China's latest efforts to control online news are being sold to the Chinese public by the Chinese media as an effort to protect innocent citizens from swindlers, pornographers, and rumor-mongerers. But everybody in China I've been communicating with over the past 12 hours thinks the real reason has to do with fear of the kind of thing depicted in the picture on the above right: smartmobs. This picture was taken by a blogger during the anti-Japanese protests (which occasionally turned into riots) last spring. The protests sprang up in true smartmob-fashion, mobilized by people on internet bulletin boards, mobile phone text messaging (SMS) and e-mail. (Thanks to Chris Myrick of Asiapundit for permission to use the picture.)
In case this interpretation is in any doubt, the expat blogger Danwei points out an interesting factoid:
"Today, The Beijing News dutifully reports on new regulations to control the internet, saying that the incitement of demonstrations on websites will now be banned. Juxtaposed with the story, however, is an admiring photograph depicting the thousands of anti-war protestors gathered in Washington on Sunday. We like to think that the irony was conscious."
Admiring? Or terrified? Clearly the authorities are connecting the need to prevent political protests and spontaneous activism with the need to tighten controls over online information. The headline reads: "The Internet is forbidden from inciting illegal protests."
Chinese news reports make it clear that the regulations include internet bulletin boards (BBS, as they're known in China) and SMS mobile text messaging. Should the regime be nervous about these technologies? You bet. After all, just a short flight away from Beijing in Seoul, South Korea sits a President who was elected thanks to a grassroots youth political movement galvanized by the online citizens' media news site OhMyNews, but which couldn't have been successful without the mobilizing power or chatrooms and SMS text messaging.
If you go through the original Chinese text of the regulations released this weekend, you'll find them to be an update of regulations released in 2000 (Thanks to Roland Soong for that archive link!)
As Sophie of China Digital Times points out, the number of forbidden content-categories has been expanded from 9 to 11, and all of those new categories relate to people's ability to organize online. Reporters without Borders and Roland of the EastSouthWestNorth blog have English translations of those points.
(UPDATE: China Digital Times now has an English translation here.)
Roland of ESWN has pointed out that in China, the internet bulletin boards and chatrooms are more powerful than blogs. Why? One big reason, he says, is because professional journalists use internet bulletin boards as a place to anonymously post stories their editors won't publish because they were too politically sensitive. Putting them on a blog leaves the individual too exposed and too potentially traceable. So Chinese who want to find alternative news know that the BBS are where they're most likely to find it. It's not clear whether the new regulations cover blogs or not, but if they cover BBS there's no reason they wouldn't cover blogs. (UPDATE: it appears they definitely do.) But blogs don't actually appear to be a major concern right now. All the blog hosting services like Bokee, Blogcn, and Blogbus are required to censor and police the blogs on their services anyway. And all the independent bloggers were required to register their identities earlier this year. So from the government's perspective the blogs have been sufficiently neutered. The BBS and SMS are what they fear.
An example of this fear is how the government recently banned all further internet forum discussion about rural democracy and unrest in a village called Taishi. More on the Taishi story from the tireless ESWN here, here and here.
The list of content that online news sites are not allowed to report includes "state secrets." Roland provides an example (scroll down to the bottom) of how arbitrary the definition of "state secrets" can be, and how people often find themselves in possession of documents (handed to them by officials) which are not marked anywhere as classified - but then they are busted for possession of them later. Charges of reporting state secrets could also be levied in this manner - as an excuse to nail somebody. This tactic has been used against plenty of Chinese conventional newspaper journalists in the past. We are simply reminded that online news organizations cannot escape. It could be extremely easy for a journalist to be nailed for posting "state secrets" on a BBS without knowing he or she had done so.
So the Chinese government is trying to extend the same kinds of regulations it uses on mainstream media to the internet - to professional and grassroots media alike. It will be interesting to see just how far they're able to go. With the quiet compliance of the commercial sector I think China's leadership will buy themselves more time in power.
Now, before you argue that flashmobs aided by BBS and SMS may still ultimately prevail and bring democracy to China in the longer term, think again. It's going to take a lot more than that. The Chinese Communist Party has learned to control the internet not perfectly, but well enough: Nascent opposition groups have been successfully prevented from using the internet to grow into any kind of national movement. Outside the Communist Party, there's currently no viable alternative group of people capable of governing China. If an altermative is going to emerge from anywhere it will likely be from within the party itself.
The Chinese government has very good reason to be scared of flashmobs and I very much doubt they'll succeed in preventing them in the future. Flashmobs could indeed bring the government down if they get big enough and out of control. But flashmobs can't incubate a generation of leaders capable of democratic governance. On the other hand, mobs are very good at crowning new demagogues to replace the old ones. After all.. that's how Mao came to power...