Interview: Inside a censored China

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Interview: Inside a censored China

Chinese academic Kaiser Kuo says some censorship can be justified.

Beijing-based academic Kaiser Kuo will bravely step into a local political storm in a series of televised debates this week as one of the few voices arguing that some forms of internet censorship can be justified.

His billing on Q&A tonight, at the Intelligence Squared debate at Sydney's City Recital Hall tomorrow night and the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne on Thursday presents an opportunity to understand internet censorship from a very different world-view to our own.

Speaking to iTnews from his Sydney hotel room today, Kuo joked that he was asked to come to Australia because the St James Ethics Centre - which runs the Sydney event -  "struggled to locate anyone willing to back such an unpopular position" - that censorship can be justified.

But those expecting Kuo to argue censorship is routinely justified will be disappointed. Kuo, a consultant for Chinese video site Youku.com and a political science graduate from Berkeley, would feel more comfortable on the other side of the debate.

"In most cases, I am opposed to internet censorship," he said. "It is rarely used judiciously.

"I just need to help people understand that this isn't a black and white issue, there are many shades of grey."

Kuo argues that his home country of China has a "draconian sense of censorship.

"I have severe objections to the way it's done in China," he said. "It is entirely un-transparent and arbitrary. It is done using blunt instruments, and there are unintended casualties when they swing those blunt instruments about.

"But even in China, occasionally there are instances where lives are actually saved by internet censorship. It's rare, but it happens."

Life-saving censorship?

Kuo takes us back to July 5th, 2009, when the Chinese Government locked down the whole of the Xinjiang province in response to ethnic violence in its capital, Urimqi. In this case, a larger number of Han Chinese - the nation's predominate ethnicity - were killed in clashes with a minority group, the Uighurs.

"The security bureaucracy agreed very quickly to enact an internet blackout," Kuo said. "There were genuine fears of recriminations against the Muslim Uighur minority throughout China. Han Chinese in bigger cities were ready to incite violence against this minority.

"As heavy handed as their reasons were, the impetus for the bureaucracy to censor the internet was not unreasonable."

Kuo also uses an example from India - where the popular Google Orkut social networking tool is monitored and censored by Google against any criticisms of the Hindu Nationalist Party Shiv Sena, purely because of the violence such discussions have led to historically.

"It's a real problem for Google," Kuo says. "They believe in the right to free speech, but they also don't like people rioting and burning cars."

Read on for Page Two - The reality of Chinese internet censorship

Think again about Chinese censorship

Kuo says the Western media often misconstrues opposition to internet censorship inside China.

Where Chinese censorship began with a blocking of foreign news media, Kuo has noted a shift since 2007 toward a bigger cause of concern - Web 2.0 technologies. These days, less foreign news sites are blocked.

Kuo contends that the Chinese people do not wish to read the foreign language press - they are engaged enough with domestic issues.

Indeed, it is "perfectly legal" to use VPN's or proxies to access information outside of China's Great Firewall.

"There is way too much business at stake - in terms of services like banking - to ban VPNs," Kuo said.

Information on anonymous TOR proxies are readily available on Chinese search engines, he said.

"Quite a large number of circumvention techniques are developed in China," he said. "But browsing foreign sites is not all that Chinese people want to do. Only a tiny fraction do, primarily there are language barriers.

"The Western media needs to understand that The Great Firewall of China - the system whereby domains or pages are filtered at ISP-level - is not the main censorship issue for Chinese people. They have the means to circumvent it if they absolutely need it."

Their real beef is with domestic content, he said, and the list of taboo topics that various Chinese Government ministries send out to search engines, blog hosting companies and other content creators on a daily basis.

"The issue is self-disciplined censorship," he said. "Its not a group of net police doing it - it is operating companies censoring content on their sites to stay within the rules. We extricate, we redact and we delete user-generated content or ban users out of pain of servers being seized or businesses shut down. The Government doesn't care how we do it, just as long as it is done.

"When that content is deleted, no proxy or VPN can find it. It is deleted.

"This kind of censorship is not the type the west takes notice of or knows much about. 

When Google made their announcement that they would stop censoring results on January 12, Kuo said Chinese people sensed an opportunity to talk about censorship in the open.

"The Chinese Government was on the back foot," he said. "But instead, Hilary Clinton comes out and makes a speech about how it's part of the Barack Obama Government's policy to support internet freedom - that the U.S. would devote significant amounts of funding for technology to defeat censorship.

"But then the discussion didn't feel like it was about internet censorship. It felt like China was under attack - that America had expressed a desire to catapult information into China, that there was some sinister motive at hand to damage China's economic growth and that Google was acting as a proxy for the U.S. State Department."

The real concern of Chinese Government is not access to Western content, but the potential for social unrest, caused by internal reporting or blogging on domestic issues and the way in which Web 2.0 technologies can amass large amounts of people together very quickly.

There is an argument put forward - on a recurring basis - that the Chinese Government requires some level of intervention when one considers there are some 400 million internet users in China - twenty times Australia's population - and over twice as many again using mobile phones.

"My sympathies for this argument are mixed," Kuo says. "I would love to say that Chinese society has reached the point where we should have the right to free assembly. The ability of these technologies to organise people shouldn't limit that.

"But in reality, today assembly in China can have violent consequences. And its not just the Government feeling compelled to repress this assembly - I have seen crowds get ugly in China. Perhaps, and I hate to say this, some cultures aren't ready for free assembly."

For this reason, many Chinese people have come to accept censorship must exist, he said, and wish only to engage with the Government to argue the extent to which it exists.

"They say anyone who would trade personal liberty for personal safety deserves neither liberty or safety," he said. "In China, people generally make that trade. They take safety first, and leave liberty for later.

"None of that excuses the extent of internet censorship as it exists today, but lets not pretend that letting it all drop at once is an option. When the United States introduced the First Amendment, how fast did you think that moved? How many people were literate? It moved by quill, by parchment and galloping horse. In China, there is a lot more information behind the proverbial floodgates. We have to accept that a gradual approach is more sensible."

Kuo says it is "all too easy" for people in the west to assume "cynically that the [Chinese] Government is only trying to keep themselves in power.

"Perhaps, to some degree, but they are more interested in social stability," he said. "They are very much afraid of chaos.

"And to be fair to them - this government has delivered ten percent economic growth for several decades and has presided over the longest period of general peace in China's modern history."

Change

"The internet in China has evolved - it is our giant Town Hall," Kuo says of China's internet today.

"There are still issues that can't be talked about, but everything else is discussed and vigorously debated online. Officials at all levels - from the local clerk to the Standing Committee of the Politburo - measure the pulse of people in China using the Internet.

"So people with the internet in China have been given a significant voice. It has counter-intuitively given power to the citizenry. The decision-makers are so clearly affected by public opinion, their meeting agendas look entirely lifted from internet forums."

Kuo said his criticism only lies in the "gross overestimation of the extent of ensuring chaos from lifting some of the more draconian controls."

He argues that China doesn't need its 30,000 to 50,000 army of office workers diligently monitoring and policing local internet content companies.

"They continue to err on the side of caution," he said.

And Australia?

As an outsider, Kuo doesn't want to be drawn on comparisons between the unique Chinese situation and Senator Conroy's attempts to censor the internet in Australia.

But he marvels as to how an advanced country with "deep democratic roots" would need internet censorship.

"The fact you are having such a healthy debate suggests to me a society that doesn't need mandated internet filtering," he said.

To win two tickets to Intelligence Squared "Governments should not censor the internet" debate on Tuesday May 11 at Sydney's City Recital Hall, email us.

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