Beijing Journal Part II

By Ellen Pearlman on 23 March 2007
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As I am settling in Beijing, I am adjusting to some of the quirks and inconveniences of being a non-Chinese-speaking/reading visitor.  For example, when someone tries to text message me, the phone naturally displays it in Chinese characters.  Or when I try to pay for Skype through a credit card instead of PayPal, it takes over 48 hours to get card approval.  Though minor inconveniences, these setbacks could be annoying when dealing with time sensitive materials.

I am just beginning to get a handle on the Chinese censorship of the Internet, which is quite subtle.  I can get CNN and the NY Times, but if I type in the word “dharma” I get filtered out almost completely (I guess it’s a dirty word) and most You Tube broadcasts will not pull from the server, regardless of content.  The censorship seems to be roving, a bit arbitrary though extremely strict.  Besides pornography they are avid on restricting spirituality.  The thing about censorship is that you don’t now what is being censored, because you don’t know exactly what you are looking for.  There is a terribly odd quality of vacuum or mist, like you know it is there but you can’t see it, so you don’t know what it is you are not seeing.

The censorship works on two levels, the first is through Google China, which filters content, and the second is through delivering information from the server.  So even if you find the header you want in Goggle, the server just refuses to load the page, which is a raw, in your face, way of saying you’ve been found out and this is restricted information.  The page will just not load.  This dual filtering is very efficient and lethal and works towards creating a collective amnesia.  Of course, I can only speak about the English language as I have no idea of what is going on in Chinese, though I suspect it may be the same, if not worse.  It is equivalent to going to a library and looking up the topic “1960’s party scene”.  You may be looking for stories of wild parties in California and instead the only returns you get are the 1960’s Communist Youth International Party Conference.  This way you never know there were parties in California, even though it is common knowledge in the rest of the world.  So if you don’t know about it you don’t miss it.

The end result of this kind of information filter is a more docile and reined in population that essentially doesn’t know, and for the most part doesn’t care about what they are missing.  And it seems that the few who do care, and speak about it in chat rooms, are monitored by internal policing and I really don’t know what happens to them.

A more  blatant example is what happened the other night.  I was at a social gathering and was talking to a group of Chinese about the Paris Hilton debacle, both the sex tapes that circulated on the Internet, and her reality TV show with Nicole Ritchie.  The Chinese are well aware of the Hilton Hotel Chain, though they had never heard of Paris before.  I realized the whole story of her adventures, or misadventures had been filtered out of all the news media in all forms.  Now that’s one efficient censorship machine.  But, on the other hand, they allow, and encourage American Idol.  Go figure.

Ellen Pearlman is a contributor to Executive Road Warrior and a senior analyst at Basex.

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