Cracking the 'Great Firewall' of China's Web censorship

If an Internet user in China searches for the word "persecution," he or she is likely to come up with a link to a blank screen that says "page cannot be displayed."

The same is true of searches for "Tibetan independence," "democracy movements" or stranger sounding terms such as "oriental red space time" — code for an anti-censorship video made secretly by reporters at China's state TV station.

It's a reflection of the stifling, bizarre and sometimes dangerous world of Internet censorship in China. The communist government in Beijing is intensifying its efforts to control what its citizens can read and discuss online as political tensions rise ahead of this summer's Olympic Games.

Fighting the censors every step of the way is an army of self-described "hacktivists" such as Bill Xia, a Chinese-born software engineer who lives in North Carolina. Xia and others are engaged in a kind of technological arms race, inventing software and using other tactics to allow ordinary Chinese to beat the "Great Firewall of China" and access information on sensitive subjects such as Chinese human rights and Tibet, the province where pro-independence sentiment has boiled over in recent months.

Invoking the hit science-fiction movie The Matrix, Xia has compared what he does to giving Chinese Web surfers a "red pill" that lets them see reality for the first time. He spends long nights struggling to outfox an opponent — the Chinese government — that is arguably the world's best at controlling what its people see.

"They are very smart," Xia says. "We have to move very quickly."

To Americans and other Westerners, it might seem odd that Internet censorship is still possible at a time when YouTube, satellite TV and online chat rooms produce an overwhelming flow of real-time news and data. Yet authoritarian regimes from Cuba to Saudi Arabia to Pakistan rely on a mix of sophisticated technology and old-fashioned intimidation to ensure that dissent can be repressed, even in the Information Age.

No one does it quite like China, which has proved that old-school communist apparatchiks could tame something as wild as the Web. China has the world's "most sophisticated" Internet filtering system, according to the OpenNet Initiative, an academic cooperative that tracks censorship issues.

At the heart of China's censorship efforts is a delicate balancing act.

Unlike communist North Korea, which bans online access to its general population, China is encouraging Internet usage as it rushes to construct a modern economy. This year, the number of Internet users in China surpassed the USA for the first time, hitting 233 million by the end of March. However, China's government does not tolerate opposition and is wary of the variety of views and information the Web brings.

Last month's pro-independence riots in Tibet, and the accompanying furor that followed the international relay of the Olympic torch, have led Chinese officials to step up their Web censorship. News articles and video clips concerning Tibet were banned for several days. Xia expects the censorship will tighten further in the coming months because "many human rights organizations will be trying to get their voices heard" during the Olympic Games.

"There will be lots of news out there," says Xia, who admits he had little interest in politics until the Chinese government banned the spiritual group Falun Gong in 1999 and started persecuting its members. Xia is a member of the group.

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