Does China Need An Internet Nanny?
Yesterday's post titled The Great Chinese BBS Crackdown was about the crackdown on the bulletin board systems at Chinese universities. An outsider might simplistically equate this action with a straightforward crackdown on democratic aspirations for political freedom. This post is broken into several parts, each of which will challenge that assumption. My conclusion is that China does not need the current Internet nanny, who is doing much more harm than good. Yet, there is a need for some form of self-discipline on the Internet that is not spontaneously happening, either within China or elsewhere.
What exactly was on the SMTH BBS of Tsinghua University that drew the attention of the government officials? Were they concerned about the subversive statements (or, at a minimum, 'sensitive' comments) posted by people inside or outside the university? What exactly was present on that BBS?
The SMTH BBS is a massive database which must contain tens of millions of comments over its ten year lifespan. It would be impossible to classify those comments. This leaves people, including users, operators and observers, with varying types of subjective impressions.
Here is a translation of a post at InMediaHK. The two takeaway points are that there already existed tight control on SMTH and that the board contents were quite diverse:
When I was a student at Tsinghua, I was not a frequent visitor to the SMTH BBS. The BBS was rendered only in simplified Chinese characters whereas my computer used traditional Chinese characters. But my roommates hung around the BBS all the time, and they would let me know about any new developments.
I had always immensely disliked the network control within Tsinghua. If I wanted to visit a foreign website, they would charge me money to the tune of several RMB per 1 Mb of data. Students inside China must use a proxy service. Since the proxy is slow and the proxy service must be switched often, very few students actually use it. As for the Hong Kong-Macau websites, even Yahoo! News is banned. Furthermore, the university servers will monitor incoming information. One time, a friend send me an email containing information about June 4 1989, and it caused my Yahoo! mail account to be banned. I had to get some friend outside China to get into my mailbox to delete that email, and then I could access the account after two or three days. My two years at Tsinghua represented total isolation from the outside world.
The control of the SMTH BBS was also very tight. On the news page, ordinary students do not have the right to post information. I remember that the year before last, some Sociology students filed a request to form a discussion group, but were turned down. Sociology is a sensitive subject inside China. During the SARS period, I posted a comment to ask my fellow students to take care, and that was deleted very soon after.
Most of the content in the SMTH BBS was about mundane subjects, such as travel, love, astrology, pets, and selling second-hand items. Periodically, there were unexpected events such as the explosions at the two Tsinghua canteens, and the students tried to outrace the administrators in speed-posting. Also, the peer-to-peer function on the BBS is useful, because information that cannot be posted publicly can be disseminated on a one-to-one basis.
The BBS represented spiritual nourishment to the Tsinghua folks. During the SARS period, the university had sequestered students by area. During those two months, we were not allowed to go outside the university and we could not visit students in other dormitories. We could only eat at our nearby canteens. Since classes were not held, the students spent all their time with the computers in their dorm rooms, and the only social life was in the virtual BBS.
I remember that when school resumed after SARS, a certain roommate from a rural area who did not spend much time on the computer ended up being connected on the network all the time. She had not believed in astrology, but she turned into someone who would become very anxious if she had not consulted her stars that day. I was perplexed how the SMTH BBS could turn a peasant girl who used to be very much dissatisfied with city life into an uncritical and self-absorbed elitist.
The Tsinghua network was like a crystal ball that filtered out the inequities of the real world for these future elite members of society. That was why I never liked SMTH. But I never imagined that the Department of Education would even want to remove this space.
So now the crystal ball is broken. Although people are angry, but when we see the paper birds flying out of the crystal ball one by one, the world is still full of hope.
My second translation is from an individual by the user name of BorlandKylix who was able to post this item briefly on SMTH on March 18, 2005. The takeaway point here is that SMTH is an information hub for research and development. Such BBS's must be considered integral to research advancement in China, and it is counterproductive to prevent interaction with the rest of the world.
I have been holding back for so long. Since the people above want to defeat on us today, I am going to speak these words no matter what the consequences are for me.
Listen, brother, this is the information age. Understand? The information age! The most important thing in the information age is information, and that means the civil right to obtain useful information through widely available, equitable, legal and rapid public channels of information.
I was willing to tolerate the problem about the exchange of information between China and the outside world in the case of Google. Do you know the importance of the search engine which is the soul of the Internet? I work on building robots, and I have to spend hundreds of dollars a month on getting chips. It is so hard to find a good datasheet on the specifications of DSP chips. If I cannot search effectively, what kind of research can I be expected to do?
What are you saying? You tell me to use that Baidu search engine built inside China? That fucking thing might be good for finding song lyrics, but it is not good for any serious work. Can you look for a self-balancing robot on two wheels? On Google, I can find the design diagrams and creative ideas of foreigners. On Baidu, all I find are items on sale. How do you expect me to fucking find any knowledge from between the teeth of these lying merchants?
All these are minor matters that I know how to handle. But what is it about our SMTH that caused you to want to destroy it?
You must think that a bunch of us have nothing to do than hang out on the BBS trying to pick up girls. If SMTH was full of these idle people, I would even support you to turn it off and take the server home to use as a closet. But no matter how bad we were, we technicians are still able to show some stuff every day. Do you not see that the Circuit board has questions such as how to connect the Max 232 and so on every day? No matter what, we can still say that we were contributing something towards the GDP.
With the shutdown, there are just a few of us left. How are we do exchange academic knowledge and compare our technologies?
Furthermore, even if SMTH was good for nothing, were we doing anything evil? Were we investigating how to build car bombs? Were we discussing about starting riots? Were we drug-raping underage girls? Were we assembling to watch late night strip shows on the board?
All we wanted was to find a place to say something that was quite useless!
What made you so scared and afraid?
Were you afraid that the girls at the Top Ten page would fight to gain friends and become morally degenerate?
Were you afraid that women won't get along with their mother-in-laws on the Family page, or husbands fighting with their wives?
Were you afraid of the photographs being posted at the Fuyong page?
Were you afraid of the sign-ins on my personal guest page?
We are all only small people and poor students. These days, it is so hard to find a job now and housing is so expensive. We have received some form of higher education. We don't hate socialism. We are not opposed to peace. We don't long for capitalist liberalism. We don't support the democratic movement. We are not sympathetic towards the FLG. We can discern rumors. And we may sometimes have impure thoughts when we see the photograph of a pretty woman with big breasts.
I don't understand how a group of reasonable people in a BBS community, a server that is only a feet tall and several tens of thousands of accounts would pose a grave danger to our great country, our glorious party and the historically illustrious Tsinghua University campus?
Please! This is the information age! If people want to know something, you won't be able to hide it. If people don't want to know something, it will be useless for you to force it upon them. There was no need to impose this Internet blockade again. If you have a chance, you should visit the Wiki, the blogs and personal pages outside of China. Their EE undergraduate majors have programmable modules and their robots are running all over the place. Furthermore, they even post their technologies for others to study. Meanwhile, our EE graduate students don't even know how to connect the VCC in the 74 series. SMTH had a technology area. It may not have a high quality standard, but at least it was done by the Chinese. Why can't we let the people of China and the rest of the world look at it?
SMTH was not evil, and there was no need to move on it.
The Cold War has been over many years ago.
We are several years into the 21st century already.
We are many years behind the West.
Please remove the shit out of your head!
Please spare SMTH!
So this whole affair should not be considered as a one-dimensional crackdown on democratic aspirations for political freedom. According to the first excerpt, free political speech was never really there before this crackdown. According to the second excerpt, some people don't really care about democracy or any such, but only wanted a public forum to interact with the outside world on academic research. There must surely be other points of view as well. So what was the whole crackdown about? It was more about the idea that the BBS's pose a potential problem, and it was better to nip in the bud. This is counterproductive because the BBS's had been serving productive functions and the information flow will continue through other channels anyway.
In ChineseNewsNet, there is a report about a December 2004 meeting in which Department of Education leader Zhou Jie (周济) spoke about the influence of the BBS's on university students. Here are the main points:
The black hand behind the BBS crackdowns is alleged to be Zhou Jie (周济), who is a leader in the Department of Education. The following is a counteroffensive against Zhou Jie, published at SecretChina, which I must qualify as not being the most reliable source in the world.
After the New Weekly disclosed that female students at the Nanjing Teachers University were forced to dance with visiting leaders from the Department of Education, that affair has been gradually slipping away in memory. This case left a lot of unanswered questions. Who were those thirty to forty male in their fifties? Why wouldn't the reporter name them? If the university leadership won't disclose that information, couldn't they get it from the female students? This type of mass reception is rarely seen at NTU and it would not be difficult to investigate. But the silence of the newspaper seems quite appropriate given the silence of China as a whole.
Later on, the affair was pinned down onto a group of middle-level cadres. But it is laughable to think that a group of middle-level cadres could demand the female students to dance with them. If that were the case, the female students would have to dance so hard every day such that their legs would fall off. Unfortunately, this was where the report ended and it seemed that we will never learn the truth.
More recently, Zhou Jie led a Department of Education forum to discuss the reorganization of the universities. It was then that the nice people remember that on October 29, the NTU BBS had a hot post. The poster claimed to be a female NTU student who was a participant at the dancing affair, and she claimed that the leader that day was none other than Zhou Jie himself. On that day, Zhou Jie said some really disgusting things to her and even left his telephone number with her. But the post was quickly deleted by the BBS operator. At the time, everyone thought that this was an absurd claim, but today those suspicions have re-emerged.
Controlling the Internet and limiting the speech of students should not have been the domain of the Department of Education, and it would not have enhanced the accomplishments and reputation of the leaders at the Department of Education. Nevertheless, they forged ahead at the risk of incurring the wrath of the students This is the first suspicious point. Historically, controlling the Internet involved controlling political speech, but the emphasis of the Department of Education this time is that the non-students cannot post at university BBS's. Within the university, the students are required to register under their real names for identification purposes. This is the second suspicious point. The Nanjing University BBS and the Nanjing Teachers University BBS are both far removed from the political center, and they don't have a lot of users. The Nanjing University BBS also has a close working relationship with the local Xinhua organization and can be described as a propaganda center. For actively participating in reporting the New Weekly article about the officials from the Department of Education dancing with female students, it was subjected to the most severe sanction, including the disbanding of the entire BBS administrative team. This is the third suspicious point.
So this story has been placed out there for the whole world to read (note: of course, SecretChina is blocked in China). Is this story true or not? I have no means of telling, but I am uncomfortable and unnerved either way. On one hand, let us suppose that this story is true. Then a person such as Zhou Jie can act with impunity and will never be held accountable in this system. BAD. On the other hand, let us suppose that this story is false. Then how is the innocent Zhou Jie ever going to clear his name under the present system? The more he tries to explain, the worse for him. BAD. All real world events are likely to be one or the other. BAD, either way. Do you see where my despondency comes from?
This morning, I was in an office waiting room and I picked up a copy of the New York Times. I thought this particular story was very much related to what I have just described, so I am going to excerpt parts of it (In Yonkers, a Web Site Gets Under the Mayor's Skin, by Kirk Semple, March 22, 2005):
Mayor Philip A. Amicone recently ordered that all computers at Yonkers City Hall and at the Board of Education be blocked from connecting to a Web site he deemed particularly scurrilous.
On its face, the site, innocuously named YonkersTribune.com by its founder, seemed an unlikely target of municipal censorship. Published by Hezi Aris, a 55-year-old widower and gadfly, YonkersTribune.com is part online newspaper and part rampaging blog that focuses on political developments in Yonkers. The jumbled site is loaded with news stories and editorials, all reported and written by Mr. Aris, a one-man band of newsgathering.
Carrying his digital camera and a digital voice recorder, he attends most public meetings in the city. Within hours of the events, he will update his Web site with fresh accounts of the day's developments, using charmingly elevated and heartfelt language. (In Mr. Aris's world, a planning board notice is "delivered by facsimile," not faxed, and meetings are not scheduled so much as they are "called to commence.")
But YonkersTribune.com is also something of a village square, where people trade in gossip and rumor, often anonymously, and Mr. Aris's articles grow long tails of unsigned ripostes and counter-ripostes. In a section titled "Whistleblowers Page," Mr. Aris invites readers to reveal "impropriety, conflict of interest, fraud or anything else."
While the site has infuriated the Amicone administration and its allies, among others, it has attracted many supporters who regard it as a leader in a growing movement of local political activism and civic engagement. "He's done a lot for the city in terms of keeping people aware and shaking up City Hall," said Karen G. Edmonson, president of the Yonkers branch of the N.A.A.C.P. "Before, people would just whisper things." Mr. Aris says some 30,000 distinct readers log onto the site every month, a claim that is difficult to verify independently.
But in the opinion of the Amicone administration, a frequent target of the site's diatribes, YonkersTribune.com is anything but harmless. According to the city's director of public affairs, speaking on behalf of Mayor Amicone, the mayor blocked the site a few months ago because of the nature of the readers' postings. "The comments are so vitriolic," said the spokesman, Richard Halevy. "Anybody can say anything they want without identifying themselves." Mr. Halevy said that apart from pornographic sites, YonkersTribune.com is the only site the city has blocked on City Hall computers.
In the face of an uncontrolled and unbridled web-based onslaught where "anyone can say anything they want without identifying themselves," the response of the Yonkers city government was to block access to this website within its offices All you have to do is substitute Yonkers City Hall (in USA) with China and you've got the analogy. Of course, "Right versus Wrong" should matter, but how is a citizen supposed to figure out who is right and who is wrong from a bunch of anonymous, uncorroborated and unsubstantiated statements, in Yonkers or anywhere else? The ultra-leftists used to say that the eyes of the masses are bright and clear and will always recognize the truth, but history does not support this assertion. The masses have been fooled before and will be fooled again.
Now we move to an article by Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波), the president of the Independent Chinese PEN. He has another article, which is humorous as he starts off with the comment that the arrival of U.S. Secretary of State Condi Rice has caused the police guard to re-appear at his front door after a brief respite following the end of the two Congresses. But the article of interest here was found at ChineseNewsNet and is an analysis of comments at major websites on Condi Rice.
U.S. Secretary of State Rice visited six Asian countries, with the final stop at Beijing. Obviously, the netizens of mainland China paid a lot of attention. Prior to arriving, Rice said that the anti-secessionist law "not welcomed." When she arrived in Japan, she supported a seat for Japan at the United Nations Security Council. Therefore, her remarks have incensed the nationalists of China. I looked at some websites, and it is clear that the anti-American/anti-Japanese talk has sprung up again, with many hoping that China would react strongly. This was the main current of netizen opinions. Of course, there were plenty of obscene language being deployed.
It was nothing unusual to see obscenities used when the United States is being discussed. But this is the first time that I have been "racial prejudice" being added on top of violence and thuggery.
I browsed through the posts at three major websites about Rice's Asian trip. There were quite a few that contained racial prejudices. Using Sina.com as an example, I went through more than 800 posts that appeared from March 16 through 5:30pm on March 20. Eliminating repeated posts, there were more than 600 posts, of which about 70 contained racist remarks (or about 10%) and only 5 opposed racism.
Some mild posts said: "This unwelcomed black woman!" and "This black-faced woman thinks too highly of herself." The others were a lot worse. Many of them slighted Rice as being "really ugly", "too ugly", "the ugliest in the world", "so ugly that she shouldn't show herself", "so ugly that she can't even be called a women", "even the perverted Japanese wouldn't give her a look because she is so ugly", "when a female is so ugly, it takes courage to continue to live on", "I really don't understand how something as ugly as she is can be born of humankind." That was why they said that "they were disgusted with that ugly look!" "I want to throw up!" "I threw up all over the place" and "I almost threw up last night's meal!"
Some people referred to Rice as "black devil", "black pig", "black woman", "black chick", "mother black devil", "black bitch", "you are so low that you are worse than a black devil", "her mind is even darker than her skin", "so black that even Kim Il-Jong would screw her!"
Some people called Rice "witch", "female ghost", "female lunatic", "bitch secretary of state", "garbage", "bastard", "rotten person", "cunt", "pure-bred wild wolf." Some people lamented that the Americans are so stupid that a "black bitch" got to become secretary of state.
Some people did not omit to use terms for animals to describe Rice: "gorilla", "mother gorilla", "bird face", "alligator", "foul-skin dog", "rotten meat, rat shit, even dogs won't eat it." Someone even said that comparing Rice to animals is "unfair to the animals." Therefore, someone recommended that "China should collect Rice's face into the kindergarten picture book of animals so that Chinese children will learn about the 'animalistic Americans'!"
A netizen who claimed that he was opposed to racial prejudice even slapped his own face to say: "I am opposed to racial prejudice, but this black devil is truly annoying ..."
Even though I have encountered many instances of hatred from angry young people before, the viciousness and vileness of the blatant racism blended with sexism still shocked and saddened me.
[The rest of the post contains some Sina.com posts in Chinese. I am too depressed to translate them for you.]
So whereas this post began with the unfortunate and unproductive crackdown on the Chinese university BBS's, Liu Xiaobo's article would give pause to think about whether a totally free Internet is always beneficial. I know that as I went through the Sina.com comments, I really wanted someone to slap these idiots down. Where was the Internet nanny when she was really needed? I don't want to see a state-employed Internet nanny doing this, and it is far better if the netizens can self-regulate. The ratio should not be Liu's tally of 70 racist posts versus 5 anti-racist posts, but very much the other way around all done in the name of civility and patriotism (i.e. Chinese people are not racists, please! this is a national shame for any Chinese to say such things!).
By the way, let me put this in context. Sina.com receives more than 20 million visitors each day, and we talking about 70 racist posts over approximately five days. So the incidence is a miniscule fraction of the total, but even a single one is too many already.