China Web censorship stirs scorn, support

Residents in Beijing give their views on the Internet and whether its censorship affects them

Du Xiang Yu, a 20-year-old living in Beijing, has never heard of Facebook. He adds that he never visits any foreign websites, even though he uses the Internet everyday.

"I just play games on the Internet all the time," he said. "I don't really read much of the news online."

So when asked if he had ever encountered problems visiting websites that China's Internet censors have blocked, Du said he had none. "I've never had that problem," he added.

Du made his comments as the Chinese government intensified its efforts to clamp down on Web usage in the last several weeks.

Some experts say that Web censorship has reached its highest level yet. But the restrictions may not be as widely felt by society as Western observers might think.

Part of the reason that there is not a greater awareness of, or protest about censorship, might be because Internet penetration in China is not as great as it is in Europe or North America. In 2010, China's Internet penetration was at 31 percent compared to 77 percent of the U.S., according to Internet World Stats.

In China's capital of Beijing, where the Internet penetration rate is 69.4 percent, some residents say they rarely visit the Web and were not familiar with its censorship. "I don't have very much time to go online," said Tian Zhen Guo, a 40-year-old who sells protective plastic film meant to cover cellphones. "But the Internet is important," he added. "Right now is the Information Age."

While several residents in Beijing said they hardly use the Internet, those who do use the Web a great deal, or have broad knowledge about it, tend to chafe at restrictions.

"I think it's absolutely absurd and makes no sense," said Ang Qin Fu, a 29-year-old who works as project manager at an IT company, when asked about censorship. "I loathe those people who work for the censorship or who endorse it. It's really stupid and dangerous to this country."

Although China has the world's largest Internet population, at 457 million users, the country also strictly censors the Web. The government blocks websites that have content deemed inappropriate or too politically sensitive. Popular U.S. sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have all been targeted by censors and are currently inaccessible from within the country. At the same time, domestic sites operating in China will often filter out content in order to observe the nations' censorship rules.

In recent weeks, Internet censorship has caused disruption with Gmail, in what Google has said is an attempt by the Chinese government to block the service. Companies providing virtual private networks (VPNs), which allow users to bypass the censorship, have also reported access problems. Experts say the increased censorship is aimed at suppressing any political unrest sparked by the "Jasmine Revolution," an online call made last month urging the Chinese people to protest the government.

The new levels of Web censorship have angered Internet users like Ang. Over the years, he has had frequent problems accessing sites he enjoys visiting. Now he reports he can't even reach the login page to Gmail. "It seems like every good product that I use a lot is getting blocked. I can't help but curse," he said.

Xing Yun, a 30 year-old who works for an environmental protection agency, said he also opposes the Internet censorship. "There's a lot of information we have no way of gaining access to. We don't really know what's going on," he said. "It doesn't really affect my daily life, but it affects your sense of freedom."

Web censorship is part of China's control over information flow, including the news and television, Xing said. He noted how the Chinese media will ignore certain politically sensitive topics or cover news in a way that is skewed to support the Chinese government's stance.

"I think a lot of people don't know about the censorship. I think they just feel this is the reality. If you've never gone abroad, they might not know what the world is really like," Xing said.

Others say they support China's Internet censorship because it helps maintain a stable society.

"It does more good, than it does bad," said Kong, a 30-year-old who would only give his surname. "If they open the Internet it will cause some problems," he said. "Uneducated people or people with extreme views may abuse the information on the Web to try and influence others."

Currently, China's economy is on the rise, and people's lives are getting better as a result, he said. "Chinese people are very simple. Their demands are easy: 'I just want to eat well, I want to have clothes to wear, and I want to have good education.' They are easy to satisfy," Kong said. "I think Chinese society is getting better and better," he said. "From where I live, people now have cars and their salaries are going up."

Li Han Yun, a sophomore at Beijing Forestry University, said she understands and supports the Chinese government's intent, even as it may prevent her from visiting sites like Facebook. "China should control the Internet. There is a lot of dangerous content, like sites that teach you how you can commit suicide," she said. "These sites should all be blocked."

Li also noted that, so far, the censorship hasn't been much of a problem, adding that she uses local social-networking sites that are operated from within China. Still, the censorship can be a bit of nuisance, she said.

"Not being able to visit certain sites is irritating, but there's nothing I can do about it," she said.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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