Born and Banned in China

Around late March/early April every year for the last 15, the Chinese government goes on alert. April is a sensitive time for the CCP (Chinese Communist Party), because not only do human rights NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) such as Amnesty International file their previous year reports after the first quarter, it is also the month the 1989 democratic movement began in China.

China has never admitted, to the international or national arena, that the events on 4 June 1989 ever occurred. The photographs and footage of tanks being driven into Tiananmen Square where the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) round-up and shot unarmed students did not represent an “historic” event according to the State, because the PLA was never ordered by the Chinese Government to attack the students. At the time, the Chinese Government even accused foreign media of “faking” the images. But on a very personal level, I know that what happened in Tiananmen Square was real, because the year after it happened, I visited Beijing and touched the tank-ruined stairs opposite the Great Hall of the People. I was grateful for the rain because it hid my tears as I cried among the hundreds of soldiers marching up and down, guarding the square.

In 1989, China had complete control of its media, so the Chinese media said little about the incident, and what little was reported was skewed. The protesters were branded as rebels who were determined to cause instability within the country. Their cause was never stated, their numbers purportedly few. They were blamed for much of the violence and damage caused when they “attacked” the PLA. There was no satellite TV then, although many people have satellite dishes now, thanks to China’s economic boom. So unless one was living in Beijing at the time, or had traveled from an outside province to participate in the protest, or had a loved one that never came home that day . . . the story went largely untold throughout the country.

Still under British Rule, people in Hong Kong attempted to break the silence by faxing related news items into China, but their impact was tiny. The Chinese censorship of what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989 was chillingly successful. Just a few years ago a co-worker, who was just transferred to Hong Kong from China, saw on one of our computer desks-tops the unforgettable photo of a lone young man* standing in front of a line of tanks on Chang An Dai Du (The Great Avenue of Ever Lasting Peace). He asked us about the picture.

We told him about the peoples’ fight for Democracy, and what really happened at Tiananmen. He said, “I vaguely remember the photo . . . but it was a different story, not an important story”. At that, we allowed the conversation to drop. Those of us in Hong Kong have learned that when dealing with people born and bred under an authoritarian regime, people who are terrorized into ignoring the inconsistencies, half-truths, and lies told to them every day, one must be very sensitive. Such people have developed a protective survival mechanism of self-censorship that is so strong that challenging it would be painful and rude. Sadly, his recollection was not a surprise to us, and I am sure his discovery of his lack of knowledge about what happened within his own borders was not a surprise to him, either. After all, we all grew up with the news blackouts of China, started in 1949 when the Communists came to power.

Forty years later, in 1989, before the Chinese border opened up to the extent it has today due to economic trade, what China wanted the people to hear and read within its borders was completely unchallenged by any means because in 1989, the Internet, as we know it now, was just being invented. And it is completely unnecessary to explain how the Internet has so drastically changed things since then, because as I write this in Hong Kong, the editor of this piece is in the US, and I can only guess where you, the reader, are accessing this essay from at the moment.

When faced with the possibility of uncensored news coming into China via the Internet, the Chinese government invested millions in blocking technology, bought from US companies such as Sun Microsystems, Cisco Systems, Microsoft, Nortel Networks, Bay Networks, Inc. and Websense. In the mid-’90s, Asian human rights groups suggested that the US needed to create a “Corporate Code of Conduct” in relation to China, and called for an Internet situation that would at least urge US software and hardware giants not to sell technology that curbed free speech and freedom of information to China. This would follow the model similar to the 1970 “Sullivan Principals” of social responsibilities, which US companies signed stating they would not participate in Apartheid in the work place while doing business in South Africa.

Sadly, no such “Corporate Code of Conduct” was instituted in China, and now China is so technologically sophisticated that the Government regularly blocks foreign websites such as CNN, BBC and CBS, as well as the sites of religious groups and NGOs. On a national level, it blocks about 10 percent of all websites around the world, according to the Berkman Center for Internet and Society in Harvard. In Shanghai, the city recently implemented a central monitoring system that will send an “alert” to officials if someone from an Internet café tries to log on to a banned site — and plans to roll it out nationwide.

Furthermore, the Chinese government blocks personal websites, too, such as Geocities in 2001 and Blogspot in 2003. In March of this year, two Chinese blogging services, Blogbus and Blogcn, were shut down completely after a Chinese blog within China posted an open letter by dissident Jiang Yanyong, which urged the government to reconsider its stance on the Tiananmen crackdown. This was followed by a banning of Typepad two weeks later. Concurrently, in a separate incident, Ma Yalian was arrested and sentenced without trial to 18 months of hard labor in a reeducation camp because she published articles criticizing the government’s complaint system on two websites.

According to Reporters Without Borders, there are 59 cyber-dissidents currently imprisoned in China for posting “subversive” thoughts on the Internet. The most famous of them, Du Dao Bin, is still held without charges since his arrest in October 2003. The numbers of those jailed are probably higher, because only the most notable writers have networks to the outside world, so only their plight is known — outside of China.

Five years ago I was a producer for CIC (Chinese Internet Corporation, partly owned by Xin Hua, the Chinese Government News Agency). In the course of our work, our editorial team found out we had somehow caused and to be banned in China. We did not immediately realize the ban had happened. Rather, we learned of it when we were directed to be more “sensitive”. In such context, to be “sensitive” is code for: one must practice self-imposed censorship. As the producer of the English sites at CIC, I became the one responsible for hiding from the Chinese public “subversive” news such as the death of Hong Kong’s Independent Judiciary over the Right of Abode Issue, I was also the person who placed a filtering system on the message boards and chatrooms to prevent phrases such as “4 June, 1989”, “Tiananmen Massacre”, “Student Protests”, “06/04/89”, and words like “tanks” from ever being published. After a period of guilt and anger at myself, I quit my job.

I, too, encountered internet censorship at a most personal level: my blog, Glutter has been banned in China. It’s difficult to say whether my site was particularly targeted, because it is posted on Typepad and therefore banned along with other blogs, but Glutter is filled with thoughts on democracy in China and Hong Kong, stories of human rights violations in China and Tibet, and news of Taiwan Independence. All topics are on the “top 20” of China Ban lists. What bothers me most about this is I always believed I would go undetected, somehow, as Glutter is such a small, personal effort.

What transpired after the blog banning — which to me is quite incredible and denotes the speed and agility of the Internet that so frightens my government — is after I filed a story about the ban on the Independent Media Wire and reposted the story of Typepad being banned in China on Glutter, I inadvertently started what became known as the “Typeblack” campaign. In the “Typeblack” campaign, blogs worldwide, including Korea, Japan, Australia, the Netherlands, Demark, England, the US — and Chinese sites owned by foreigners that accessed my site through proxies — not only spread the news of the blog ban, but turned their background or borders black in a show of solidarity to protest the censorship. Within three days, over 100 sites participated in “Typeblack”. Within 12 hours of the start of the campaign was shut off from China. Two days later, Reporters Without Borders logged what was happening in their latest report. (See below for links to stories about “Typeblack”.)

Slashdot the tech-magazine forum, was “un-banned” after the story went off their front page, but at this writing, Typepad still remains unseen in China. And there has been a rumor that the two most popular proxies used by Chinese viewers Unipeak and Anonymouse, which allow users to access sites through foreign servers by passing the Chinese mainframe, are now unavailable.

Much like my experience at CIC, this episode of censorship affected my life. When I realized what had happened, I felt a sudden surge of fear. It is one thing to understand what a Totalitarian State is on an intellectual level; another to grow up with it just across the thin border. It is quite another thing to feel the State and its censorship policies closing in — even if it’s just through a DSL line. By banning Glutter I was indirectly being told by the Chinese government that my thoughts are considered “unwelcome” and “unfit” for the people of my country. The Chinese government will not tolerate the sound of the faintest dissenting voice, even if it’s in English. Each one of us shall be silenced, no matter how small and insignificant we think we may be. I have since cancelled my plans to move to Beijing, where I hoped to further my studies, lest I find myself and those around me in trouble from conversing “unspeakable” thoughts at University.

The Washington Post recently ran a story about eight young people that created “the New Youth Study Group” in People’s University, Beijing (“A Study Group Is Crushed in China’s Grip“, 22 April 2004). These students and recent graduates had the best of intentions, hoping to improve and reform China through discussions and papers. Four of them are now in jail, and will be for 8-10 years; three are free but implicated their friends by signing falsified confessions; and one is in exile after acting as an informant.

China is conflicted. It boasts an all-powerful, CCP front that effectively places fear in its people; yet it is so afraid of its own people that it spends a huge amount of money and invests hours of manpower to make sure its people do not speak — for others may hear us. Indeed, the Chinese government has every reason to be so vigilant. In 1989 students from Beijing University, People University, Qing Hau University, and Beijing Normal University, as well as from other campuses across the country, spontaneously gathered to mourn the death of deposed Communist Party Official Hu Yao Bang, seen by many as the hope of a moderate China. Within days they met one another at Tiananmen Square, and began to ask their government for reforms. Their gathering snowballed and sparked off the 1989 Democratic Movement in China. And what my government knows, and thus tries so hard to keep quiet both inside and outside of China, is that it takes only a few to lead so many.

*Nineteen-year-old Wang Weilin, said by many to be the young man in the photo, was executed by the Chinese Government in 1989.

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In 1997 Hong Kong was handed over from Britain — which never implemented any kind of democratic reforms — to China. Without consulting the people of the territory, the two countries put in place a mini-constitution called the “Basic Law”. What the Basic Law supposedly promised was that Hong Kong would have autonomy outside of China; our independent Judiciary would remain, and we would function under what was known as “One Country Two Systems”. However, on 27 April 2004, the standing committee of China’s National People’s Congress denied Hong Kong universal suffrage for its 2007 elections. This goes against the Basic Law, and it is a direct attack on the bourgeoning democratic movement in the city.

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Additional Reading

Mercury News, Tech firms accused by Amnesty” (29 November 2002)

China Represents Ethical Quagmire in High-Tech AgeLos Angeles Times (27 January, 1997)

Reporters Without Borders raises alarm over mushrooming Internet repression in China” (1 April 2004)

Wikipedia, Right of abode issue, Hong Kong, (1999)

The story of the cyber-protest appeared on The Guardian‘s “Electronic Frontier Foundation” newsletter, “We Blog: Blogs Go Black as China Blocks More Sites” (29 March, 2004)

See also The Effector Vol. 17, No. 11 (31 March 2004)

Slashdot republished my story as well as made note of the weblog blackout at “China Blocks Typepad, Prompts Weblog Blackout,” (29 March 2004)