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Rushes Sequences - Xiao Qiang interview - USA (Video)

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Dan Biddle Dan Biddle | 16:17 UK time, Thursday, 5 November 2009

Xiao Qiang is adjunct professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of China Digital Times, a bilingual collaborative China news website. Here he discusses the Chinese Government's approaches to the internet and the phenomenon of the '50 cent blogger'.

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(Please note that this transcript is the 'raw data' text we receive from a transcription company. It is a tool commonly used in production to facilitate editing and review the content. We publish it for users in that same spirit, rather than it standing as a 'perfect' representation of the content.)

Xiao      Because China has never had a independent media and the free public speech, over time under the Chinese Communist Party rule, internet is the first time that as an alternative of the public media space ever since 1949.  Again Chinese internet is not a real free space, its still heavily policed, however it is much freer than what you can say and what you can hear of official media. Especially when there are millions, millions of internet users who can express themselves with a very low threshold, anyone can have an internet connection and then can publicise something, and it is easy to be copied and pasted and circulated through this low ............ networks, ................, network structure, it is extremely hard for the authority to complete, absolutely control any type of information. SO in that background the rights of the Chinese public opinion only emerges as a real power in the last few years, when the Chinese internet users base getting large enough.  Now what we see is the internet actually driving the media agenda about covering events, particularly of the issue of social justice. The police brutality, corruption or even natural disaster. Many of those areas that the government used to control information completely, many of these areas government used to have the complete control of the information but now internet break that.  The one good example is last year 2008, when the China's Szechwan region had a enormous earthquake, 80,000 people died in such a tragedy.  There is a particular tragedy that had a human factor to it which is there are thousands, almost ten thousand of the children, school children died because almost all the major school buildings collapsed during the earthquake. Well its not that the earthquake was that strong they wiped out every building, the most part of the buildings - particularly government buildings are stands fine, because they just simply had a better quality in their construction.  And why all the public schools that have been constructed so badly.  One was the reason behind, not an exceptional cases but many of them and cost some thousand of Chinese childrens life, and that is a question if we dig into it, will find some very deep rooted ........... in the Szechwan province that will probably make ................  Therefore, the Chinese authority issued a censorship order so that no Chinese media could cover this issue.  They don't want the media to dig deeper then it becoming a systematic problem of the government.  In the case of no official media can investigate the school collapse issue, many bloggers picked out their calling, particularly there is on Chinese artist ............ who is also a very known blogger, he bravely started a project of compiling all the names of the dead children of the school collapse, putting out  these blogs, he has his research assistant doing that and then his action inspired hundreds of volunteers that actually went to the earthquake region, did an investigation and compiling those children names on their blogs.  And that action alone generated a national attention of this issue, even defying all the censorship that of taking down some of the blogs, closing down his writings.  However, there are hundreds and thousands of other volunteers are keep on putting  those information on line, eventually driving this agenda back to the national media. And even the Chinese national newspaper had run a front page editorial sort of recognising this is the issue of human rights, that Chinese government must do something to it.  So this is one good example of the online activism actually can do something even when the official media cannot do it.

Intvr           ?? 

Xiao     Chinas internet censorship is very pervasive, sophisticated and actually technologically advanced. What we are talking about is a multi layer from the central level to every provincial level the internet control system. There are over 60 laws and regulations regarding to the online contents and information flow, with a very vague language such as subversive information, endangering state security.  Without any detailed definition and that any information and on line activity can be put into that category.  And then China has a entire new police division called internet police, which is now based on every single police station as large as there is an internet connection to that region.  From the central level all the way down to provincial level and to the city level, we're talking about hundreds of thousands of personnel.  And then the old parties propaganda system again are working on controlling the internet censorship.  The whole parties propaganda system are working on controlling the online messages. They have surveillance teams, they have a monitoring teams and they are monitoring the on line contents from blogs to forums, from news portals to social networking sites real time, and with the support of the best technology, data mining, surveillance, sniff packing and many other advanced technology to help them to go through the information to find out who did it, and what kind of information they are on a field trip.  What's most important is they put this burden of censorship to all the internet companies, whether you are a Google or Yahoo or all those internet giants, or you are a small start up trying to hold some blogs or starting a new tweet like micro blogging services.  You all have to censor your information that, or use this information as long as they are on your servers, so they all to have hire personnel who will provide the technology to do the censorship to fit the instruction of censorship orders.  And that being said the biggest piece of the internet censorship is not just by police, its not just by the internet ............ providers and service providers, its also at the national gateway what we call the great Firewall, and this is a layer of technological defence to prevent the Chinese internet users to access all these what government call 'undesirable information' from the foreign sites. They block and over block hundreds of thousands and  millions of sites and constantly update their key words filtering, the URL addresses, the IT addresses and sometimes they even maliciously attacking the foreign websites if they do not like what they are saying about China.

Intvr           Can you say what effect this has on blogger 

Xiao     Well on the Chinese internet the netizens are very familiar with the following terms 

Intvr           What effect has this on the blogger? 

Xiao    In Chinese internet people are very familiar with following terms. One is a code name Rivercrab, one term is Rivercrab its really a code name of internet censors, because in Chinese language a Rivercrab is pronounced the same as harmony, which is the Chinese government official slogan of building a harmonious society.  Then all the internet censorship has done under the name of building a harmonious society so the internet netizens often called that   any censorship  being done is that when a blog posting deleted 

Intvr           What is a 50 cents blogger? 

Xiao     There are several internet cultural, regarding to internet censorship there are several of those Chinas unique phenomena.  One is a 50 cents blogger, a 50 cent party, what it is, is the government has paid, trained those what they call internet commentators, essentially government paid people that go on line to spin the on line opinion or expressing the messages, giving the messages of government saying but without their real identity, they pretend to be the ordinary netizens, but they are there in government term pro quote, influencing the public opinion. But there are so many of them in a different level, different government agencies hire them for their own PR purposes and they all together get a nickname by Chinese netizens 50 Cents bloggers. Its making fun of each of them working so hard that each of their post are only worth 50 cents. But this is a real Chinese on line phenomena.  You go to the major internet ............... or all the visible places, many of those on line contents, it looks like its generated by the user, but actually they are those, belongs to those 50 cents bloggers. The people who are familiar with the Chinese internet politics can tell a lot of those contents are simply coming from those 50 cents bloggers.  But if you are just doing a computer survey you wouldn't tell what is the real public opinion on line. 

Intvr           Has the part of using 50 cent bloggers been successful? 

Xiao    Its actually very questionable whether the 50 cents blogger had a real impact in terms of what government really want it to be. On the one hand with all these sort of 50 cent bloggers effort your looking at the major Chinese portal, your looking at their rigorous comments, and it looks much more flattery and makes the government feel comfortable, less critical of public opinion. However, the Chinese movement has recently admitted that the internet caused a deeper credibility crisis of the government.  People do not believe what the government authority are saying on line and in official media.  SO even the 50 cents bloggers has been employed in the last few years the on line content looks better, but it seems like the government credibility is going down. The people are not stupid, simply just believe those what's been created by the 50 cents bloggers, and that's just created a deeper credibility issue the trust issue for the government, and the government has to face and that is all their own doing.

Intvr           You mentioned that people realised that the government are using 50 cent bloggers to get their message across, what is the governments response to that?

Xiao    Well the Chinese government is really determined to control the on line with all the cost, the Chinese government is really determined to control the on line content with any cost.  SO the more internet users are out spoken, the more internet form public opinion to opening up the Chinese press system, the more effort of the Chinese authority put it, whether resources, personals, new laws, technology and more sophisticated propaganda efforts to try to control on line. SO the Chinese internet is really a contested space.  Regarding to the public opinion, the Chinese governments new measure is to force the internet users, at least in the major news portals, register with their real identity before they can comment on news or current affairs. In other words in the several major Chinese news Portals now require to be registered with their real ID number before anyone can publish the commentaries about current news, and that is a big step.  Apparently the next step is Chinese Government, apparently the Chinese authority is pushing for the next big step which requires more services, more internet posting companies that require their users to do anything on line must have a real identification number, and this is called real name registration nationwide. The government brings up the South Korea as an example, saying that if South Korea the real name registration system can be implemented then China should do the same. This is a big way of through the, force the ........... to aware their real identity is under the governments surveillance, by that the government hope to control the online public opinion.


  • Comment number 1.

    Rivercrabs, lol. It's going to be a satirist's manna nirvana when the Web becomes a true East meets West melting pot. Instead of only having Silicon Valley-Hollywood-Stephen Fry terms like:

    * Fail whale!
    * He's jumped the shark!
    * Oh lor. What a time to oversleep! I have a million followers now. (This is an actual Fry tweet from 12 hours ago.)

    We might get:

    * Rivercrabs don't like rice! --- where rice is brainfood.
    * He's 50 Cent but doesn't know The Game! (50 Cents and The Game are US rappers for the uninitiated.)
    * Oh Con! What a time to think! We have a billion rivercrabs now. (Con obviously being short for Confucius.)


    On a serious note, it's interesting Xiao Qiang cited the 2008 earthquake. In fact, the Chinese government allowing Western media in to report on the devastation was said to be a notable step change in their external media policy. They may not want probing questions and calls for inquiries into structural provisioning in the same way that Western governments also don't want probing questions about asbestos buildings or potential radiation of homes built near nuclear power plants. In certain ways, both "Big Brother" systems are as flawed as the other, only to a different degree and direction.

    There can be forms of censorship on Western sites too; either via subjective editorialism or in-built objective filters which exclude certain illegal and offensive terms.

    Another interesting case study in Chinese blogging is what happened when CNN, SkyNews, the BBC and other Western media reported erroneously on a China-Tibet incident. Chinese bloggers came online in substantial numbers to highlight all the obvious factual errors as well as bias in the reporting, especially regarding one particular CNN video. Then they also organised serious boycott of the French Carrefour company because French politicians had been politicking on the basis of those erroneous reports.

    It should also be noted that the Chinese authorities have a much lower tolerance of online porn than their Western counterparts and it would be helpful to examine the conditions they've imposed on the likes of Google to operate within their online boundaries.

    There are obviously negative aspects to the Chinese Internet experience for the ordinary user. However, there are positives if we examine it from a commercial basis. Chinese social networks like sohu.com became profitable years ahead of the likes of Facebook.

    Personally, I'm looking forward to when the Web benefits from the best of East meets West rather than the limitations of each as they currently are.

  • Comment number 2.

    Topical links on Obama's comments to Chinese students about open communication:

    * http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/asia/article6918320.ece

    * http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/6583346/Barack-Obama-criticises-censorship-in-meeting-with-Chinese-students.html

    * http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/nov/16/barack-obama-criticises-internet-censorship-china?CMP=AFCYAH

    Interestingly, Obama's visit hasn't been reported by US media yet (possibly since it's not being tweeted out real-time as Twitter is an as-yet non sequitir in China).

    There are, clearly, positives to democratic free speech. However, there are also manifestations of free speech gone awry in the States such as "shock jocks", 'National Enquirer'-type sensationalism and sometimes what would be perceived in other cultures as communication cabalism (or cannibalism). There's also censorship of what's deemed (but not openly defined) as "sensitive information", so East and West are similar in that respect.

    It also boils down to that word "LANGUAGE" again. One person's democratic free speech may be another man's deceitful false spin.

    We refer to the Web as being 'cross borders' but that's only in terms of network connectivity to-date. It will be quite something when it manages to be cross-cultural and facilitate multilateral contextualization.

  • Comment number 3.

    There's something of a paradox here too: the Chinese government's attempts to remove online anonymity --- via people having to register their real identities before they can comment on news and current affairs --- could be said to INCREASE transparency, authorship, verifiability and accountability from netizens.

    One of the criticisms of Wikipedia was that we didn't know the identities of people submitting information and so had no way of tracking back to their qualifications to provide information. This is one of the reasons Google Knol was created specifically with authorship, verification and identity as key elements in its business model.

    So is China actually leading the way wrt requiring authorship transparency from its netizens?

    Also, if Western netizens have less online anonymity, would there be more carefully thought out and constructive comments and less flames, trolling, defamation, etc. on threads?

  • Comment number 4.

    Interestingly, during his Presidential campaign, the 'Washington Times' published an article on the Obama team's supposed censorship practices:

    * http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2008/nov/03/obama-censorship/

    It's important to recognize that censorship is defined differently depending which political affiliation and culture we're discussing. That's the context I'm trying to provide.


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