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Number of Chinese Bloggers 22 Million, Making Crackdown Impossible

It may be that those never say die Internet monitoring officials on China’s mainland will be able to pull it off. Stranger things have happened!

But seriously, to be able to keep a lid on the Internet while clamping down on the nation’s bloggers? “Good luck!” said one tech-savvy student in my Asia media class at UCLA.

I got the sense that most students wouldn’t bet their tuition money on it.

But the Chinese government, it seems, has been in fact spending lots of time and money on blog-busting, big time. “China has earned the dubious distinction as the world leader in filtering Internet content,” report researchers at Cambridge, Harvard, Oxford and Toronto.

They work together under an umbrella project called OpenNet Initiative (http://www.opennetinitiative.org/), which has concluded: “The Chinese state-run Internet censoring system is without parallel, both in the technical sophistication of the filtering apparatus and in the breadth of topics subject to blocking.”


China Not Unique

China is not unique in the extent of its Internet blocking ambition.

Most nations, though, do sensibly assume that it’s probably a losing technological cause to attempt to drape a wet blanket of national censorship over the unpredictably expanding World Wide Web.

Just like the People’s Republic of China, for instance, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam has been aiming to net tame with a vengeance as well.

The communist government there is also up to no-net good with “technical sophistication, breadth and effectiveness,” as our friends at OpenNet put it.

To be sure, Hanoi officials insist their current flurry of Internet filtering (patterned on the Beijing model) is designed to safeguard the morals of the nation from pornography.

Oh sure, so here’s the question: Have Hanoi officials ever spent one night in Ho Chi Minh City with eyes wide open, observing the southern capital’s wildly thriving sex industry in perfervid action? And they’re worried about porn on a computer screen?

Well, the OpenNet people apparently saw through this one right off the bat. “Most of its filtering efforts target sites with politically or religiously sensitive material that could undermine Vietnam’s one-party system.”

Will the Vietnamese Communist Party pull it off? You should know the truth about me: My own technical expertise on the Net begins and ends with nothing trickier than a Google or two.

Anything beyond those humble skills I have learned from students here at UCLA.


Net Tamers

So I put this question of the communist parties’ efforts to tame the Net to my students as I closed out the annual outing of advanced Asia media.

It’s a wintertime laboratory course on the news media and politics of the Asia-Pacific region, and it is a sequel to the fall introductory lecture series.

In this winter course, the students reviewed and evaluated news sites about the Asia-Pacific region and wrote up their findings in their own individualized blogs while working in a state-of-the-art computer lab on the UCLA campus.

And so when asked by their nonplussed professor about the wide-ranging control-freak campaigns in China and Vietnam, few students seemed to think they had a great chance of success.

One perceptive Asian-American student asked if anyone knew roughly how many Chinese bloggers were typing away on the mainland these days.

The estimate, it turns out, is 22 million. The students laughed: How can you control a digital vanity press that astonishingly enormous and growing larger by the day?

What’s saddening, of course, is that the governments of China and Vietnam , not to mention a handful of others, including U.S. enemy Iran, U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, and almost nobody’s pal Burma , would even bother trying.

If it’s not an impossible job, as my students insist, it’s surely a steeply uphill battle to contain the content of citizen communication in this digital age.

To be sure, they try anyway because they feel they must.


Untested

The Internet is a huge, untested and constantly expanding technological force , like a giant supernova occupying ever more of our space by the day.

This panoply of technology is clearly the most extraordinary development in memory and it has, for worse and for better, drastically altered our lifestyles.

This huge force can also breed insecurity, particularly among those most anxious about the tidal waves of change that threaten their established party ideology.

That would include, for sure, obsessive and neurotic one-party states trying to dig in their heels against this age of plurality, diversity and lightning-fast technological innovation across national borders.

The reason the party-hardies in China, Vietnam and Burma are so burningly ambitious to ban the bloggers is simple: They’re scared out of their minds!

My students don’t blame them. They feel it’s understandable that the autocrats should be unnerved.

Their own lives have been turned upside down by Google, e-mail, blogging, instant messaging and God knows what else.

This is precisely why they think the old guard cannot, in the end, win the fight. In this sea of technological tsunamis, how can islands of stubborn resistance expect not to be overwhelmed, too, before long?


UCLA professor Tom Plate, a veteran journalist, has just published his new book, ‘Confessions of an American Media Man.’

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