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Chinese censorship icon Jingjing.  (Source: China.org.cn)

Jingjing and Chacha pop up when debates become heated, gently reminding users to "advance harmony."  (Source: Wired/Committee to Protect Journalists)
Surge in traffic from earthquake creates a short-lived gap in Chinese censor coverage

Freedom groups everywhere breathed a sigh of relief when, earlier this week, Chinese censors were reported to be buckling under the weight of a country eager to talk about its devastating 7.9 earthquake. Now, it appears, those groups may have been incorrect: China’s censors never went anywhere, and the country’s “Golden Shield” project appears to be back to normal.

Previous reporting on the topic revealed that Chinese news sources were “surprisingly frank” with their reporting, revealing an uncommon level of honesty for a government that, characteristically, heavily regulates the flow of negative information. Chinese bloggers were able to communicate freely in all but the most extreme of circumstances, and Chinese message boards were littered with a variety of thoughts on the earthquake, both good and bad.

While many were hoping that the censors’ visibly relaxed controls would be permanent, the Chinese government quickly rebounded to the old status quo as activity died down. Even worse; it appears that the government propaganda machine was in effect all along.

United States-based Committee to Protect Journalists’ Asia program coordinator, Robert Dietz, noted that journalists “rushed to the scene,” and described a “general feeling that the government had lifted the restrictions on reporters.”

Instead, said Dietz, “the central propaganda department never stopped handing down directives, never stopped telling people how much to report.”

On the public front, Chinese netizens are gently reminded to “self-regulate” by the country’s cartoon censorship icons, Jingjing and Chacha. One example, provided to Wired’s Threat Level by the Committee to Protect Journalists, the line-drawn duo orders users to “advance harmony,” by popping up at the bottom of the user’s screen if they posted a comment considered inflammatory.

However small and short-lived it may have been, the gap in Chinese censorship coverage reveals an interesting gap in the regime’s armor: like most everything else, the “Golden Shield” project is not invincible. Chinese users have long known that they can circumvent government blacklists with proxy servers – something the government actively cracks down on, creating a game of cat and mouse – but now, apparently, they can flat-out overwhelm it too.

With the country reportedly encouraging up to 500 million of its rural citizens to migrate to urban population centers – putting each of those migrants all the closer to computers and cellphones – can internet censors keep up?





"People Don't Respect Confidentiality in This Industry" -- Sony Computer Entertainment of America President and CEO Jack Tretton
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