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The virtual China cover-up

world Updated: Jan 29, 2009 23:44 IST
Reshma Patil
Reshma Patil
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

India’s self-proclaimed anti-obscenity activists from Mumbai to Mangalore would approve of the Special Operation Office for Crackdown on Online Porn and Lewd Content that polices China’s Internet community, the world’s largest.

This month, as China ushered in the year of the ox, authorities began a sweeping cleanup of the Internet that got international attention.

Beijing uses sophisticated software to monitor signals of dissent among China’s 298 million netizens — a virtual world slightly smaller than the US population and more critical than the government-owned Chinese media.

Beijing is abuzz whether the purge of porn is the start of a new strike at online political dissent as well. The crackdown began soon after a bold online pro-democracy petition called Charter 08, issued by Chinese intellectuals in December at the risk of arrests, began gathering signatures of ordinary office-goers and students.

The timing of Charter 08 made Beijing nervous as it entered a year of economic upheaval and three sensitive dates: the fiftieth anniversary of the failed Tibetan uprising and the Dalai Lama’s escape to India, the twentieth anniversary of the military’s crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests, and 60 years since the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

While China shutdown to celebrate the Lunar New Year this week, seven government agencies including the Cabinet’s Information Office and the ministries of public security and culture were working on the cleanup. Since January 5, China has shutdown 1,507 websites and deleted over 3.2 million posted items for allegedly violating laws on the public distribution of sexual images and pornography.

The Great Firewall has warned Google, MSN China, and the country’s top search engine Baidu, which apologetically promised to cut links to ‘vulgar’ content. In the words of China’s Internet watchdog Liu Zhengrong, a deputy director at the Information Office, the campaign’s only goal is to ‘save the Internet environment for children.’ About 108 million of China’s Internet users are below 19 years old and 80 million are school students, according to State media.

But critical online platforms, like the widely read website bullog.cn — with many supporters of Charter 08 — is now blocked as well. Even a Wiki page on bullog is unavailable.

Officials have promised a ‘long-lasting’ crackdown that will extend to mobile phone messages, online games and novels, videos and radio programmes. Maybe they were not talking only about porn. From remote Tibet, news spread this week that among 81 people detained in a security crackdown, two were reportedly held for ‘reactionary music’ on their mobile phones.