Today, more than 485 million people use the internet in China. Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, boasts over 300 million registered users. Admittedly, a large proportion of Chinese netizens surf the net as a means of entertainment, but for many others, the Internet is a very useful tool for finding and sharing information about their every day experiences in China.
The large and rapid increase of Internet users in China always had a revolutionary potential. The Chinese government has always been aware of that threat and of the difficulty involved in keeping nearly half a billion Chinese netizens under their thumb. To curb that risk, China put in place a sophisticate barrier – the Great Firewall of China – to censure Internet content such as pornography and politically-sensitive sites, often disguising the blocking of these pages as a common error messages displayed when a page has an internal server error. Barriers are constantly invented and reinvented at both legal and technological levels. Technologically, the censorship system consists of standard firewalls and proxy servers at the Internet gateways. Capable of blocking content by preventing IP addresses from being routed through, the Great Fire Wall of China can also selectively engage in DNS poisoning when particular sites are requested. Another method used is filtering people’s search results of certain terms on Chinese search engines, both international – yahoo.com.cn and Google China – and domestic, as Baidu.
Enter the anonymous blogger
Chinese Internet users have found several ways to counter the Chinese government Internet censorship antics – from proxy servers outside the firewall, to VPN and SSH connections to outside mainland China that are not blocked. But, most significantly, the “web generation” managed to circumvent political censorship by using anonymity.
Anonymous bloggers were quick to start using the net to pave the way for alternative methods of (political) exchange. And so, a community of anonymous bloggers began expressing their opinions on virtual forums and sharing their knowledge of events taking place outside Chinese borders in the web community. Chinese official media reports had to compete with the speed and accuracy of users of the new media who, for instance, reported on the earthquake in Sichuan in 2008 quicker than the official correspondents. Because of the rapid and truthful information broadcast via the net by anonymous bloggers, Chinese officials were unable to play down the tragedy in official reports (in terms of the number of victims, for example), as most people had first hand information from other sources. Throughout 2011 anonymous bloggers and Tech-savvy Chinese netizens, inspired by Occupy Wall Street and Arab Spring movements, also used the net to communicate messages of resistance through popular coded political slang.
Removing the mask of the anonymous blogger
Realising that government promoted guidelines of “encouragement” and “self-discipline” were not preventing anonymous bloggers from spreading their opinions on the net, Chinese authorities suppressed any attempts for any online-organised protests from picking up momentum by introducing measures in December 2011 that made anonymity illegal. Bloggers were required to register their sites with real names (although so-called “screen names”were allowed), and provide personal information in order “to prevent information about state secrets, damaging national security and interests and instigating ethnic resentment discrimination or illegal rallies that disrupt law and order”. Bloggers who fail to register their real identities during the stipulated period were also to be stripped of their posting and sharing privileges.
The Jasmine revolution
Given the many obstacles found by bloggers wanting to freely express their political opinions within chinese borders, the anonymous movement has now spread to international waters. Anonymous international bloggers have been writing in Chinese about a “Jasmine revolution” in China.
The anonymous call for a ‘Jasmine revolution’ in China’s major cities was made online, first on the Boxun.com website, run by overseas dissidents, and then on Twitter on 19 February 2011. Organisers called for protests to take place each weekend, arguing that “sustained action will show the Chinese government that its people expect accountability and transparency that doesn’t exist under the current one-party system”. But after police supressed protesters chanting slogans on the 20th of February, organisers urged participants not to shout slogans and simply stroll silently in their respective protest sites. This tactic has since then been repeatedly used to symbolise the Jasmine Revolution – people gathering in a range of popular and public areas in the centre of major cities across China, peacefully strolling every Sunday afternoon to call for minor political change.
To prevent protesters from finding each other, China Mobile and China Unicom blocked the word “jasmine” and any searches for the word “jasmine” – a very commonly used term in Chinese language – were also blocked on Sina Weibo. Status updates with the word “jasmine” on Chinese social networking site Renren encountered an error message and a warning to refrain from postings with “political, sensitive … or other inappropriate content.”
But Chinese bloggers found a way around it by finding another word to symbolise their plight. And they will continue to do so, from within or from outside China. Because, as media magnet Rupert Murdoch is credited with saying, in order to control Chinese Internet users in China, authorities will have “to turn the Internet off”.
Teresa Rodriguez is a linguist with a BA in Asian studies and specialist in interpersonal and intercultural relations, holding both a masters in intercultural conflict resolution and in translation and interpreting. Teresa is currently the copy and content manager at Hotfrog and she shares her thoughts and experiences on language, inter-cultural (digital) communication and her passion for the Asian continent in her blog Digital cultures and translation.