Saturday, April 28, 2012

Chen Guangcheng's Escape

Blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng recently escaped from custody and fled to US protective custody at the embassy in China. Having been under house arrest, Chen managed to evade the guards and make his way from Shandong to Beijing, with the help of He ('Pearl') Peirong, as well as release a video of his safety.

In China, netizen activists are taking to forums and micro-blogging websites to priase the escape. In response, China's censors have been working to suppress online conversation. As a  result netizens are referring to Chen simply as "the blind man." Regardless, many mentions of Chen's prior whereabouts and escape are being censored and removed. One micro-blogger, Jing Huili wrote: "Never has the fate of a single blind man moved the hearts of an entire nation."

Netizens are comparing this recent event to the Bo Xilai scandal that has been unfolding in past weeks and spurring online discussion. It must also be noted that China's assumed stronghold on prisoners is decidedly weak, as Chongqing police chief Wang's fleeing to US protection brought about the Bo Xilai controvery and weeks later a blind man similarly escapes to the US embassy.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Fat Years

Concluded reading The Fat Years by Chan Koonchung, an amazing work of fiction that eerily alludes to modern China and the nation's "harmonious" growth. Part mystery novel, part history lesson, part inner-look into a dystopian few-years-into-the-future China, Koonchung's novel is banned in mainland China and after reading the book it's not surprising. The plot focuses on a collective amnesia that has gripped China (set in 2013 after the fall of the US economy and China's "Golden Rise of Ascendancy") and a set of characters aiming to uncover 28 days that have gone missing from the public memory. The novel asks the question, based on the literary works of Lu Xun, plaguing the protagonist (Lao Chen): is it better to live in a good hell or a counterfeit paradise?

One of the novel's main characters, Little Xi, is a middle-aged Chinese woman who spends her time as an online activist, arguing via web forums and hiding behind anonymous user names throughout the novel. Whether Koonchung meant it or not, Little Xi turned out to be a great portrayal of the issues over anonymity on the web that are hitting China today, and how anonymity is one of the main means for Chinese to protest and speak out while living in the mainland. On page 178 Little Xi argues this point when she makes the claim that "the Internet is the people's Central Discipline Committee and virtual Public Security authorities."

"...The power of Western governments is given to them by the people, while in China the people's freedom is given to them by the government. Is this distinction really that important?" (146) The novel brought out many issues and had one liners that really forced the reader to contemplate China's future and stability. A theme that permeates the novel is whether or not Chinese should continue to remember the struggles of the past in the effort to move forward. The protagonist Lao Chen continually brings China's past political struggles to the reader's attention, particularly the Cultural Revolution and the Democracy Movement and economic openness of the decade following. One line in the book attributes these major events in China's political system to the changing personalities of its citizenry: "...he says that China's mentality transforms itself every few years" (122). The character who spoke this refers also to the return of Hong Kong (1997), SARS (2003), the Olympics (2008), among others.

The theme of increased freedoms (or lack thereof) brought to the reader's attention from this novel nicely compliments the editorial released yesterday by Ai Weiwei.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Ai Weiwei and Web Censorship

Renowned artist Ai Weiwei, who is being held in China under house arrest, released an article in the Guardian about the Chinese government and their attempts at web censorship. To Mr. Ai, "the government computer has one button: delete."

Ai argues that the internet has given the Chinese people a new sense of freedom, one that is not offered by the state and one that can not so easily be taken away. "The papers try to talk about things, but even before they appear, everyone has talked about it on the internet." For once, he argues, the people of China have another source of media other than those which are state-run and netizens can exercise their own judgement about current events.

Even Ai cannot believe how much has changed in recent years due to social media and the spread of mass voices online through blogs and microblogs. But Mr. Ai believes that it is becoming more difficult for the Communist Party to control the internet and censor the voices of netizens. "Censorship is saying: "I'm the one who says the last sentence. Whatever you say, the conclusion is mine." But the internet is like a tree that is growing. The people will always have the last word – even if someone has a very weak, quiet voice."

Friday, April 13, 2012

Search Engine hosted by Jesse Brown

This morning I discovered and listened to TVO's Search Engine hosted by Jesse Brown's podcast for "The Human Flesh Search Engine," the podcast's seventh episode. Examined are the implications of the Human Flesh Search Engine in mainland China.

The podcast discusses how many of these cases are small social victories that aim at local governments rather than the larger central government, and how the central government accepts and evens welcome this type of behavior. Interviewed is the producer of Invisible Killer (read below), who does not feel the internet represents the majority. However, the host, Jennifer Pak, continues to argue that in a governmental system were people feel injustices are covered up, the HFSE acts as the "imperfect solution in an imperfect system."

One story which was mentioned was Beijing's movement to install spyware and blocking technology in all new computers sold in China, and the angered response of netizens. The spyware aimed to block all pornographic content and websites with sensitive issues against the government. China's state media ran a news expose about how easy it is to search using Google and have porn pop up. They interviewed one college student who claimed his friend lapsed into a porn fixation due to images he came across while doing an internet search. Netizens felt the interview was a little too perfect and investigated, finding that the boy was actually an intern at the news station that interviewed him. His name and contact information were all posted online, including the information of his girlfriend. This was an instance that I had not heard of!

The podcast did refer me to a recent film that was produced in China called Invisible Killer. Invisible Killer (无形杀 - 2009) is a film about two people who meet and fall in love through the online game World of Warcraft. The woman has an affair and her partner, knowing only this other man's World of Warcraft username, attacks the other man online with the help of netizens. I'm now on the (online) hunt to find this film (with subtitles)!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Published to ScholarWorks

Because of my contribution at the recent history conference hosted by the UMass Boston History Graduate Student Association, my research paper, "The Human Flesh Search Engine: Democracy, Censorship, and Political Participation in Twenty-First Century China," has been published to UMass Boston's ScholarWorks. ScholarWorks is a depository for storing scholarly works chosen by the departments at UMass Boston. To view it, click here.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Online Discussion Amid Censorship

Amid the Bo Xilai scandal that is currently rocking China's government, netziens in China are finding ways to discuss and dissect the news even as the Communist Party steps up its censorship of all online material related to Bo Xilai. The scandal of late involves prominent Bo Xilai (who was slated for a high government position) who was recently removed from his post after failing to adequately address the Wang Lijun incident. Furthermore, his wife was just investigated into the death of a British national who was caught up in this affair.

Netizens are using methods to bypass government filtering on micro-blogs and web forums, using keywords that represent figures in the scandal instead of using their real names - which are heavily targeted and taken down by online censoring. While the government continues its censorship over the issue, the BBC notes that it appears that most of the posts "praise" the actions of Beijing. Beijing released a commentary urging the people to support the government's actions as this controversy is investigated and cleared by the government. Wang Feng of the Brookings-Tsinghua Centre for Public Policy said "for the last 30 years this is the biggest scandal we can think of" calling it "unprecedented" in Chinese modern history.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Beijing Hacked

While the Chinese internet is rigorously controlled by the state, it appears that Anonymous China has the means to break through the "Great Firewall of China" when the group defaced hundreds of government websites this past week.

The new homepage set up by Anonymous provides links to bypass the "Great Firewall" and a message to the Chinese people (pasted below). However, from the screen shot I'm posting here from International Business Times, the message can be seen as written in English, and I wonder if it was posted in Chinese and this is merely a translated image for the American audience...

The message:
"All these years, the Chinese communist government has subjected its people to unfair laws and unhealthy processes," reads the statement. "Dear Chinese government, you are not infallible, today websites are hacked, tomorrow it will be your vile regime that will fall."

It contains also a message directed at the Chinese people: "Each of you suffers from the tyranny of that regime which knows nothing about you," reads the message. "We are with you. [...]The silence of all other countries highlights the lack of democracy and justice in China. It's unbearable."

(source: International Business Times)

China Mirco-Blogs Back Online

Micro-blogging websites were frozen in China for two days after rumors and posts about a coup in Beijing were discovered by the government. While the reports were speculated as being rumors, it appears from the BBC's article that rumors spread around the Chinese internet because there is no mainstream outlet for rumors to thrive such as in America. Furthermore, Beijing appears to be having a difficult time appointing top government officials as it reshuffles its government this year.

I touched upon this tabloid sensation briefly in my research - that a lack of gossip tabloids in China fuels the internet as becoming a space where rumors begin and grow uncontrolled. The state's media bans tabloid and sensationalist gossip from being published, but it finds a home on these web forums where those who in the past have been targets of the HFSE gain notoriety and "web space" as quickly as Hollywood film stars. And this phenomenon because all the more dangerous because discerning truth from fiction on the internet can be near impossible.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

UMass Boston HGSA

Presented my research at UMass Boston's History graduate Student Association's first graduate history conference entitled "The Value of Historical Work" this past weekend.

As a result of the conference the various discussions and questions from the audience, many questions into the Human Flesh Search Engine have arisen. The most basic, where did the name originate? Why this literal meaning of the phrase? My answer is that what began as a human-run method of collaboration to uncover obscure information faster than accessing a database or offline medium has evolved into a human-run method of collaboration which targets humans.

Another topic that seemed to be of interest was comparisons to the internet in America, most notably the growth of online collaboration. I've recently been thinking about this area myself as I see echoes of the HFSE on websites such as Tumblr and Reddit, not to mention the recent controversy of potential employers insisting interviewees to turn over their Facebook passwords. However, what about the internet in America stops online collaboration from turning into a witch hunt?

Another current event to consider - how web groups aimed to target corrupt governments and incite protests thrive on internet anonymity - just look at the group Anonymous.

The conference also allowed me (with help from the audience) make deeper historical connections to the Cultural Revolution-era of Chinese history. On one sense, the HFSE is powered by young, college-aged students who are utilizing the internet and HFSE to enact justice. This is comparable to the Cultural Revolution which was powered by Red Guards of the same age-group who were mostly urban youth who left the cities to live among the peasants.