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Beijing battles online ‘disharmony’

China's emergence as a world superpower does little to help it on the World Wide Web

by Rick Martin

Thousands of goose-stepping troops, rumbling rows of tanks and floats celebrating China’s achievements paraded proudly in front of Tiananmen Square last week, all intended to convey the message that Beijing has everything under control.

However, there’s everything but control on the Internet.

Ironically, behind this confident display of muscle during Thursday’s celebration of the Communist Party’s 60 years in power, Beijing is getting desperate in an information war with dissenting voices.

China’s Internet censorship has never been a secret. Web sites like YouTube, Blogger and Twitter all facilitate speedy, unfiltered communication — and all are now blocked (or “harmonized” as they say in China) by the Great Firewall. While this sort of censorship has occurred intermittently in the past, the last six months have seen China take unprecedented measures to restrict sensitive information. But keeping up with rapidly emerging communication technologies is proving to be difficult.

Blogger Peter Guo was arrested in July for uploading a video that referred to a coverup by local officials of a gang rape and murder. In a last ditch plea for help he managed to send two Twitter messages out to the world from jail via his iPod Touch, which he had told police was just an MP3 player: “Pls help me, I grasp the phone during police sleep,” and “I have been arrested by Mawei police, SOS.”

Peter reflects on this moment on his blog, “I sent the SOS message and refreshed the Web page in a shorted moment, I saw the screen of my phone was full of tweets both in Chinese and English about me, making me feel confident at that moment.” International news organizations picked up on the story and Peter was released 16 days later.

Despite Beijing’s efforts, this sort of instant communication is having a huge impact on society. Countless corrupt officials have been exposed by China’s “human flesh” search engines, who are increasingly demanding accountability of their government via the Internet.

China has now upped the ante by clamping down on the tools previously used to circumvent government blocks. Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and the Tor anonymity network were popular solutions that allowed users to surf the Internet unfettered by content restrictions, but the past week has seen widespread difficulties connecting to many such services.

Beijing’s online fight began to intensify in March around two Tibetan anniversaries. At that time, researchers at the University of Toronto discovered a huge spy network nicknamed “Ghostnet.” It had reportedly infected the computers of many organizations, including the Office of the Dalai Lama, and ransacked strategic documents and information.

These attacks appear to have originated in China, but the researchers pointed to the small possibility that attacks originating from Chinese IPs might be controlled from outside China’s borders. When discussing Chinese hacking, this is always an important point to consider because, given the widespread use of unpatched pirated Windows installations, China likely has more “zombie” computers than any other nation in the world. However, most critics agree that the government was behind the attacks given the nature of the stolen information. In one case the Dalai Lama had planned a meeting with a foreign diplomat, but later found Chinese officials had called that diplomat and convinced him to cancel.

In June, before the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, Beijing announced regulations requiring all PC manufacturers to run its new Green Dam censorship software. China lost this battle when widespread ridicule and complaints by Chinese netizens, as well as objections from human rights groups and the computer industry, resulted in a weakened implementation that didn’t require users to install it.

When riots broke out in the western Xinjiang region in early July, the authorities shut off all Internet and mobile service in the affected areas. That disturbance, itself based on Internet rumors that two Uighurs had been killed in southern Guangdong Province, was one of the worst in recent memory.

Ilham Mehmut, president of the Uighur Association in Japan, says that even now Internet and telephone communication is still not possible in Xinjiang, and that Uighurs all over China are not permitted to use Internet cafes.

Contrary to what some may think in the West, Internet censorship is no secret among the Chinese population. Internet users haven’t been brainwashed into submitting to censorship, but rather many feel that social stability and economic prosperity for the whole is worth sacrificing the rights of the few. So, while many may not agree with the censorship, they can often understand why it comes about.

Blogger Steven Lin says that it’s understandable that the censors would have such a reaction this year, considering the many sensitive anniversaries.

“As the ‘best’ and ‘worst’ happening in the same year, it’s no wonder some groups ‘outside the wall’ would bad-mouth about the [Communist Party] more than ever,” says Lin. “And there’s no doubt the Chinese government would monitor the Internet more tightly, and block some sensitive Web sites for longer than before.”

But it’s a different story for many Tibetans, Uighurs and other minorities, as economic development has taken a massive toll on their cultures, leaving them in a disharmonious state. Tibetan and Uighur organizations have been increasingly under attack (possibly by independent nationalist hackers, the government, or both) by malicious e-mails. Many journalists reported receiving similar e-mails as well. Just as with the Ghostnet attacks, the e-mails are aimed at obtaining information either through social “phishing” or by exploiting software vulnerabilities.

Tsewang Gyalpo Arya, a representative from Tibet House, the Liaison to the Dalai Lama in Japan, reports that their Tokyo office is being hammered by such e-mails.

“[Security experts] said there are certain people, professionals, who are trying to hack and crack our passwords, and it usually comes from Beijing or Shanghai,” says Tsewang. “In a day they say there are about 10 or 15 attacks, and so they advise us that we have to change our passwords very frequently.”

While Tsewang admits this is certainly a nuisance for their daily operations, and that they must educate staff about Internet security measures, he says his group has nothing to hide. He acknowledges, however, that many inside Tibet are quite nervous when using the Internet because “there is such strict vigilance” from the authorities.

China faces a predicament. Advancements in communications technology that help drive its economic growth are, at the same time, threatening to undermine its social stability. As more innovative means of transmitting information are developed, this cat-and-mouse censorship game looks increasingly unwinnable for those in power.