The Long Arm Of China's Internet Police

What is the Big Idea?

Earlier this month, 20-year-old student Tsering Kyi emerged from a public restroom at a produce market in Tibet, soaked in gasoline and with a defiant fist in the air, lit herself on fire. She was protesting a policy change at Maqu County Tibetan Middle School, in Gansu Province, for switching to Chinese from Tibetan as the language of instruction.

She died on the spot. This act of self-immolation - one of 29 in the last year, seven of which were in the last three weeks - made headlines on Friday in The New York Times. But most ordinary people living in China will never hear about it.

The police on the scene took her body back the restroom, collected everyone's cellphones and methodically deleted all photographs of the incident. China's state media, Xinhua news agency reported that the girl suffered from mental instability after hitting her head on a radiator.

What is the Signifiance?

This is the Chinese government's first line of defense when it comes to information censorship on topics that range from the Dalai Lama to Ai Weiwei. But it takes more than a few plain clothes police officers to help the government manage controversial stories from leaking to the media. It takes an army.

The Chinese government employs over 40,000 people to monitor the Internet, according to reports by human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Freedom House. Some say the actual number is much higher, as most of the workload is outsourced to private companies. With the help of China’s private sector, the number of people monitoring China’s Internet could be in the hundreds of thousands, according to Sarah Cook, a researcher at Freedom House.

Internet companies like Baidu, China’s answer to Google, have a staff whose sole responsibility is to scan for and delete content that the government doesn’t like. Microblogging sites like Weibo and social networking sites like RenRen perform the same function. In 2010, about 60,000 websites containing “harmful materials” were shut down and about 350 million photographs, videos and articles were deleted. While the 40,000 employed to watch the Internet do remove content, their primary focus is to find and arrest Internet users who utilize the Web as a tool to promote dissent.

To call China’s online community it an “Internet” is a misnomer. China’s Internet functions more like an Intranet, as the government has systematically blocked Websites like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and overseas Chinese news sites. They do this by blocking IP addresses. And even if a website was not blocked, URL links with key words like “Tibet” or “Dalai Lama” are prohibited, making it impossible for Internet users to find information on these topics. Key words are regularly updated and cycled out as international news evolves. Most recently, words like “occupy” and “jasmine” were blocked in response to the protests in the US and the Middle East. Popular international sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were forced behind the Great Firewall in 2009. This created a market for alternatives like Baidu, Weibo and RenRen, all of which are given directives by the central government on what kind of content to censor. The government issues business licenses based on company owners’ willingness to comply with censorship rules. Google was kicked out of China in 2010 because of their failure to adhere to China’s censorship policies. They did this by refusing to block prohibited Websites and as a result their Internet content provider licenses were terminated.

Uprisings in the Middle East didn’t help matters for Chinese Internet users. In the wake of Tunisia’s uprisings, Chinese activists used the Internet to organize their own pro-democracy protests in February 2011. They called it the Jasmine Revolution. The police arrested scores of protesters and banned the word “jasmine” on microblogging sites which quickly thwarted the movement and kept word from spreading. In response to mounting fears of a revolution, at least three of the nine top communist party leaders paid visits to Internet companies like Baidu and Tencent, the creators of the instant messaging site QQ, to deliver a message of their own: uphold harmoniousness and stability. According to state media reports, Liu Qi, the secretary of the Beijing Municipality Party Committee instructed Internet companies to step up their efforts to put an end to what they consider as fake information.

For Internet users, “harmony” is now a euphemism for censorship, according to Cook. It’s not uncommon for someone to say they’ve been “harmonized” to mean they’ve been censored when they notice a blog post or comment they wrote was deleted. The fact that Internet users have created a code language to communicate shows they are on to their censors.

“What you now see is people finding clever ways to protest censorship itself,” said Cook. “The Chinese Communist Party isn’t going to censor the word ‘harmony’ because it’s one of their catch phrases.”

“River crab,” the homonym for harmony is a pun used to mock the government’s need for a “harmonious society.” Playing with homonyms, a practice commonly used for Chinese New Year, is now being used to evade censors. Recently, Internet users replaced a common vulgarity that was banned from the Internet with the words “grass mud horse” as a homonym to communicate the same message.

The activist community in China is growing, according to Cook and they’re typically tech savvy enough to engage with online tools to spread their agenda. While the exact number is impossible to measure, the government’s clamp down is a reflection of their growing fear of increased online activism. With the turnover of China's top leadership later this year and the politically sensitive events that will ensue, it is unlikely that the government's grip on censorship will loosen any time soon.

“The CCP is very insecure and very paranoid,” said Cook.

A report issued by the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee in October said they intend to increase regulation of social networking and instant messaging tools and punish those who spread “harmful information.” Officials at that time discussed having bloggers register their real names and identification numbers instead of the fake handles currently in use. This went into effect and the deadline for Weibo users to register their real identity was this month.

While no one outside of China’s top leadership knows what prompted this crack down, experts suspect it stems from the popular uprisings in the Middle East. The government proposed to further regulate state owned social networking sites, microblogs and instant messaging systems by punishing those who spread information that threatens the Chinese Communist Party’s stronghold. Also, in October, China submitted a resolution to the United Nations General Assembly, asking for the right to control their own Internet without interference from other countries.

Chinese written laws aren’t helping either. Article 35 of the Chinese constitution guarantees free speech, assembly, association and publication. But these rights are second to national interest. At least 70 people were jailed for Internet violations in 2010, according to reports by Reporters Without Borders. Once detained, offenders are subjected to abuse and torture.

When confronted with these findings, the government toed the party line and said they support the “sound development of the Internet and protects citizens’ freedom of expression in accordance with the law.” But there’s a catch.

“China follows the universal practice by administering the Internet in conformity with the law, with a view to safeguarding public interests,” said Yuanchun Ma, a spokesperson at the Chinese consulate in New York City.

Safeguarding these interests don’t come cheap.

“So much of the censorship relates to things that have a real impact on people’s livelihoods,” said Cook. “The societal and human cost of censorship is heartbreaking.”

Read ''Poking Holes In China's Great Firewall" to find out how Internet users are fighting censorship.

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Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

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Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.

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