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World misunderstands China's Web controls

The Internet in China is not as restricted as sometimes believed in the West, with most controls actually coming from sites practicing self-censorship.
/ Source: Reuters

The Internet in China is not as restricted as sometimes believed in the West, with most controls actually coming from sites practicing self-censorship, an academic who studies the Chinese Web said on Thursday.

But the government has also effectively stopped online dissent, defying expectations that the Communist Party would never survive broadband, said Rebecca MacKinnon, assistant professor of new media at Hong Kong University's Journalism and Media Studies Center.

Although MacKinnon added there was no doubt the government could crack down hard when it wanted to, pointing to the example of people jailed for expressing their opinions online, she said it was important to keep it in perspective.

"There's a real contradiction that's difficult to explain to the West and the outside world about China and about the Internet. On the one hand, you have a lot of efforts -- and fairly successful efforts -- to control content on the Internet and control what people can access," she said.

"Yet on the other hand, you have this contradiction that at the same time the space for conversation thanks to the Internet has grown tremendously in China," MacKinnon told the Foreign Correspondents Club.

The "Back Dorm Boys," who took the Chinese Internet world by storm with their lip-synching video of a Backstreet Boys song, were a good example of how popular the Web is becoming in China, said MacKinnon, a former Beijing-based reporter.

Like teenagers anywhere
"I showed this video to people in Washington, and their reaction was 'oh my goodness, they're just like my teenagers and they're doing the same things'," she added.

"They're not acting repressed and they're not acting oppressed. They're not spinning around being angry about not being able to do this or that on the Internet."

Instead, censorship is targeted, at dissidents or other opposition groups, and so effectively that China has avoided the Internet-organized "color revolutions" that countries like Ukraine experienced, she said.

"What we've found is that the government has done a far better job than anybody ever imagined at basically making enough control that there has been no color revolution that has been organized by the Internet," MacKinnon said.

China's 30 million or so blogs are managed by getting the Web site hosts to practice self-censorship, stopping content objectionable to the government appearing lest their own businesses be shut down, she added.

"Overseas people often have this impression that Internet users may be living in fear or something, or always very worried about the police calling up or knocking at their door. Actually what's happening is much more subtle," MacKinnon said.