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China and the Digital Revolution

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Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 21, 2006; 11:00 AM

Washington Post staff writer Philip P. Pan , who is based in Beijing, was online Tuesday, Feb. 21, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the digital revolution's presence in China, the government's efforts to censor Internet content and the rise of blogging.

Read The Great Firewall of China : The Click That Broke a Government's Grip , ( Post, Feb. 19, 2006 )

Reference Tool On Web Finds Fans, Censors , ( Post, Feb. 20, 2006 )

Bloggers Who Pursue Change Confront Fear And Mistrust , ( Post, Feb. 21, 2006 )

The transcript follows.

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Phil Pan: Hello, everyone! Thanks for reading the stories and taking the time to join us today. I hope to answer as many of your questions as I can, but I'm on deadline tonight with a breaking story relevant to our discussion -- the Chinese government appears to be putting more pressure on Google -- so I won't be able to stay too long. Feel free to ask about that, and anything else related to the Great Firewall of China series. Thanks again, and let's get started.

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Cambridge, Mass.: How do all the journalists of foreign media use Internet in China? I mean how do they surf web freely in China while under China's Great Firewall? In China, how do they get information they want promptly via Internet?

Phil Pan: Since most of the Internet is not blocked, this is generally not a problem. But when it is, most of us visit blocked sites on the Internet the same way growing numbers of Chinese do -- by using special software that allows us to slip through the government's firewall. The process is getting easier and easier. See the short sidebar with today's story for information about two such programs.

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Durham, N.C.: Are there any known, verified cases of U.S. Internet firms (e.g. Google, Yahoo!, or Microsoft) providing the Chinese government with information that allowed it to arrest dissidents, based on opinions they have expressed on the Web?

Phil Pan: Hi Durham. There are at least three confirmed cases in which user information provided by Yahoo has been included as evidence to convict and imprison dissidents. Their names are Shi Tao, Li Zhi, and Jiang Lijun. The Shi Tao case is the most well-known because the police appear to have used the Yahoo data to track him down. In the other two cases, the data Yahoo was important but not critical evidence. If you want to learn more about the cases, there should be a lot of information about them on the Internet.

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Washington, D.C.: Dear Philip,

You have written a timely, well-research, and well-rounded series of articles on the Internet, politics, and U.S. Internet companies in China.

When I search Google.cn, it offers a greater variety of social and political sites than might be expected, and more than the Chinese search engine, Baidu.cn. Does it make any difference, in terms of the Chinese Internet Firewall, that I am searching from the U.S. rather than from within China? Does searching in English help one gain access to more sensitive sites than searching in Chinese? In China, can the act of just searching for sensitive Web sites get the Internet user in trouble? Finally, has Google's policy of telling users when sites have been blocked by authorities been put into effect?

Phil Pan: Hi there. I don't think it matters whether you are using Google.cn in China or the United States, but matters a great deal if you are searching in Chinese or English. With a few exceptions, almost all material in English on the Internet is accessible in China. The government seems to be focusing on material in Chinese.

I've never heard of anyone getting in trouble for the mere act of conducting a search.

And yes, Google's policy of informing users of Google.cn when material has been removed is in effect. I believe it's been in effect since the new service was launched.

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Fairfax, Va.: Have you ever thought of breaking the Chinese laws while you are there?

Thanks.

Phil Pan: Why would I do that?

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Beijing, China/Canadian citizen: Pornography:

Last year, in the China daily it claimed the government would completely eradicate pornography from the Internet. I viewed this as a means for the Chinese government to gain tighter control of the Internet.

Recently, through the use of the Patriot Act the American government has also claimed it will use the Internet search requests to fight child pornography.

My question is - both governments are censoring information - what differs between the two countries in 1. degree of censorship and 2. methods used?

Phil Pan: I'm not familiar with U.S. efforts to censor pornography on the Internet, but in China, they don't seem to be trying too hard to do it. The vast majority of the government's resources, time and effort is devoted to censoring political material. That is the main difference.

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Kumamoto, Japan: The stories which highlight the problems Chinese officials are having with the Internet are quite common, but I also get the impression that stories which have an anti-Chinese slant are often whipped up in order to bolster nationalistic impulses. (eg midáair collision near Hainan Island, the riot in 2003 over a Japanese exchange students skit in Xian, the April 2005 riots) Is it possible that the sort of 'Internet is creating a groundswell of popular feeling' reports mirror the Tiananmen reporting that gave the impression that popular sentiment could not be turned back and is overlooking the Chinese government's ability to harness nationalistic feeling to its own advantage?

Phil Pan: Interesting question. I think of the Internet as a battleground right now. The Chinese government is certainly trying use it to harness public opinion for its own purposes. And there's no shortage of nationalist sentiment on Chinese Web sites. But it's probably too early to say whether these efforts will succeed. Definitely something to keep watching, though.

For example, we know the government has hired writers to "guide public opinion" on the Internet by posting pro-Communist Party and nationalist comments. But the extent of these efforts, and their effectiveness, are unclear.

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Arlington, Va.: Don't the Chinese government's relatively ham-handed and ineffective attempts to control the Chinese people's efforts to exercise free speech over the Internet argue for U.S. government encouragement of unfettered access to the Chinese market by U.S. technology companies?

Phil Pan: That's a good argument. One problem is that U.S. technology companies do not have unfettered access to the Chinese market -- they face restrictions on the Chinese side. Another problem is that is very possible the Chinese government's attempts to regulate the Internet will continue to improve. And then there is the question of whether U.S. companies have an ethical responsibility to do more than they are. I encourage you to ask Rebecca MacKinnon in this afternoon's chat about this. She's spent a lot of time researching and studying the issue.

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New York, N.Y.: Aside from politics, what are popular blogging subjects in China?

Do you think that journalists who are censored in official media have discovered blogs as a way to get their stories out anyway as they seem to do in Iran?

Phil Pan: The blogs that get the most readers always seem to be about sex. Meizi's cooking blog was also very popular.

And yes, Chinese journalists whose articles are censored often do go and post them on the Internet. It's not a tactic without risks for them, though.

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Rochester, N.Y.: Did you see Nick Kristof's piece on technology companies and their role in China in the nytimes over the weekend?

Basically, he had harsh words for Yahoo (for turning over info on the reporters) but was more sympathetic towards Cisco (because hwawei sells similar stuff anyway), with Microsoft and Google in the middle.

Any thoughts?

Phil Pan: Ask Rebecca MacKinnon this afternoon. But Yahoo has become a target because it is the only U.S. firm that we know of whose actions have resulted in people going to jail here. That can be traced directly to Yahoo's decision to get into the China market early and host an e-mail service in China. Yahoo is now one of China's most popular Web sites. That success also makes it a target, because the critics say it ignored human rights considerations to win market share.

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Dalian, China: Will a famous press site, such as washingtonpost.com and nytimes.com be blocked?

Phil Pan: A question from Dalian! I've been in China five years and I've always wanted to visit Dalian but haven't had the chance.

Both the Washington Post and the New York Times used to be blocked in China. I don't see any reason why they couldn't be blocked again. But I think it wouldn't make much sense for the Chinese government to do so. It would give the government a bad image among foreigners, and achieve little since most Chinese don't read English-language news sites anyway.

On the other hand, the government does seem to do a lot of things along these lines that don't make much sense. It routinely blacks out transmissions of sensitive reports on CNN, for example, when most of the people watching CNN in China are foreigners.

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Houston, Tex.: Can a person in China participate this very discussion. Does the Chinese government monitor or block this kind of discussion?

Phil Pan: This discussion is not being blocked. There seem to be a lot of questions from China coming in.

Someone from the government might monitor it, but I'm sure U.S. diplomats monitor online discussions about the United States taking place in foreign media too. I welcome our Chinese monitors.

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Pasadena, Calif.: One week before Congress' congressional hearing on China's Internet censorship and the role of U.S. companies in aiding China to do this resulting in the arrest of dissidents, etc.

One week before this, Chinese government agents burglarized the Atlanta home of Yuan Li, beat him up and stole his computers because he was the Chief Technical Officer for The Epoch Times and probably because he was responsible for maintaining the Web site where over 8 million have quit and denounced the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The Web site is still up and running with more quitting everyday.

Phil Pan: Epoch Times is a news Web site run by the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which has waged an aggressive media campaign against the Communist Party. I heard about this incident, and I am very curious what exactly Yuan Li had on his computers that the Chinese agents -- if they were involved -- might want so badly.

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Xiamen, China: I heard on the radio, some people from the Eastern bloc were nostalgic of the Soviet era because they loved trying to search for the truth and discussing politics in small circles. In China there is nothing like that. It seems to me that people distrust official media but have no political culture of opposition. They don't try to get news or read between the lines of the official press, find sources of information they can trust and the like. Doesn't the presence of search engines like Yahoo and Google foster this kind of independent thinking and critical mind? Especially since there is lot of way to get around the censorship when you know the link but just can't access it directly. Democracy is not just a religion but a political culture!

Phil Pan: Very interesting points. I do think, though, that Chinese readers are much more savvy about reading between the lines than you give them credit for.

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Beijing, China: Hi Philip, what's your impression of how politically active the Chinese bloggers are? Aside from the few famous cases of bloggers being blocked in China, are there many others who are in the same situation? If most the Chinese bloggers are not very politically conscious or active, do you think they just don't care or it's a result of government suppression? (I know we are talking about generalization here.)

Phil Pan: This is a hard question. First of all, I have no numbers for you. I can only tell you my impression, and my impression is that bloggers who write about politics are a minority, but a vocal and increasingly influential minority. As Anti once told me, if no one is writing about politics, there is more opportunity for the few that do to attract an audience.

How many bloggers are getting blocked in China? On most sites, it is sort of a give-and-take process. The Web managers will usually remove a posting rather than a whole blog and negotiate with the blogger about what he can write, basically trying to persuade him to be more cautious and keep everyone out of trouble. Microsoft's MSN Spaces, however, will block an entire blog, but only when they receive a notice from the government. I think I've counted seven blogs that have been deleted or blocked by Microsoft for political content so far, including Anti's.

I should say that one of the political blogs that was blocked also had photos of nude women on it. So you can decide how to categorize that one.

Your last question is very hard to answer without generalizing. I would say first that most Chinese bloggers are from the class in Chinese society that has probably benefited most from the party's policies. I think most of them do not have strong political views either for or against the government. Or in your words, they don't care, at least for now. I would add, though, that yes, of course, government suppression has an impact on the vitality of political discussion in the Chinese blogosphere.

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Suzhou, PRC: I'm an American Expat residing here in China for nearly two years. It is increasingly apparent that most of the discontent for the CCP comes from the majority of the population who live in the underdeveloped and neglected interior. Recently however, the CCP has announced a "Go West" development strategy to mitigate growing income disparities, effectively by trying placate the populace with a largesse of investment deals which include telecom projects to fully integrate the west with broadband service. Is the government just paying lip service to these initiatives, and could laying the groundwork for a digital revolution in the west backfire by igniting a social one?

Phil Pan: Very interesting question! It is unclear to me how serious the government is about expanding Internet access to the undeveloped countryside. But you've put your finger on a real dilemma for the party. It needs to address the widening income gap between the hinterlands and the booming cities, because that's already a source of unrest. But to the extent that the Internet does become easier to access and use in these regions, the party could be handing those most disgruntled with its policies a powerful weapon.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Philip, Your reports about China's Internet censorship are very well done. When you do such kind of reporting, is it easy for you to interview related government officials, Internet companies, and those involved people? Do Chinese authorities interfere with your job? Are you trying to get responses from China's authorities toward your reports? What kind of difficulties have you encountered when you do your job?

Phil Pan: It is getting easier and easier to interview people in China. And people in the technology sector seem to be more open and open-minded than most.

On the other hand, it is still very hard to get interviews with government officials. I always try to get responses from them. They don't usually reply.

The authorities don't generally interfere with my job. But they will not hesitate to detain reporters to prevent them from conducting interviews they don't want you to be conducting. From my perspective, this is a ham-handed approach to media management and usually makes things worse for them.

The most difficult part of the job is weighing the risk to individuals who might get in trouble for talking to you. Last year, I wrote a piece about a blind farmer, Chen Guangcheng, who was leading a legal campaign against abuses of the one-child policy in the Linyi area of Shandong Province. The authorities detained him not long after the story came out, and they continue to hold him in his home, illegally as far as I can tell.

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Phil Pan: Okay, I'm going to answer one or two more, and then I have to go back to work. I apologize to everyone who didn't get their questions answered. I encourage you to join the discussion with Rebecca MacKinnon later this afternoon. She used to work for CNN in Beijing, so she's well versed about the China issues too.

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Detroit, Mich.: How does one get around the government's firewall? Recommend some software please. Thanks.

Phil Pan: Freegate and UltraSurf work well.

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Oxford, U.K.: If knowledge of how to bypass the government restrictions is available on sites like Wikipedia, how widespread is this knowledge? And second, is peer-to-peer communication such as IM or IRC as heavily filtered as are Internet search engines and message boards?

Phil Pan: I think most people who want to get past the restrictions can get past them. That's a change from five years ago.

I haven't seen any evidence of serious instant messaging filtering, though there are reports that QQ, the top Chinese instant-messaging program, has that capability. I've tested it though and only a few words related to Falun Gong couldn't get through.

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Washington, D.C.: Outside of censorship, what steps are the Chinese government taking to shape public opinion on the Internet?

Phil Pan: In addition to the paid Internet commentators that I mentioned earlier, they flood the Web with stories produced by the official media. It's unclear how effective this is. A lot of it is so irrelevant to people's lives.

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Columbus, Ohio: I have always felt that as China began experiencing the advantages and rewards of a more capitalist economy, the people would inevitably demand more personal liberty. Do you think over time (maybe 5-10 years) China will have to loosen its web censorship?

Phil Pan: Yes, but it might not go as smoothly as we hope. Some people with vested interests in the political system will definitely resist. But the costs of censoring the Internet are only going to rise.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: I like the article. One thing puzzled me is that it seems Li Datong does not care about his boss at all. Does he personally worry about his job? Or he has a lifetime job guarantee just like professors in U.S. colleges?

Phil Pan: Li, the main character in the first piece in the series, does not have anything close to a lifetime job guarantee. The party could easily fire him. He just seems to believe that this is something worth risking his job for.

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Phil Pan: Ok, thanks for an interesting discussion, everyone. Hope you'll keep reading about China in the Washington Post.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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