Beating the Chinese Censors: da Vinci redux (Updated)

This piece, “Chinese Bloggers Scale The ‘Great Firewall’ in Riot’s Aftermath,” published in the Wall Street Journal, got little attention in the usual suspects of blogs, so I’ve decided to flag it since it also speaks directly to the notion of iRevolution. Following recent riots earlier this month, government censors deleted all online posts that provided information related to the unrest and deactivated the accounts of those authoring the posts.

So bloggers on forums such as have taken to posting in formats that China’s Internet censors, often employees of commercial Internet service providers, have a hard time automatically detecting. One recent strategy involves online software that flips sentences to read right to left instead of left to right, and vertically instead of horizontally.

China’s sophisticated censorship regime—known as the Great Firewall—can automatically track objectionable phrases. But “the country also has the most experienced and talented group of netizens who always know ways around it,” said an editor at Tianya, owned by Hainan Tianya Online Networking Technology Co., who has been responsible for deleting posts about the riot.

I find this particularly insightful vis-a-vis my dissertation research in which I basically ask: which side—state or society—is likely to win this cyber game of cat-and-mouse? Beijing can impliment all kinds of sophisticated (and expensive) censorship tools—courtesy of US companies such as Cisco—but these can so easily be circumvented by simply doing what Leonardo da Vinci did 500 years ago, i.e., writing backwards. To this end, I would argue that digital activists do have an asymmetric advantage in the information race.

Indeed, some digital activists in China also used Twitter to share information, which “delivers information more quickly than censors can block it,” to post information on the riots. There are other ways to circumvent Chinese censors:

Mr. Zhou also has posted recordings of interviews with rioters and local residents on his blog, which is hosted on a server outside China. He also hosts alternative links to his site that use technical loopholes to get around blocks placed on accessing his site inside China.

San Xiao, the online name of a reporter for a local newspaper in Guizhou, said he decided to post reports online that censors wouldn’t allow in the newspaper. On Monday, he wrote a blog post titled, “Let’s see how far the post can go before it gets censored and deleted,” which collected details about the riot from several different sources. By Tuesday, his original post on the Chinese Internet destination—plus many copies on other sites—had been removed.

“It is everyone’s responsibility to get this information out, and I will try all means,” he wrote in an email.

The Chinese government is likely to be equally resolute given the stakes. Question is, who is likely to win this digital arms race? Will the Information Revolution give way to countless mini iRevolutions the aggregate impact of which will lead to more democratic and transparent governance? I hope to have an answer when I complete my dissertation.

Update: See this follow up post by Global Voices on why the Wall Street Journal got it wrong. GV argues that traditional media has a much stronger role than an individual blogger.

Patrick Philippe Meier

2 responses to “Beating the Chinese Censors: da Vinci redux (Updated)

  1. Pingback: Gold Medals for Beating the Chinese Firewall « iRevolution

  2. Pingback: Why Dictators Love the Web or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Say So What?! « iRevolution

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