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In China, Avoiding The 'Great Firewall' Internet Censors


In the U.S., it's easy to take the Internet for granted. Not only has it changed the way we live and work, it's become our new public square. At this point, expressing an opinion online is second nature. But in China, it's a lot more complex. China has some 600 million Internet users, and that's more than anywhere else in the world. But this so-called Great Firewall can censor certain opinions, even targeting specific words to be blocked. To hear more about how the Chinese government censors the Internet and the underground code words that manage to beat it, we're joined in our studios now by Xiao Qiang. He's the editor of the China Digital Times, a bilingual Chinese news site based in California. Thanks for coming into the studio.

XIAO QIANG: Thank you for having me.

LYDEN: So let's start with the sense of what this massive Internet usage is like in China. What if I want to go to, say, a forbidden site - not just having my books delivered by Amazon but maybe books people don't want me reading - how much of the Internet is available that way?

QIANG: We often hear the name Great Firewall. If we want to be more precise, this term particularly refer to blocking websites from outside of China at a national gateway level. Inside of Chinese Internet, there's whole different layers of the censorship by a top unit called propaganda department. Inside of China, that's where the most actually dynamic content is being generated and sometimes even about political system and political reform itself. It has gone way beyond of just political activists. It's a common discussion.

Despite all the control and monitoring of the government, there's a fundamental desire of the people who simply want to express themselves. And if they cannot speak directly, they will speak in alternative ways.

LYDEN: What are some of the words? Your group has looked at ways of people using words online to try to circumvent the censors. And you've done a lot of cataloging of this constantly evolving language that people use.

QIANG: Right. This is a very fascinating phenomenon that, in a sense, I've been following the Chinese Internet politics since 2002. At the beginning, our research was focused on - purely focused on the censorship itself. We noticed how the government trying to control the online political discussion by preventing certain words. For example, you cannot say June 4, which is a date of 1989 Tiananmen massacre. Anybody mention that name, computer program will identify that word and prevent that being published altogether, right?

But people say alternative words. For example, in this case, people don't say June 4, people say May 35. So then once the May 35 becoming understood what they refer to, then it goes into people's daily category. Same as, let's say, another word - Celestial Empire is a ancient word for China. But today, it's a common word, which often is a sarcastic use refer to criticism of this state is not highly modern, yeah.

LYDEN: I'm just so curious - how does that sound in Mandarin?

QIANG: (Foreign language spoken)

LYDEN: So if I say (foreign language spoken) and typed that in, does the government now know I'm talking about the government?

QIANG: Of course, yeah. So that's not a secret code. It's a public code. These are the alternative terms in the Chinese political discussion online that already being - what we call classic. People totally understand what is referred to.

LYDEN: Does anyone sit at home fearing that if they say Celestial Empire too many times the cops are going to show up?

QIANG: No. That's the beauty of those languages. It's become a fine line where people can still say it but actually not getting into more direct trouble.

LYDEN: In the case of one of the most high-profile scandals in the last decade, the Bo Xilai case, so much discussion of the corruption took place online. Was that OK because the government had basically already decided he was guilty and were going to take him down?

QIANG: That's part of it. But more important part is whether OK or not, government doesn't have full control of the online political discussion. So we see all this harsh censorship from technology to law to the political crackdowns, but it doesn't reflect government has more control of the public speech. Rather, it refer to the government's increasing anxiety of they lost that control.

LYDEN: Xiao Qiang is the editor of the China Digital Times, and he teaches in the School of Information at UC Berkeley. Thank you so much for joining us.

QIANG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.