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The great firewall of China

In the space of about a decade, China's tech development has raced ahead to catch up with some of the most advanced countries in the West. But there are still stark differences, finds Richard Taylor. With a rapidly expanding online population, it is tempting to see China as hurtling full speed towards digital nirvana, but all is not quite what it seems. Somewhere along the way the idea that the Chinese people should be allowed to inform and be informed appears to have been lost. China is proof that the net can be developed and strangled all at once. Being online here is a distinctly hit and miss experience - fine if you want to access mundane content, but try to get into anything considered even remotely sensitive by the government and it soon starts grinding to a halt. I tried accessing the BBC News website but to no avail. A government official told me there must be what he called "a technical problem". In truth, those "technical problems" are afflicting more and more information sites in China, for example the open source encyclopaedia Wikipedia, perhaps because it has fallen foul of the government's recent declaration that news and information in today's China should only be what it calls "healthy" and "in the public interest". One official from the Internet publishing department, Kuo Xiao Wei, admitted the authorities consider the net a mixed blessing. He said it abounds with pornography and gambling sites, and while it can be a source of good information, it also carries with it the possibility of spreading rumour and misinformation. "With 56 ethnic minorities, we can't risk one slandering another", he added So Chinese netizens find themselves surfing in the shadow of the world's most sophisticated censorship machine, which is now more menacing than ever. There is now an estimated 30,000-strong Internet police force which, with the aid of Western-provided technology, is dedicated to monitoring websites and emails. On a technical level the five gateways which connect China to the global Internet filter traffic coming into and going out of the country. Keyword blocking technology - much of it provided by western companies - is used to prevent access to offending sites. Even the country's 110,000 Internet cafés are now highly regulated and state-licensed, and all are equipped with standard surveillance systems. Self-censorship Increasingly, though, the authorities are relying on individuals to censor themselves or risk harsh and well publicised penalties if they dare to challenge the establishment. Steve Ballinger, of Amnesty International, says: "Amnesty International is aware of at least 64 cyber dissidents who are imprisoned right now just for peacefully expressing their opinions online, whether it's on an email or a website. "Some of the offences they're accused of are signing an online petition, sending information to a foreign organisation, or disseminating information about the SARS virus." Corporate China is also expected to play an active part in this self-censorship, keeping a close eye on content. One website forum administrator was willing to talk to me, but did not want to be identified. Suffice to say, he is in no doubt what his job entails. He said: "If you say anything against the government we've got to delete it, no exception, because it's a forum, it's a public place. If the government finds anything against them in the forum, that will jeopardise the company." Finding a way In spite of all this, many people here simply refuse to be cowed and they are finding some inventive ways to circumvent the restrictions. One simple and effective way is to turn to other forms of communication, like texting from mobiles and instant messaging, which have proved successful in distributing information quickly. Blogging is also proving a hugely popular alternative to websites, for individuals to find self-expression. Michael Anti has long been campaigning for free speech. His blog is renowned as being one of China's true sources of information. He believes the cat and mouse game between the government and its people is set to continue. "The government doesn't know how to control the blog thing. Next year maybe they'll be able to but we'll find other ways of expressing ourselves." Equipped with the right know-how, some Chinese are already using more sophisticated technologies to beat the authorities at their own game. Advanced software for example allows users anonymously to redirect their Internet activity through a third-party computer known as a proxy server, which is out of reach of the Chinese authorities.

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