Chinese net users protest, stop effort to impose "Great Firewall"

by Antoaneta Bezlova, Inter Press Service

Beijing’s last minute climb-down on its latest Internet-censorship effort this week highlights the possibility that Chinese communist mandarins’ main challenge in the future lies not in quelling political dissent, but reigning in its tech-savvy educated elite.

July 1 was meant to be the day when every personal computer sold in mainland China would have come equipped with government-endorsed internet filtering software known as "Green Dam Youth Escort", ostensibly to block pornographic and violent content.

Instead, the day was marked with a very public display of civil defiance. In a country where even small gatherings are perceived as a threat to social stability, more than 1,000 people amassed in one of Beijing’s art districts to declare boycott on Internet.

Wearing T-shirts with slogans cursing Green Dam and the "GFW’, or Great Firewall, the nickname of the government’s Internet police, bloggers and artists cheered their symbolic victory in what they believe is going to be a protracted battle for Internet freedom.

"We are gathered here today to resist the compulsory installation of Green Dam," avant-garde artist Ma Yongfeng told journalists.

"Today is the right time to express our protests because it was supposed to be the deadline (of the launch of Green Dam) and the 88th birthday of the Chinese communist party," said Ai Weiwei, an artist and an outspoken social critic, who organised the event.

Four hours before the deadline for the launch of the software, the state news agency Xinhua reported that Beijing has backed down on its initial order.

"China will delay the mandatory installation of the Green Dam Youth Escort filtering software on new computers," it said in a statement quoting the ministry of industry and information technology.

Although the government contends the software was designed to clear the web from "harmful content", independent analysts argue that the filter could block anything online that might endanger the regime’s stability. Key words embedded in the software include Falun Gong, a banned religious movement, and Charter 08, a pro-democracy group, among other politically sensitive words.

After Beijing announced its plans for the software installation last month, it was stunned by the unprecedented level of opposition, most of it online, and by the avalanche of protests from businesses and foreign governments.

"The Green Dam incident is a snapshot of contemporary China," says Li Xiang, a social commentator and blogger. "We can see the alignment of various forces that are going to shape the country’s future – on one side there is the government and the business interests most closely associated with it; on the other side are the more free-thinking entrepreneurs, China’s millions of Internet users and the already democratised technological forces."

The most vocal voices of opposition have emerged from China’s 300 million internet users. In a country where print and broadcast media is tightly controlled and censored, the public has taken to internet forums with unprecedented zeal. It has become increasingly sophisticated at circumventing government controls on information flow.

But Internet users have been also irked by the government’s stepped up efforts to exercise its censorship in cyberspace. In January, party chief Hu Jintao ordered government officials at all levels to "purify the internet environment" in order to safeguard the party’s rule.

Beijing is mindful of internet’s growing role in registering public complaints and acting as a galvaniser of public opposition to the government. It happened last year when parents of children who had been poisoned by contaminated milk launched an online petition to seek public support in their efforts to launch a class action suit.

After the devastating Sichuan earthquake which killed thousands of school children last May, the internet yet again became a platform for airing public grievances. Parents of children who died in the quake alleged corruption and shoddy school buildings were the culprits to blame for the deaths. After Beijing refused to listen to their charges, activists began publishing the names of the children that perished on the web.

So far the government has been careful to appear as considerate to public reactions posted on internet. In a recent case where a young waitress was accused of killing a party official to fend off his amorous advances, the courts were told to consider popular feelings in issuing the verdict. Deng Yujiao, the waitress was convicted in the case but speared punishment after gathering a pile of supportive postings online.

"The same seems to be happening now – there was an order and an opposition to it, and the government is saying we will think about it", said another blogger who goes by the name of Mu Lian. "But this time there was a lot of opposition from abroad too and we can’t say whether this is a sign of Beijing relaxing its controls."

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and Ron Kirk, the United States trade representative, sent a letter to the Chinese government to protest the Green Dam mandate, which they said could violate WTO rules. In another letter, 22 international business organisations, including the US Chamber of Commerce, asked premier Wen Jiabao to reverse the decision.

But 2009 is a year full of sensitive political anniversaries and any gains by internet freedom fighters may be short-lived. Green Dam was announced amid a series of other measures to protect social stability ahead of the 60th anniversary in October of the 1949 founding of the communist government.

To counter the perceived threat to stability Beijing has mirrored the communist party’s earlier campaigns against bourgeois liberalism of the 1980s by intensifying its crackdown on all dissent.

It has tried to vilify the search engine Google for leading users to pornography. And in the run up to the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen democracy movement crackdown on June 4th it blocked Twitter, a popular internet social networking tool, and Fanfou, its mainland version. Liu Xiaobo, one of China’s leading dissidents, was formally arrested on suspicion of subversion, six months after he was detained for signing and posting Charter 08 – a blueprint for democracy, online.

article originally published at Inter Press Service.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey