September 4, 2001
In today's China, there is a Internet-bar on every street corner. If the bar isn't full, then it must be lunchtime or the Chinese basketball team must be busy beating the Americans. (China won, I saw it happen....)
Millions of Chinese pay 2 yuan an hour to chat over OICQ, listen to music, watch Hong Kong movies, search for English essays to cop off as their own or slaughter each other in some video game. Plotting to overthrow the government doesn't seem to rank in the top ten of favorite web-based past-times.
But the PRC isn't taking any chances. There are a number of sites that are inaccessible from China, such as anything to do with the Falun Gong and anything written in the Los Angeles Times. Emails are also not safe. The Ministry of Post and Telecommunications hand in hand with the long arm of the Public Security Bureau scan chatrooms and email messages for keywords (let's rebel! most likely a hot one) and these messages are promptly erased and the user's account terminated.
A teacher in Henan was recently apprehended for posting a critical essay of the regime; students in Beijing woke up to find not only their accounts flushed but their computers confiscated and themselves under question. Emails bursting with dissent never find their recipients or arrive much later than the email describing last night's dinner.
But the dissent email does arrive. And if I go through Yahoo!, both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times are available, although Falun Gong articles are still off-limits. The firewall the government puts up to control the flow doesn't work it is no barrier to the information, if the information is sought with enough fervor. And Jiang and his buddies know this, hence the recent crackdown on Internet bars across the nation. Licenses and computers were collected by the thousands. The point was not to restore control, but to restore a healthy fear.
Foreign companies are kept out by the standard "no foreign ownership allowed" the same clause which protects virtually every sagging industry in China while Jitong charges ridiculous rates for its provider service. They have to prepare for the WTO, ya know. The stranglehold on service providers is not as tight as it seems several small Beijing and Shanghai-based companies have received licenses to provide hookups, albeit on a small scale.
Most young people who frequent the local net-bar have no clue how, or even if the government is monitoring what they are saying, but the very shadow of the grand Communist Party over their shoulder is enough to stop all thoughts of defiance OICQ chats revolve more around deviance. The sexual revolution is in full swing whilst the political revolution is on the backburner for now my buddies here in Chongqing all have OICQ girlfriends, some of whom even become flesh and blood.
The government has managed to instill the same wariness in websurfers that it has in marketplace shoppers concerning the government and the authorities, but the PSB doesn't care too much about sex, so people can now express in shocking detail over the web those desires they cannot express in normal conversation.
Nevertheless, the CIA must ensure the freedom of all web users in China, as they no doubt do in the grand 'ol USA. The CIA's "venture capital" arm, In-Q-Tel, situated in Silicon Valley, is financing a company called Safeweb which specializes in "safe servers" the kind a government cannot get into as easily as it wants to.
Through the International Broadcasting Bureau of Voice of America fame Safeweb plans to market its "safe software" to the Chinese, who so desperately need it to keep the government out of their political scheming. I'm sure the CIA feels such software will speed up the rise of the Chinese laobaixing (literally Old Hundred Names, i.e. commoners) against their Communist-Capitalist (capitalists are allowed to be members of the Party now) oppressors.
Unfortunately, this is a waste of our money not that any taxpayers care, or else the American Old Hundred Names would have risen a long time ago.
First, the web is pretty free here in China, considering that it is China. I can access most articles I need to and most websites I want to and I have definitely written enough scandalous remarks about Jiang and the Communist Party that They should have come looking for me if They had that much control.
The dragon uses its shadow to control the thoughts of the people, while slowly relaxing its grip on the web in order to squeeze as much economic gain out of it as possible. AOL and its ilk are drooling like any other foreign business over the possibility of providing service to a growing market of millions. The Chinese leadership knows this. Sooner or later, foreign companies will be allowed to move in, on China's terms, and pour more booty onto the pile in the dragon's lair.
Second, I think most people vastly overestimate the latent political activism here. News about the Tiananmen Massacre including the photo of that crazy guy and the tank are readily available to anyone who cares. But my students still look at me in bewilderment when I mention kids like them dying. After the bewilderment passes, they skip off to the Internet bar and chat with their four or five cyberfellas.
Discontent and disgust may be high, but they have been for centuries and there is another Chinese trait which seems to counter any news of corruption: tolerance.
The old men have seen Japanese invaders, Liberation, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the June 3 Incident, and so on. Every so often some old fella will find out that I write for a semi-living and he'll go off about the poor people here and the growing gap, but as often as not he'll say, "If only you could have seen the achievements of my country over the last 50 years," with tears coming down his leathery face.
The young generation doesn't have any reason to gripe if their hardships are compared to those of their grandparents. So this Internet generation may give the rebel in us high hopes, but the cynic in me dismisses this generation's revolutionary potential.
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