Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Thoughtcrime on the Internet

There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to love--did live, from habit that became instinct--in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.
George Orwell, 1984

The Naivety of Optimism
The Internet has become a source of optimism; perceived as an un-muzzled arena catering to the thoughtful musings, the witty antidotes, the scholarly debates, the livid cursings of both the individual and public en masse, the Internet is a free forum yielding to any thought spanning the mundane to the prolific. In the spirit of brother’s keeper, many have viewed the Internet’s infinite cyberspace as an alternate world offering freedoms and humanity denied in many regions of the physical sphere.

The truly optimistic find hope for rebellion and revolution, masked in the ambiguity of online anonymity, to finally topple the states that would deny elemental rights of humanity. If there is hope, it lies in the Internet. Such is optimism. While the Internet offers an alternative sphere of existence, China has exercised the well-attached puppet strings: the Internet it is a sphere that may be controlled like any other.

The Great Firewall of China
Most succinctly articulated by a USA Today correspondent, “No one does it quite like China, which has proved that old-school communist apparatchiks could tame something as wild as the Web.” China’s Internet is guarded by a strict set of filters and firewalls. Appropriately dubbed the Great Firewall, it has been the barrier which restricts the content available to the masses. Though it is by no means foolproof, the Great Firewall has been instrumental in exercising governmental control over the seemingly infinite void: the Internet.

Along with generic content filtering, blocking banned subjects such as the Dali Lama and the Tiananmen Square Massacre as well as social networking tools Google and Facebook, the Internet is privy to virtual raids-of-sort. Every personal article, blog, chat room discussion, e-mail—in short, any form of electronic communication—is available to official scrutiny. If not meeting the government’s ever-changing definition of acceptable opinion, in an instant the renegade comment may be altered, substituted, or deleted by government hands.

Many bloggers and online participants are often ambivalent to the government’s restrictions; harmless blogs receive the ax with neither explanation nor justification, while other sites, such as that maintained by Chinese blogging sensation Han Han, seem to dance on the government’s patience by flaunting disrespect to the murky lines established by the authorities. Once examined within context, however, an altered or deleted blog is comparatively small beans to the measures taken against those whispering threats against government omnipotence.

The Harassment, Disappearance, Arrest, and Imprisonment of Thought Criminals
In many instances, mere screening of online communication fails to satiate the government’s appetite for order; many individuals wake to find themselves, surprisingly, identified by the government as dissidents. Journalists and reporters are particularly susceptible to falling out of favor amid a government of shifting opinion. As described in the New York Times article China’s Censors Tackle and Trip Over the Internet, “Journalists and Internet publishers often discover that they have crossed the line only after their online presence is blocked, their bylines are blacklisted or they are detained or summoned to ‘tea’ with government security officers who deliver coy but unmistakable warnings.” For some, the trouble, albeit inconvenience, ends with a warning; others are not so fortunate.

A Research Fellow for the Heritage Foundation and expert on China, John Tkacik, Jr., recorded such instances of aggressive government intervention:

In April 2004, The Washington Post described a typical cyberdissidence case involving a group of students who were arrested for participating in an informal discussion forum at Beijing University. It was a chilling report that covered the surveillance, arrest, trial, and conviction of the dissidents and police intimidation of witnesses.

Yang Zili, the group's coordinator, and other young idealists in his Beijing University circle were influenced by the writings of Vaclav Havel, Friedrich Hayek, and Samuel P. Huntington. Yang questioned the abuses of human rights permitted in the "New China." His popular Web site was monitored by police, and after letting him attract a substantial number of like-minded others, China's cyberpolice swept up the entire group. Relentlessly interrogated, beaten, and pressured to sign confessions implicat¬ing each other, the core members nevertheless with¬stood the pressure. The case demonstrated that stamping out cyberdissent had become a priority state function. According to the Post, Chinese leader Jiang Zemin considered "the investigation as one of the most important in the nation." In March 2003, the arrestees were each sentenced to prison terms of between eight and ten years-all for exchanging opinions on the Internet.

Then there is the case of Liu Di, a psychology student at Beijing Normal University who posted Internet essays under the screen name of Stainless Steel Mouse. She is an exception among cyberdis¬sidents-after a year behind bars, she is now out of jail. The then 23-year-old Liu was influenced by George Orwell's 1984 and became well known for her satirical writing and musings on dissidents in the former Soviet Union. She defended other cyberdissidents, supported intellectuals arrested for organizing reading groups, attacked Chinese chauvinists, and, in a spoof, called for a new polit¬ical party in which anyone could join and every-one could be "chairman." Arrested in November 2002 and held for nearly one year without a trial, she became a cause célèbre for human rights and press freedom groups overseas and apparently gained some notoriety within China as well. Although she had been held without trial and was never formally charged, she was imprisoned in a Beijing jail cell with three criminals. In December 2003, she was released in anticipation of Premier Wen Jiabao's visit to the U.S. Yet nine months after returning to the Beijing apartment that she shares with her grandmother, Liu still finds police secu¬rity officers posted at her home. She has found it impossible to find a regular job, and police moni¬tors block her screen name Stainless Steel Mouse from Web sites.

On July 31, 2004, hundreds of villagers of Shiji¬ahecun hamlet in rural Henan province demon¬strated against local corruption. Provincial police from the capital at Zhengzhou dispatched a large anti-riot unit to the village, which attacked the crowd with rubber bullets, tear gas, and electric prods.[12] Propaganda officials immediately banned media coverage of the incident, and the outside world might not have learned of the clash if an intrepid local "netizen" had not posted news of it on the Internet. The Web correspondent was quickly identified by Chinese cybercops and arrested during a telephone interview with the Voice of America on August 2. While the infor¬mant was on the phone with VOA interviewers in Washington, D.C., he was suddenly cut short, and the voice of a relative could be heard in the back¬ground shouting that authorities from the Internet office of the Zhengzhou public security bureau (Shi Gonganju Wangluchu) had come to arrest the interviewee. After several seconds of noisy struggle, the telephone connection went dead.

The government is a staunch defender of its puppetized-internet. Wielding an army of cybercops 30,000 strong and counting, such aggressive measures are well within the reach of government power. While, admittedly, the examples provided by John Tkacik, Jr. are reasonably dated; current events, however, have proven government aggression against cyber dissidents, a more modern interpretation of Orwell’s thought criminals, remains as hostile as ever.

The Case of Liu Xiaobo
In December of 2008, one of China’s most prominent human rights activists Liu Xiaobo was taken by authorities for his involvement in contraband thought article “Charter 08.” Calling for sweeping government reforms, such as an end to one party rule, “Charter 08” rallied support after its appearance on the Internet. Only days after its online publication, Mr. Liu was taken from his home by authorities; following his abduction, he was kept for six months without official charges or trial. The authorities eventually channeled Mr. Liu through the judicial system, charging Mr. Liu with “incitement to subvert state power” and sentencing him to eleven years in prison. The following report offers more perspective into the reactions of Mr. Liu’s supporters, as well as the displeasure of foreign embassies:

As U.S. Embassy Officer Gregory May succinctly stated in the featured news clip, "Persecution of individuals for the expression of political views is inconsistent with Internationally recognized norms of human rights." For all the weight the sentiment has carried, however, one may just as well say, "Liu Xiaobo is another victim of the system. Nothing more to be done."

Another Winston Smith has played his part in the idealistic war against Big Brother; another last man in China has found a voice and is paying for it. Facing the red giant--its cyber(thought)police, powers of surveillance, destruction of individual rights to privacy and humanity, and stone-cold intolerance--can there be an alternative ending to the story? Who can argue with George Orwell?


  1. As usual, I think you paint a fairly bleak but accurate and insightful picture of intellectual oppression in China. Here is a question though:

    Have dissident websites, online conversations, and virtual sit-ins or rallies been increasing in number over the last ten or twenty years? The sense I get from the myriad news stories you post is that even though people get shut down, arrested, and jailed with lightning efficiency, they also appear to be standing up for alternative political views in increasing numbers. If it is true that the numbers are increasing, what conclusions might you draw about the possibilities of protests reaching a critical mass that can not be controlled? A perfectly controlling Chinese system would seem to reduce the number of oppositional forces at any moment; but are greater numbers of people actually growing dissatisfied? MY understanding about 1984 (it's been a long time since I read it), is that people are virtually brainwashed into believing and supporting their government. Do the Chinese people seem to be brainwashed? Or resentful and fearful?

  2. Allison, I found a recent article in the New York Times about the info cyberwar and China. It might be an interesting read and it might give you some new ideas. I found it in doing some research of my own and electronic civil disobedience.


  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Neal, your question reminds me of an atricle you shared with me a few weeks ago suggesting that China's changing economic status would necessitate an eventual change in governing body. If you don't remember, you can read it at http://webdiary.com.au/cms/?q=node/1520.

    Here you bring another question which correlates to China's changing status quo, its percentage of dissidents, and the rate (either increasing or decreasing) of voiced criticism of the government. I hope I have this correct. This is an excellent question...Honestly, I have not compared any official numbers plotting out the crime curve of Chinese cyber-dissidents, but its questionable if such information is either available or accurate.

    China was enclosed behind the bamboo curtain for so long, how can we be sure what really occured in China's history? How can we know what organizations tried to rebel to only face backlash from the government? I can't say if opposition is growing as a result of technological advances, but I do believe such opposition is documented in ways unavailable in the past. To begin with, China is trying to engage in world affairs, allowing the establishment of U.S. Embassy as well as participation in the U.N. Now, the West has a foot in the door and China is under more public scrutiny. Does this mean threats to China's regime is more public? I would argue yes. Does that mean there have more threats to the government since? I don't know.

    I'm not trying to make excuses for my lack of information. To be honest, I love seeing the holes you find in my arguement. I will do more research and form a more formal post to give you a better answer.