His reason was that “[t]he government doesn’t trust RedHat. It only uses Red Flag. Microsoft gave many of the Windows source codes to the government to verify there are no back doors” (Weinberger, 2007).

Chapter 8.5 – Domestication of Online Public Sphere

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