The SIG-III Blog

Notes from the ASIS&T special interest group in international information

Archive for the ‘Censorship’ Category

What’s in a name?: Questions of privacy in a Chinese social network

Chinese social networkers – the right to be anonymous?

Besides being accompanied by the above photo, which I find perfectly encapsulates the tension between recognition and anonymity among social networkers, Robert Ness’ post to Danwei.org this morning offers some of the best commentary I’ve heard on the right (or lack thereof) to be anonymous on the Internet in China. At issue is the real name system (实名制), or identity verification system. This is a system that requires someone wishing to join an online community to provide his or her real name and photo in order to join. Some like this system because (as they put it) it guarantees the authenticity of someone’s view points – members of an online community will know who said what. The systems proponents further argue that people will think twice before posting any potentially incendiary social or political commentary, as they will not be anonymous. By contrast, critics argue that this system represents Big Brother in action. Many of these critics further feel that the ability to post anonymously leads to discussion of taboo topics that would not be discussed if discussants could be personally identified.

Ness frames this debate in the context of the Chinese social network Zhanzuo.com — in Ness’s words, “one of several sites contending for the role of ‘China’s Facebook.’” The English version of the podcast interview with some of Zhanzuo’s regular networkers does a great job covering the different perspectives on this openness vs. privacy issue.

I confess I was interested in Zhanzuo for another reason as well. In order to reach out to social networkers, particularly on non-U.S. networks, I created profiles for myself on different networks active in different parts of the world (see my MySpace and Facebook, as well as my Orkut and Bebo). So naturally Zhanzuo was something I wanted to check out. I tried using Google translator to get around the language barrier, and to my surprise it wasn’t a total failure. I did get this far:

But when I created the profile I wasn’t able to type in the Roman alphabet, so I couldn’t give my real name. I threw in few random words in Chinese I copied and pasted from part of the page on the faint hope that I would be able to edit that bit of text into my real name once I was inside. Not surprisingly I was not able to do this – while I found the “edit my personal info” button, I was still unable to get the site to recognize my Romanized name. So my Zhanzuo profile is doomed.

But before the name verification authorities deleted my profile, I did try to add a little blurb about myself and the SIG-III blog, partly on the off chance that someone would see it before my profile disappeared, and partly just to see if I could do it. What happened was interesting. My attempts to post to the “about me” section were blocked, with (in Google translation) a rather Orwellian message:

your current state is: not yet audited by administrators, unable to use this function.

Block of the network to promote the real-name system, in order to pass audit, you must:

1. Upload your photos as a true portrait

2. Complete the true information (including name, department, etc)

Within 24 hours administrators will examine your images and information vetted through you can freely enjoy the fun of the block!

If Facebook, typically considered the standard bearer for authentic profile information in the U.S., ever tried anything like this, Facebook users would leave immediately. This amount of verification would never fly with a U.S. audience, thus marking a very significant difference between American social networkers and a certain percentage of Chinese social networkers. And while I wouldn’t presume to draw conclusions about broader social phenomena such as privacy in general and how attitudes towards privacy change by culture based solely upon an experiment like this, I did think my experience with Zhanzuo offered an interesting if incomplete window into attitudes towards privacy among Chinese netizens.

Posted by Aaron Bowen

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Written by sigiii

October 4, 2007 at 8:56 pm

Sex, Blogs, and the Great Firewall Part II – Sexuality and Subversion in China

Chinese blogger Mu Mu, from a May 2006 post to her blog

Chinese blogger Mu Mu, from a May 2006 post to her blog

Decisions about when and what to censor can rest on multiple different criteria such as the reputation of the author and the relative visibility of the offending thought – an op ed piece in a major newspaper will be read by more people than if it were in a fringe publication, and as such may be subject to more stringent regulation. But the primary criteria in deciding when and what to censor is (obviously) the overall content of the idea. And as is exemplified by official censorship in China, some topics stand a greater chance of being censored than others.

DeWoskin, who I cited in part one of this article, notes that political commentary will raise the ire of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) censors immediately, whereas personal, social or sexual content is much more of a gray area. She writes (p. 31) that

It was as if an unspoken compact had been reached between the government and its citizens: we do politics the old way; you do your lifestyles anyway you want.

A Chinese friend of mine in Seattle echoed this thought regarding internet content specifically: an Internet search for “democracy,” “Tiannamen Square,” or “Dali Lama” will return censored results, but a blogger like Mu Mu, about whom we were talking, could get away with posting sexual content about herself.

Mu Mu first appeared on the radar screens of Western media outlets in late 2005, when Howard W. French wrote his article A Party Girl Leads China’s Online Revolution. French introduces Mu Mu as a fascinating mixture of sexuality and political commentary:

On her fourth day of keeping a Web log, she introduced herself to the world with these striking words: “I am a dance girl, and I am a party member.”

“I don’t know if I can be counted as a successful Web cam dance girl,” that early post continued. “But I’m sure that looking around the world, if I am not the one with the highest diploma, I am definitely the dance babe who reads the most and thinks the deepest, and I’m most likely the only party member among them.”

Thus was born, early in July, what many regard as China’s most popular blog.

Sometimes timing is everything, and such was the case with the anonymous blogger, a self-described Communist Party member from Shanghai who goes by the pseudonym Mu Mu.

A 25-year-old, Mu Mu appears online… most evenings around midnight, shielding her face while striking poses that are provocative, but never sexually explicit.

She parries questions from some of her tens of thousands of avid followers with witticisms and cool charm.

Mu Mu has changed a bit since French introduced her. After French wrote his article her blog attracted a large amount of media attention from the West, causing her to shut the original version of it down. If you follow the link French provides, you receive the following error message, saying (in Chinese) that the page no longer exists. Mu Mu started blogging again after the media attention subsided a bit, and her blog has since been through two other incarnations: this one here, and the current version, which exists on two different sites here and here. She has also refrained from posting any semi-nude photos of herself recently, although she is still willing to post provocative photos, such as the depictions of Japanese soldiers in the following post, which I presume deals with perpetually strained Sino-Japanese relations. (If any SIG-III Blog readers speak Chinese and would be willing to confirm or correct this presumption, I would appreciate hearing your interpretation).

Mu Mu also said she “finds it hard to comprehend why her blog is so enticing to westerners,” according to Dave Lucas. Lucas has published an English translation of Mu Mu’s reaction to French’s article. In this reaction Mu Mu uses the Google translator to engage French in a discussion, in which (if I read the Googleified translation right) she says she is glad she is living at a time when China is increasingly socially liberal, points to the challenges of separating one’s personal life from one’s public life (which is why she chose to mix the two in her blog), and reaffirms her belief in the CCP.

Mu Mu is an example of a huge challenge for Chinese censors. Politically she claims to be on their side, but then she writes about being a party girl and partaking in a Westernized liberal lifestyle (and as I discuss below, the contention that Chinese censors only go after political discussion and generally leave social and sexual topics alone does not always prove accurate). From researching her, my impression is that she is very adept at being edgy bout not too edgy as to be shut down by Party censors. Her popularity in the Chinese blogosphere adds to the challenge. With a large following, her sudden absence at the hands of Party Censors would cause a considerable stir around the Chinese blogosphere. But the attention she received from Western media in late 2005 and 2006 threatened to create a politicized crisis between official censors and Western media outlets over freedom of speech issues. I believe this potential political situation is what cause Mu Mu to shut her original blog down as an act of self-censorship and only later begin blogging again when the attention from the West had subsided.

Do Party censors really overlook all this sexuality in China’s Internet sphere?

The short answer is no, although it remains true that the severity of any reaction by official censors varies widely. Simply put, these censors are far less equipped to comprehend and deal with censoring social topics such as sex than they are political topics such as democracy.

But there is evidence of CCP attempts to regulate online sexuality in China. Perhaps the most visible example is the CCP blocking the Japanese portal of Baidu.com, noted in these two reports. (Baidu, whose name is taken from a poem from the Song Dynasty, is not a well known company outside of China, but inside China it is fighting a gargantuan three-way battle with Google and Yahoo. And Baidu is winning – see reports here and here).

Chinese blogger Mu Zimei

Chinese blogger Mu Zimei, reproduced in a report by Jeremy Goldkorn on a Sohu.com story about Mu

In the Chinese blogosphere, Mu Mu isn’t the only blogger blogging about sexuality in China. At the end of 2003 another young woman named Muzi Mei (Or Mu Zimei, Mu Zi Mei, or木子美) received a lot of media attention around the world for blogging the stories of her sexual encounters.

Hannah Beech of Time Magazine writes that

Li Li… isn’t averse to kissing and telling. For the past couple of years, Li has kept a blog–written under the pen name Muzi Mei–that has chronicled everything from her penchant for orgies and Internet dating to her skepticism toward marriage when it means staying faithful to one man… “I express my freedom through sex,” says Li, unapologetically. “It’s my life, and I can do what I want.”

Her blog has been translated into French and German (and she reports an English translation of some of her work, although I was unable to find her on Amazon in English).

She has had less success dealing with official censors than Mu Mu. While her blog was popular enough to give censors a daunting challenge in trying to counter the viral spread of her posts around the Internet, it now seems to be defunct. In the Time article linked above, Beech writes that

Despite government attempts to censor it, the sex diary is so popular that Li’s pen name is intermittently the most searched keyword on China’s top search engine.

An article by Hamish McDonald in the Sydney Morning Herald went even further, saying the rise of blogs exchanging views on Chinese politics is a direct descendant of blogs that deal with social issues in China. At one point McDonald essentially says that Mu Mu, with her mix of sexuality and politics, could never have existed without Muzi Mei having blogged about sexuality alone.

Muzi Mei was certainly aware of the censorship threat she faced, and took precautions to prevent her blog from being shut down. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Peter Goff says

For now, Muzimei is among those managing to sidestep [CCP censorship]. “I cannot go too far,” she said. “If my work was stopped that would be bad for me, bad for the development of the internet and free expression, and bad for China.”

Nonetheless she ran afoul of official censors. As Jeremy Goldkorn reports on Danwei.org,

Her online diary stirred up an online fuss which got the attention of the print media, but she was thrown off the gossip pages of the tabloids when [official censors] caught on to the action and issued some of ban on media coverage of her. She has been absent from the media since the first few months of this year [2004].

Goldkorn goes on to quote a 2004 story posted to Sohu.com that painted a very unflattering picture of her:

Muzi Mei, Li Li … she dresses gaudily, but even more gaudy is her thinking and her behavior. She frequently changes sexual partners and even brazenly describes the details of her encounters on the Internet, revealing or hinting at the real identity of the men she has known. All of this caused a great fuss in Chinese society in 2003.

The censoring of her blog may be permanent now. Whether it was a voluntary choice on her part or the result of official censorship, Muzi Mei’s blog seems to have disappeared. The last version of her blog cached on the Internet Archive was in January of 2007.

Mu Mu and Muzi Mei are just two prominent examples of a small but well known (to Chinese audiences at least) bloggers who have used the blogosphere to explore the nexus between sex, storytelling/information sharing, and Internet technology, all at the risk of being censored. Other examples come from a Cai Shangyao article in the Shanghai Star that covers Muzi Mei and Zhuying Qingtong, and Sister Lotus (also translated as Sister Hibiscus — now defunct blog here, reports here, here, here, and here). There is also the slightly different but related episode of a blogger named Hedgehog MuMu (no relation to the Mu Mu discussed above, according to Lonnie Hodge) participating in a blogger beauty contest only to be disqualified for posting nude photos of herself online. (Additional reports here and here).

That every one of these bloggers should face censorship for posting sexual content online demonstrates that Chinese censors can and will censor social as well as political content. Some astute readers may further assert that the political, social, and sexual spheres cannot be discretely separated from each other, and that posting sexual content online can be a form of political commentary. This is certainly true, and I do not at all seek to imply otherwise. This issue is, however, complex enough that it merits a full discussion that I will leave for another time. Beyond that I have additional thoughts that I will put into part III of this essay, which I will add soon. And as always, I appreciate and look forward to reading your reactions to my thoughts.

Work cited:

DeWoskin, R. (2005). Foreign Babes in Beijing: Behind the Scenes of a New China. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Ltd.

Posted by Aaron Bowen

Written by sigiii

October 2, 2007 at 1:58 am

Sex, Blogs, and the Great Firewall Part I – Censorship

China has 162 million Internet subscribers – 12.3% of the total population of China, but over 50% of the total population of the U.S. And as Internet connectivity and use in China is growing, so too is China’s influence over the Internet. The Associated Press reports that the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers is working on incorporating characters from non-romanized alphabets into web addresses, albeit while facing big challenges over how to do this. Concerning the prospect of Chinese in these addresses, John Yunker’s article Slouching Toward Multilingual .com originally ran under the title “Slouching Toward .公司 (.com),” using the Mandarin Chinese characters for .com. And concerning the overall influence of different languages on the Internet, Daniel Altman of the International Herald Tribune raises the prospect that Mandarin Chinese might someday overtake English as the language most widely spoken on the Internet. While Altman is dubious about this prospect, the prospect he raises of Chinese dominance over the Internet is a prospect generating a lot of discussion around the world.

All this is occurring with the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, heavily involved with an Internet Censorship campaign. This censorship campaign has taken on multiple different forms and been applied with varying degrees of consistency and varying degrees of effectiveness by the Chinese government. I will get to a discussion of censorship in China in a moment, but first I should say a word about what censorship is and is not.

So what does the slippery concept of censorship entail?

One of the best thoughts I have encountered regarding censorship emerged during last year’s Global Plaza. Responding to a First Monday article that I posted to the Blog, a student wrote that the article

…clearly shows that a society cannot exist without some sort of censorship. The government tries to enforce censorship of actions or content that majority finds harmful or offensive. Basically, we expect government to do something about child pornography or terrorist training sites and don’t usually view it unfair censorship.

This thought points to a continuum of different levels of acceptability of censoring people’s thought or expression depending upon what that thought or expression is. While many people (not all, but many) in liberal Western societies find it socially desirable to censor child porn or terrorist training sites, they will have a different standard of acceptability for censoring the free exchange of ideas. And there are many levels of acceptability of censorship in between these two situations, along with ongoing debate about what should or should not be censored at these different levels. Furthermore there are the questions of who is and who should be able to make such a decision – be it the group of “many people” I list above, or official government censors. Last but not least questions of culture come into play. What is socially or culturally taboo in one region may be acceptable in another region. While citizens of liberal Western societies may find it socially desirable to censor one type of idea, citizens of another form of society may object to the censorship of the same idea. And given the borderless nature of the Internet, different cultures will come in contact online, in some cases prompting national governments to try to erect an artificial national cyber barrier to ideas or websites they find subversive.

In addition to this continuum, there are different forms of censorship. Many voices discussing censorship in China are (correctly) discussing CCP censorship. These discussions concern (for example) jailed bloggers such as Wang Xiaoning, and the heavy handed “challenge the Party and you will be punished” approach to censorship. Less attention is paid to the closely related and comparatively lighter handed concept of propaganda. Instead of using threats or force to ensure conformity, government censors will use Internet portals such as Sina or Sohu to post pro-Party reactions to ideas they consider subversive in an attempt to sway public opinion to favor the official view over the subversive view.

In her book Foreign Babes in Beijing, Rachel DeWoskin writes that xuanchan, the Chinese word for propaganda, does not carry with it the negative stigma of its English equivalent. It is merely the word for “official” information or views of events. Reactions to such an official view expressed through propaganda can range from agreement to disagreement, whereas people in the U.S. and other western countries typically display aversion to the whole concept of propaganda.

In an article with the somewhat Orwellian title As Chinese Students Go Online, Little Sister Is Watching, Howard W. French describes Hu Yingying, an undergraduate who follows the life of a typical Chinese undergraduate – except that for several hours per week unbeknownst to her classmates she acts as a censor of her university’s Internet forums. As French says,

Part traffic cop, part informer, part discussion moderator — and all without the knowledge of her fellow students — Ms. Hu is a small part of a huge national effort to sanitize the Internet. For years China has had its Internet police, reportedly as many as 50,000 state agents who troll online, blocking Web sites, erasing commentary and arresting people for what is deemed anti-Communist Party or antisocial speech.

But Ms. Hu, one of 500 students at her university’s newly bolstered, student-run Internet monitoring group, is a cog in a different kind of force, an ostensibly all-volunteer one that the CCP is mobilizing to help it manage the monumental task of censoring the Web.

Instead of relying on the force of authority alone, Hu tries if possible to steer conversations on these forums to a more pro-Party viewpoint, and only alert the school’s webmaster for the worst departures from an official view. French writes that Hu,

says she and her fellow moderators try to steer what they consider negative conversations in a positive direction with well-placed comments of their own. Anything they deem offensive, she says, they report to the school’s Web master for deletion.

French does not mention any disciplinary action taken against a student who posts something that is later deleted, only that the post is deleted.

(Two side notes: First, I would be remiss if I neglected to mention self-censorship – the practice of voluntarily censoring one’s thoughts on a topic in order to avoid repercussion or to conform to a societal standard. And certainly this happens in China. But while some will censor themselves, others will not, thus furthering, rightly or wrongly, a role for CCP censors. Second, I am not suggesting that surveillance occurs only in China. A similar situation occurred at my undergraduate school in Ohio in the mid-1970s – before the Internet, and more specifically, before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, which stipulates that the U.S. Government must obtain a warrant in order to monitor a person’s phone conversations. At the end of the Vietnam War, before FISA was enacted, residence halls at my school were not equipped with a telephone in each room. Rather they had one phone per floor in the hall. A CIA wiretap was found in the phone that one floor of one of the residence halls shared. No school administrator ever learned who installed this wiretap, but there is some speculation that one of the students was doubling as a CIA operative).

There is a kind of middle ground between censorship and propaganda that the CCP uses too – “friendly” reminders not to engage in subversive behavior online. Such reminders are best exemplified by two cartoon cybercops (one of which is below) that have recently begun appearing on Chinese websites.

Chinese cartoon cybercop

Quoting the China Daily news service, the BBC reports that

The animated figures, a man and a woman, will appear on users’ screens every 30 minutes “to remind them of internet security”, China Daily said…

They would “be on watch for websites that incite secession, promote superstition, gambling and fraud”, the China Daily said, citing Beijing’s Municipal Public Security Bureau.

How effective they are or are not remains to be seen, as do people’s reactions to them. And as with the cybercops, the effectiveness of the Chinese government’s Internet censorship program as a whole, as well as the reactions of Chinese citizens to it merit discussion.

Is the CCP effective in censoring the Internet? And what do people in China think about official censorship?

I first wrote about Internet censorship in China here. In this article I noted that, even into the early 2000s, the Chinese Communist Party had met with solid success in censoring the Internet. I pointed to Tamara Renee Shie’s 2004 article in the Journal of Contemporary China called “The Tangled Web” and Tom Zeller Jr’s observation that the Communist Party “created a multilayered regime of filtering and surveillance, vague legal regulations and stringent enforcement that, taken together, effectively neutralized the Internet in China” as evidence of the Party’s success in controlling online information. But then I added that

Change is happening despite the CCP’s efforts at control, and it is proving a powerful force in terms of everyday life in Chinese society and in terms of online commentary specifically… things will only get harder for the CCP as the Internet and the blogosphere continue to expand. Ultimately the CCP must adapt to the current realities of Internet use in China (which may prove to be too much of a challenge for them) or see their control over information wane, perhaps to the point that they will no longer be able to govern China.

Howard W. French offered a similar observation here. And although I was writing in early 2006, the tension between Party control and freedom on online information is still the same fundamental tension.

The CCP is aware of the increasingly complex challenges of maintaining control over online information. In addition to their efforts at technological control, they have reached into their own Confucian and Maoist cultural heritage to promote an ideology of following Party rule. I wrote about efforts at ideological control in the comments to a post from last year’s Plaza:

This New York Times article by Jim Yardley describes an effort by the Chinese Communist Party earlier this year to reinstill a Confucian respect for order and official authority, under the premise that doing so will allow the party to remain a modern and vital element of life in China. Revolving around many hours spent reviewing the works of Chairman Mao and Deng Xiaoping, Yardley quotes Wenran Jiang of the China Institute at the University of Alberta as saying that the Party’s effort “is an effort to cope with the declining reputation of the party and the distrust of the people toward party officials.” That Professor Jiang saw fit to bring the issue of trust into this push for order underscores the position in which the Communist Party currently finds itself, and its desire to reinstill a sense of trust for its authority among the Chinese people.

However a push towards conformity like this represents a huge challenge for the CCP – some Chinese citizens will treat a push like this with disdain. It is in the blog comment above that I wrote about the question of the reactions of ordinary Chinese citizens to censorship. Professing disagreement with the reasoning of CCP censors in this BBC article, I “began to wonder if Chinese Internet users would react the same way, or if my reaction was borne of my own Western view of a free Internet.” I found both Chinese voices dissenting against censorship and expressing support for it. Concerning the dissenters, I wrote

Hundreds if not thousands of Western media outlets have chronicled official censorship in China, and many Chinese bloggers take the same view, as this BBC article suggests. Not trusting the official media to report a broad range of news events, nor to report them fairly or accurately when they do, the journalists, editors, and ordinary citizens noted in this article support freedom of expression in the Chinese media.

Concerning Chinese voices in support or partial support of censorship, I wrote

But there are Chinese voices that explicitly place their trust in the official media to present trustworthy information. I think in particular of a Chinese classmate who, when asked what she thought of Party censorship, responded that she saw solid arguments both for and against state control of media.

Concluding that “Some favor independent media sources competing and collaborating with each other, similar to Western media sources and blogs [and] others prefer to place their trust in official party pronouncements,” I now find my thoughts similar to DeWoskin’s observation about propaganda above. As with propaganda, there exist among Chinese netizens both a view that CCP censorship is something to be quashed as quickly as possible, and a view that CCP efforts at censorship are merely efforts to promote their official version of events. And the tension between these two viewpoints continues to be discussed in different segments of the blogosphere in China (unless it gets censored) and around the world. This tension frequently centers on a sensitive topic, and can be heightened even further when there exist different ideas about what subjects are illicit, should be illicit, and should be discussed even when others consider them illicit. If a new idea (particularly a more liberal idea of what should or should not be restricted) is imported into a culture from another society or country, the tension over censorship can become explosive. And the topic of my next post – Sex, Blogs, and the Great Firewall Part II: Sexuality and Subversion in China – is a tension that has become explosive and will only continue to challenge CCP censors in the years to come.

(The NY times requires a login to read their articles online. Creating a login and password for the NY Times is free and may be done here).

Works cited:

DeWoskin, R. (2005). Foreign Babes in Beijing: Behind the Scenes of a New China. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Ltd.

Shie, T.R. (2004, August). The Tangled Web: does the Internet offer promise or peril for the Chinese Communist Party? Journal of Contemporary China, v. 13: 40.

Posted by Aaron Bowen

Written by sigiii

October 1, 2007 at 1:34 am

Government censorship

Should a government be allowed to (try to) censor information that its citizens receive? Are there circumstances under which this practice should be considered explicitly acceptable or explicitly unacceptable?

Written by sigiii

August 21, 2006 at 2:26 am