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Why China's Leaders Need to Worry About Recent Events in Iran: Twitter

Why China's Leaders Need to Worry About Recent Events in Iran: Twitter
Trumps the Great Firewall

Read More: Censorship, China, China Human Rights, China Tibet, Chinese
Censorship, Iran Election, Iran Protests, Iranian Election, World News

As Iran has its Tianenman moment, no other government is watching
events there with more anxiety than China--and with good reason. Both
Iran and China are modernizing autocracies committed by a combination
of ideology and fear to maintaining control over their peoples' access
to information. And, to a remarkable degree, they have been successful
in doing so.

Until now.

Iran's lesson for China's leaders is that the technologies of
censorship, despite their increasing sophistication, may not be
sufficient to prevent determined citizens from using technologies of
communication to organize dissent and political opposition on a mass
scale. Twitter trumps China's "Great Firewall." For the elites in
China's national government, this development must be highly

China has embraced the internet as essential to the country's rapid
economic development. With nearly 300 million persons connected to the
web, China has already surpassed the United States as the world's
biggest internet market. But China has gambled that it can have it
both ways: it can achieve the high growth rates that a wired economy
makes possible, and it can do so without putting at risk the
government's monopoly on political power.

Despite the conventional wisdom that the internet is beyond the
control of any government, China's leaders have placed their faith in
technology to maintain their power and to protect against the
democratizing "excesses" of the internet. The technology of censorship
has included the ability to:

* Block access to foreign websites containing content deemed objectionable;

* Monitor domestic websites, search engines, blogs and social
networks, and to coerce them into submission to self-censorship

* Engage in wholesale eavesdropping on data communications (email,
phone, Skype calls, text, etc.) for hints of views deemed subversive.

By design, this system of censorship is imperfect. Chinese citizens
who speak foreign languages, and those who go to the trouble to use
proxy servers and other devices for bypassing the government firewall,
are connected to the outside world via the internet (albeit at
sometimes painfully slow speeds). But this is a very small number,
relatively speaking. China's censorship strategy focuses, rather, on
channels of communication--among its citizens and between them and the
outside world--that pose a threat of dissent going "viral."

China understands the potentially awesome power of an amateur
video depicting a lone student standing his ground against a tank, or
the beating of a Tibetan monk, or the violent suppression of peaceful
protesters by police. It is for this reason that access to YouTube is
subject to frequent blocking in China, as are Flickr, Hotmail,
Blogspot, Live, Wordpress and social networking sites, among many
others both inside and outside the firewall.

The experience of Iran, which employs censoring technologies very
similar to China's, is that, in times of domestic crisis, these
technologies may not work as advertised. Twitter and Facebook, which
many users in Iran access by cell phone over communications pathways
different than the internet, managed to escape early efforts by
Iranian authorities to shut down access. Words and images on these
services galvanized opposition, served as communication tools for
organizing the expanding street protests, and provided a window
through which the outside world could witness the crackdown.

Chinese authorities should be worried about their own vulnerability.
Although they will diagnose and fix the glitches that allowed Twitter
and Facebook to escape blocking by Iranian censors, there will be
other glitches, different and unpredictable glitches, in the event of
popular unrest in China. And even a small glitch will be exploited by
legions of hackers and cybersleuths, both in China and in western
countries, determined to circumvent the firewall for millions of
Chinese citizens.

This is the necessary context for viewing China's recent, and rather
bizarre, directive to computer manufacturers, issued without notice or
consideration of alternatives, mandating installation of
government-approved anti-pornography software on all new PCs sold in
China. The mandated software (the "Green Dam," produced by a Chinese
company), which can be adapted to screen out officially disapproved
ideas as well as X-rated images, is a new instrument of control in
China's ever-expanding system of censorship. In addition to
restricting the internet sites that its citizens may see, China can
use the Green Dam software to control the computers with which its
people view the internet.

Although the software project was presumably in the works before the
disputed election in Iran, the urgency surrounding the directive
(which applies to all PCs sold in China after July 1) and the
government's inflexibility (refusing to allow the use of alternate
programs that cause fewer technical problems while meeting the
government's pornography-screening specifications) can best be
explained by China's anxiety over events in Iran.

China's leaders should worry about the limits on their capacity to
preempt challenges to the government's control of political power.
Censorship technology will not insulate the current regime from
demands for change. In the end, China must transition--peacefully, one
hopes--to a world in which its people are given a choice about how to
be governed, and by whom.
Peter Scheer is executive director of the California First Amendment
Coalition (CFAC), which has petitioned the office of the US Trade
Representative in Washington, DC, to challenge China's internet
censorship before the WTO. CFAC contends China's censorship system is
an unlawful trade barrier.



LauraB's picture

informative post

As the world is swept with rapid changes in technology, censorship clenches Iran and China- great to educate our
members about the Green Dam software.

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