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There is so much that can be (and has been) said about China’s special brand of liberal authoritarianism.

Some say the approach is unsustainable, that economic reform without political reform is impossible in the long term. They predict that, as soon as the economic growth from which the Chinese government derives all of its authority slows down, people will start to demand more, and without elections, a free press, etc. there will be no way for these grievances to be addressed without violence. Others counter that a project such as the one in which China is currently engaged (bringing in, going out, coming together, raising up…) is too complex to leave to the instability and short-sightedness of electoral politics. Maybe down the line, they say, we can think about opening up the leadership, but for now, everyone has to sacrifice for the good of the nation.

Not being Chinese, I’ve never felt obliged to contribute much to this kind of discussion. That’s partly because I’m generally turned off by foreigners who dictate from a distance what China “needs” to do. Also, I know very well that my opinion (as well as theirs) doesn’t mean jack here.

BUT I now realize that my reticence is also partly due to the fact that I haven’t had a cause behind which I can put my self-righteous all. Well, that more innocent time came to a crashing halt two days ago when I learned that the Chinese government decided to block YOUTUBE.

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Surfin’ the Web can be an exasperating experience in China. It’s not at all that the CPC has a complete lock down on all would-be offensive content. Certain high-profile sites like BBC news and Wikipedia are inaccessible, and for a long time all Blogger-hosted blogs couldn’t be accessed unless you used a proxy server or a site like anonymouse.org. But a huge number of similar sites – like IHT or Answers.com – are freely available.

And this is what I find so frustrating. The system seems so arbitrary and ad-hoc. One minute you’re sailing along smoothly, looking at all sorts of pornography, Tibetan freedom blogs, and Tian’anmen tank images and then suddenly google shorts out or an image you want to save can’t be accessed. It’s a kind of blue balls for the information age.

As one would imagine, the Chinese censors are more thorough when it comes to Chinese content, but with over 24 million Chinese-language web pages to monitor, only so much ground can be covered.

Perhaps that’s why the Beijing Public Security Bureau recently appealed for greater public participation in limiting personal freedom. In August it released a virtual police unit comprised of uniformed cartoons who roam the cyberspace beat, encouraging China’s hardy netizens to narc on one another. According to China Daily:

A Beijing netizen need only click the two cartoon police if he or she wants to report malicious information or pornographic websites. Then the netizen shall fill in a form to end the whole reporting processing, Beijing police said Tuesday at a press conference.

This idea of a self-policing internet has uncomfortable parallels with the informant system that was used to control and terrorize the population during the Cultural Revolution. It’s not of the same severity, of course, but it’s part of the same snitching tradition that the government has encouraged for decades.

But if you hear from the government itself, virtual censorship is virtually non-existent. From another China Daily article:

Regulation of China’s Internet is fully in line with international practice, and the country welcomes foreign Web businesses to provide lawful services, a top cyberspace regulator said yesterday (February 14) in Beijing.

In trumpeting the openness of China’s net, the regulator, Mr. Liu Zhengrong, employed another favorite weapon of the officials here (as well as many other countries) – the criticism deflector shield:

Liu said “It is unfair and smacks of double standards when (they) criticize China for deleting illegal and harmful messages while it is legal for US websites for doing so.”

He was referring to the policies of sites like the New York Times to edit or delete comments left by users. That’s a fair point. Unfortunately, it’s also misdirection, since what most people criticize China for is not deleting the odd offensive comment, but instead for deleting, say, 18,401 websites in the last five months.

According to a story published in Shanghai Daily last month:

A total of 9,593 unregistered Websites were shut down while 8,808 Websites were closed for disseminating pornographic, illicit or fraudulent pictures and information on the Internet, said Miao Wei, deputy general manager of China Telecom, the country’s biggest telecommunication carrier, which was involved in the campaign.

Which brings me back to youtube, apparently one of the gang 18,401.

There are alternatives you might say. And it’s true that metacafe and liveleak are still up. Not google video though, that’s never been up as far as I know. Not dailymotion either, so forget that. There are of course local alternatives like tudou that run a lot faster here, but illiteracy prevents me from making any meaningful explorations of them. Plus youtube was my first love. It opened up a world of concert footage, teen exhibitionism, low budget documentaries, and TV bloopers that I literally can’t image going without now. So I can’t just start using some shit like ebaum’s world like it’s no problem.

The question now is what’s to be done? Having been woken from my apathetic slumber, what do I do? What does a 29-year-old foreigner with a tourist visa and poor grasp of the language do to induce radical change in an emerging superpower? I’m totally open to suggestions. But, just to be safe, better post them in code. I’m not trying to get shut down.

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