The Daily Beast's China correspondent Huang Hung says the search giant should be applauded for standing up against censorship—but any Internet-savvy Chinese person can get around the government’s firewalls.
This week, something happened that many Chinese had long expected—Google left China. I typed in Google.cn from my home in a rural village on the outskirts of Beijing and found myself redirected to its Hong Kong search engine, Google.hk. Big deal, I thought, and so did most people here.
The truth is, if a person is in mainland China and really wants to get details about the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989, the information still cannot be found on Google.hk. Google may not be censoring the search anymore, but the Chinese government still is. So as far as the user experience is concerned, Google’s exit from China makes zero difference.
Those of us who live within the system are different from Google. We cannot go demand immediate change from the government or expect a statement from Hillary Clinton.
If a Chinese person really wants to know about Tiananmen, he or she can always do what we call “wall climbing,” which is to log on to a server offshore and then access the information. The government is also much less sensitive about English-language information, so Chinese can still read CNN, the BBC, and other international news sites. Occasionally, some China-related stories will be blocked. But all Chinese have to do is learn English and a bit of wall climbing. As a friend of mine once told me, we used to learn English to understand the world; now we learn English to understand China.
But we—a very small number of netizens, mostly writers, editors, and university professors and researchers—still applauded Google for standing up against censorship. Wrote one user of the Chinese Internet giant Sina’s Twitter-esque microblogging site: “Although it’s a profit-seeking organization, Google showed it can also have principles and is willing to stand by them.”
Unless a Chinese person works in the media, he or she doesn’t really feel the invisible hand of the censors. Those who work in traditional media, such as TV, radio, and newspaper used to get documents from time to time offering guidelines about what not to report. But those little memos were leaked out constantly to the foreign press, and it was all a bit embarrassing for the government. So over the past four or five years, the censorship strategy shifted from memos to an “official grapevine” type of operation. When a friend of mine worked as producer for Super Girl, the pirated Chinese version of American Idol, she was often called into the TV station manager’s office and given rules about what not to do on the program. These “guidelines” were read to her. She was forbidden to take notes and was forced, more or less, to commit the information to memory.
Web 2.0 technology has blown a huge hole in the Chinese censorship system. Still, the government has the world’s most sophisticated software for censorship on the Internet. Most of the Web-filtering system works on sensitive word groups; for example, if “Tiananmen Massacre” comes up, the system will flash a red flag. This will be read by a human being, or a “nanny,” as such censors are called. A large Web site, most likely a Nasdaq-listed company, will usually hire between 200 and 600 nannies to clean up user-generated content.
I had a near-miss experience with Sina Twitter recently. A friend of mine, a known artist and dissident, wanted me to post a letter to the Chinese National People’s Congress on my account, where I have 430,000 followers, while Congress was in session. I agreed, and so began a 30-minute game of cat and mouse. I cut and paste on my Sina Twitter account, readers retweet, and the nannies erase, all of us operating at a frantic pace. It was quite fun, and definitely kicked my adrenaline up several notches. Afterward, I received this text message from Chen Tong, editor in chief of Sina.com: “Dear Sister Huang, Let’s cherish the little freedom we have on Sina Twitter, not try to close it down. I have worked very hard for this.”
He is so right. Those of us who live within the system are different from Google. We cannot go demand immediate change from the government or expect a statement from Hillary Clinton. So we have to be patient, we have to treasure the incremental changes that come our way, we have to use self-restraint, and we are good at self-censorship. But sometimes I wonder whether this slow-motion change is turning us all into self-censoring zombies.
Huang Hung is a columnist for China Daily, the English language newspaper in China. She is also an avid blogger with more than 100 million page views on her blog on sina.com.