Even a censored Internet has opened up a world for Chinese users

By Steven Mufson
Thursday, January 21, 2010; A12

BEIJING -- One of China's most popular bloggers, Han Han, posted a satirical essay this week in which he imagined headlines about China's censored Internet in a post-Google era:

In 2011, Google, Facebook and YouTube announce their return to the Chinese market -- but the news is censored, so no one finds out. The government allocates 100 billion yuan as part of an economic stimulus package to hire people to post Internet comments; it sets a target of 100 billion positive posts. After a few years, e-mail disappears and 5 million Internet-related jobs are lost, but the revived postal service hires 100,000 workers. The People's Daily writes: "One industry was sacrificed in return for the stability of the nation, but it was worthwhile."

To the Chinese government, however, the future of the Internet and the recent decision by Google to stop censoring its search engine here, even if it means pulling out of this populous country, are no laughing matter. Even though Han Han -- high school dropout, successful novelist and race-car driver -- is wildly popular, his post was quickly removed.

The government's efforts to control and limit what Chinese citizens can read online aren't likely to end, no matter what Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton says in a speech she is expected to deliver in Washington on Thursday about the Internet. Clinton is expected to propose ways to help citizens of countries such as China and Iran gain greater access to information.

Many Chinese are still hoping that Google and China's government avert a showdown. But Google appears pessimistic. This week it delayed the introduction of two mobile phones in the country.

Yet people here say that even a circumscribed Chinese Internet has had a liberating effect on many citizens such as Han Han and his readers -- who number in the millions. That's likely to continue both as a result of popular techniques for circumventing what's known as the Great Firewall of China and because of the big following bloggers have.

The advertising and research firm Ogilvy China estimated last year that 47 million bloggers existed by the end of 2007 and that the number was rising by 25 percent a year. Han Han and actress-model Xu Jinglei collected 300 million hits in less than three years.

"When traditional media dominated the public opinion arena, Chinese citizens had trouble finding ways to express their ideas or views on various social issues that might involve their own interests," said Hu Yong, an associate professor at Beijing University's School of Journalism and Communication. "But with the advent of the Internet, Chinese netizens found outlets of expression."

To be sure, not everyone has been left to enjoy such freedoms. In December, a Chinese judge sentenced the dissident literary critic Liu Xiaobo to 11 years in prison for his writing and for his role in a pro-democracy petition called Charter 08, which sought to rally support for political reform.

Liu appears to have crossed a line. The Chinese government prohibits people from forming their own organizations. It has tolerated greater freedom in blogs, music clubs, art galleries and day-to-day private conversations as long as they stay largely private and do not directly challenge the Chinese Communist Party's monopoly on political power.

But the Internet has blurred the lines between private and public, and bloggers can rally followers without forming organizations in the offline world. "Discussions can influence some public policies," Hu said. "Moreover, the Internet in China has played a role of watchdog that can't be carried out by traditional media."

Much of that has little to do with Google, but many analysts credit Google with contributing to greater knowledge and awareness among its users, even though its Chinese-based search engine has been complying with government requirements to delete sensitive information.

"Google brought a lot more transparency to this market just being here for four years," said Anne Stevenson-Yang, director of Asia research at Wedge MKI, an international equity analysis firm. "They were the first ones to put a notice on their search engine saying results were not allowed to be shown."

Although Google said last week that it would stop censoring its site, little appears to have changed.

A search Wednesday for the word "Dharamsala," headquarters of the exiled Dalai Lama, returned 9.48 million results on Google's Chinese search engine. The first item was Google images, featuring a photo of the Dalai Lama. The second was a blog about one person's experience in Dharamsala. The third and the fourth were news items by mainland Chinese outlets. The fifth was a Wikipedia entry.

However, some of the other items included bulletin board postings by people supporting exiled Tibetans and items from overseas Tibetan organizations, such as the Tibetan Post. Those links could not be opened. At the bottom of the Google page, a note said: "In accordance with local laws and regulations, some of the search results cannot be shown."

On the dominant Chinese search engine, Baidu, there were 119,000 results. The first item was "Dalai Group and Dharamsala," an article from the Guangming Daily, a Chinese mainland publication. The second was a Baidu photo. The third was kung-fu fiction. Most other results were news items from official media.

Hu, of Beijing University, said Google had had "huge influence" by "providing good tools for a wide number of users."

But he cautioned that bringing about political change is not an easy project: "The Internet is pushing Chinese society forward in the right direction. But it is hard to predict how long that will be."

Researchers Wang Juan and Zhang Mei contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company