I visited China a few years back and was pleased that I could call a local AOL number to get online. The connection flickered weirdly before I received the normal “welcome” screen, but no matter. I was able to check and send email — no small accomplishment after being in transit for almost an entire day.
When I tried to get onto the web, however, nothing happened. Or, more precisely, I received the standard error message about not being able to connect. I tried another site and got the same message. I restarted AOL and had the same experience. I’d run into Great Firewall of China.
A couple times during the trip something went “wrong” and I ended up with a normal connection. Even though I was going to be home in a few days, I nevertheless felt strangely free. I could explore political, economic, and cultural worlds as I wanted, not as the ruling autocrats ensconced in Beijing thought I should.
I was back in China this summer and again a few weeks ago. This time my AOL connection failed. I could call the number, but never made it all the way through the necessary seven steps. However, every hotel had a LAN connection, so the worldwide web still beckoned.
With trepidation I prepared to jump from email to the web. Naturally, my first stop was TAS online. It came up. Amazing! Here was a site featuring Jed Babbin, someone known for predicting war — not just war, but untold horror and slaughter as a result of China’s machinations. Yet I could get everything he and everyone else was writing on the Spectator’s website.
The Washington Times came up as well as the New York Times. National Review Online as well as the Center for American Progress. I thought maybe freedom was coming to China after all.
Then I tried to make a blog entry. No go. I tried the second blog to which I contribute. Forget it. I tried going via the organization’s website. No luck.
I tried reconnecting. I tried in different cities. I tried at different times. Not a chance.
THE AVAILABILITY OF, but restrictions on, the Internet exhibit China’s challenge. The government wants the economy to grow. It recognizes the importance of easy access to information the world over to educate its population and for its people to discover, research, and develop new processes and technologies. If the People’s Republic of China wants to become a great power, it must partake of the information age.
On the other hand, information is power. And Beijing’s gerontocracy still zealously attempts to guard power.
Of course, the PRC falls short in a number of areas when it comes to human rights. Amnesty International has just released a new report, “People’s Republic of China: The Olympics Countdown—Failing to Keep Human Rights Promises.” Limiting Internet freedom is hardly Beijing’s worst offense.
Amnesty points to China’s prolific use of the death penalty. The organization opposes it in principle, but the PRC lacks a transparent, fair judicial process, and the government adds some uniquely communist twists, including harvesting organs for transplant.
There’s also a system of “Re-education through Labor,” as well as the “arbitrary detention, torture and harassment of human rights defenders,” reports AI. Although Amnesty doesn’t mention it, in July Beijing threatened another basic human right, putting out a directive proscribing “unhealthy” songs in karaoke bars. It has started requiring sing-along establishments to choose music from a central database. (The government did promise to pay royalties to copyright holders.)
The media is closely regulated as well. Explains Amnesty, “Over the last year the Chinese authorities have intensified their controls over media outlets, including newspapers, magazines and websites.”
The government has limited reporting on emergencies by both domestic and foreign media. New restrictions have been placed on the release of court information. Reporters in China and Hong Kong have been convicted of dubious charges for zealous reporting.
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