Keeping Chinese citizens in line
Koreans who ride the subway in Beijing for the first time are surprised that they sometimes have to go through an X-ray scanner as if boarding an airplane. Riders and their belongings are screened together in the scheme that was first introduced last year and is expanding. You will often find long lines at the security check during commuting hours but, surprisingly, no rider in China is complaining about something Koreans would say is a human rights violation. Chinese people seem to be so faithful to the government that people allow small inconveniences in order to prevent terrorist threats. Chinese friends say that, unlike Korea, China has a population of 1.3 billion and that this may be the only way to keep the country in order. When in Beijing, do as the Beijingers do.
People also put up with inconveniences online. Any post containing even slightly “disturbing” content is removed immediately. For example, “May 35” is a date that was only used in Chinese cyberspace as a substitute for the taboo “June 4,” the day of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. But now “May 35” has also been restricted. And there are more restrictions than banned words and phrases. When I searched “Xi Jinping,” the name of the Chinese president, I get a warning: “Some search results are not shown under related laws.”
All sites that could possibly contain sensitive information, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google, are blocked. The website of a Korean bookstore is blocked in order to prevent Chinese people from accessing books criticizing China. But it is hard to understand why sites that are unrelated to politics or social safety, such as social commerce shopping sites or travel sites, are blocked.
Chinese people like to say, “The higher authorities have policies, the localities have their countermeasures.” Many Chinese people use a virtual private network (VPN) to access overseas sites.
When people come up with countermeasures, the authorities change policy. Now the Chinese government is blocking VPNs. Last year, foreign messenger services such as KakaoTalk and Line were blocked and are still not completely restored. The authorities will argue that, unlike smaller countries such as Korea, 650 million Chinese people use the internet, and that restriction is the only way to keep the country in order. But questions remain. Will Chinese Internet users submit to the information control without complaints just like the subway riders willingly going through the security check? How long and how far can the control on cyberspace work when digital information is exchanged at the speed of light? Whenever I log in to Facebook in China, I can’t help but ask these questions.
*The author is a Beijing correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo. JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 7, Page 30
by YE YOUNG-JOON