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China's Big Brother

The New York Times recently wrote a fascinating article about China's Internet watchdogs. I have heard that China guards its cyber space fiercely and while I was there I wrote my blog and letters cautiously. Although it felt paranoid, the last thing I wanted was some Chinese horror story to happen to me when my portfolio was due. By the time I left Tibet I had relaxed considerably (but still kept my guard up out of habit), not so much because I doubted China's ability to micromanage its territory (which I did doubt) but because I realized how insignificant I am. While China might want to keep a close eye on local artists, leaders and opinion educated citizens, a tourist who has no lingual skills and is staying less than two weeks is no threat. Granted, the PSB (similar to our FBI) did want to know where I staying at all times, but I managed to take an illegal tour of the country with out any problems and on the ride to Nepal talked extensively with a tour guide who actually was educated in India. So obviously some things either slip under their noses or aren't important enough to merit attention.

According to the article, Despite an Act of Leniency, China Has Its Eye on the Web, the country uses several tactics to watch those logging on, ranging from using the proprietors of Internet cafes as spies who report suspicious behavior, hidden cameras in cafes and in Beijing the government is the only internet service provider. Shanghai recently went one step farther; it is starting a program that makes all users swipe a card, which would have information on it revealing the identity of the Internet users. While they don't get tourists (bad publicity) they do arrest suspicious Chinese citizens through "antisubversion laws."

When I first arrived in Chengdu I couldn't access my weblog, instead getting the typical cannot access site page. I thought surely this was censorship. Then I remembered that sometimes the site was down, and successfully loaded it less than a day later. The Lonely Planet guidebook incorrectly stated that you couldn't access the BBC website. The day I proved it wrong there was even a headlining story about Beijing police beating Christian demonstrators. Obviously they couldn't keep a lid on everything (and I began to hope a little for the Chinese youth). Upon reflection I realized that the percentage of Chinese who can read English is miniscule (wandering around Chengdu, a city of ten million, outside of the hotel I did not come across one English speaker, in fact, my measly Tibetan was more useful there), so perhaps blocking various English sites isn't the priority, and since I cannot read Chinese, I have no idea about that scoop. One commentator noted, "No matter how hard they try, though, it is a fact that the volume of online information is increasing vastly, and there's nothing the government can do about that. You can monitor hundreds of bulletin boards, but controlling hundreds of thousands of bloggers is very different."

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