Information Warfare: Chinese Internet Police Have A New Weapon


June 3, 2012: For several years now the Chinese government has been trying to control the flow of information, especially stuff embarrassing to the government, on the Internet. The latest effort involves a system of warnings (sort of like "points" for traffic violations) to those caught using forbidden words, terms, or suspected code words in their Internet communications. Anyone who gets fined more than 100 points gets visited by the police and risks jail, or worse. This is meant to scare Internet users into submission because the police don't have enough space in jails or work camps for the 10 million (or more) Chinese who regularly post messages. It is believed that by targeting the most active, and annoying (to the Internet police) regular posters, the rest can be scared into shutting up. The Chinese keep getting reminded that this is a very difficult task.

These efforts to control the Internet went into overdrive last March when a senior government official, who was also outspoken and popular with the military, was removed from office for corruption. The Chinese Internet immediately lit up with rumors and speculation about what would happen next. This speculation alarmed the government more than anything that was happening (not much, in fact). The government sought to shut down web sites (especially microbloggers, who substitute for Twitter, which is banned in China) and arrested a few people. This did not slow down the spread of rumor and criticism.

The government censors were caught short once more as microbloggers adopted code words to defeat the automatic filtering software the government used. As quickly as the government figured out the code, a new one was in use. It's not that the government didn't know about this, it was widely used in the 1990s, when most Chinese were texting (more than talking) on their cell phones. But no solution was ever found. While the government efforts can keep many Chinese in the dark, too many find out what is really going on. The government censors keep going back to the drawing board to try and come up with new solutions, like the lastest "points" one.

This latest battle with the censors saw the government falling back on traditional media. The official Chinese military newspaper, the Liberation Army Daily, openly warned troops to disregard Internet rumors about disloyalty in the military. All this was caused by popular politician Bo Xilai being removed from office for corruption. Bo Xilai was a rare official who preached a return to communist ideals, while also delivering better government in the southwestern city of Chongqing (population 28 million). What really brought Bo Xilai down was too much publicity and the fact that the majority of the Chinese leadership has accepted that communism in China is dead in fact, if not in fiction. Bo Xilai thought his well-publicized efforts to deliver more efficient government would start a nationwide movement to restore communism but it only united the national leadership against him. Bo Xilai was also corrupt and very self-serving but was seen as unstable and too ambitious.

Bo Xilai was popular in the military because he spoke out against the many corrupt officers in the military. This sort of thing has been going on in the Chinese military for thousands of years, despite many attempts to stamp out the stealing and favoritism. After Bo Xilai was removed on March 12th, rumors began appearing on the Internet. One of these rumors had mutinous troops marching on Beijing to overthrow the government. In response, more restrictions were placed on what could be said on the Chinese Internet. But the incident frightened many senior officials. What also frightens officials is how leftist politicians like Bo Xilai stir up enthusiasm for failed communist movements of the past, like the Maoist "social revolution" (which killed over 10 million Chinese and accomplished nothing positive). At the same time Chinese leaders do not hesitate to say, often and in public, that the biggest danger China faces is corrupt officials.

The number of Chinese Internet users grew by 12 percent last year to 513 million. Some 300 million also use micrblogs, mainly as readers, not posters. As the largest national Internet on the planet, China is trying to block out foreign news and activist sites and make the Chinese Internet largely separate from the rest of the world (except for trusted users). The government is also trying to control the flow of news between Chinese Internet users. The government has achieved partial success, which means the censors have failed. The most popular news is the stuff that makes the government look bad (usually for good reason). You can't stop the signal but the government keeps trying.




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