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Wall of China or FireWall?

Try as they might, countries will have difficulty in curbing their people's access to the internet.     A genie out of the bottle?     Reflect on China's situation, as explained by Rebecca MacKinnon, founder of Global Voices Online, in FP.

"Every news organization needs a social media strategy. Even China's government-controlled Xinhua News Agency now "tweets" news bulletins through Twitter-like microblogs called weibo -- through which more than 300 million users share details of their daily lives, jokes, gossip, and news.

Chinese companies running weibo services are required by the government to censor and monitor their users, blocking politically sensitive content. Yet despite weibo's best censorship efforts, China's chattering classes have outsmarted the system, using literary allusions, code words, and innuendo to pass around juicy leaks and tidbits from the foreign media about the alleged murder of English businessman Neil Heywood by associates of Gu Kailai, wife of the former Chongqing Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai, whose fall from grace has precipitated the biggest leadership crisis in China since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.

Censorship has even backfired in bizarre ways. After a long silence by official media on the subject, last week at 11 p.m. Beijing time Xinhua attempted to tweet an official news bulletin announcing that Bo had been stripped of his party posts and was under investigation for "serious discipline violations." Sina Weibo, the most popular of China's weibo services, censored Xinhua's tweet.

The use of Bo's name had triggered the company's automated censorship system -- programmed, ironically, in compliance with central government orders to block all tweets containing Bo's name. At the same time, Sina posted the text of the same Xinhua bulletin to its own news feed. Five minutes later, in response no doubt to irate phone calls, Sina unblocked Xinhua's tweet. Xinhua then posted a tweet (later removed) complaining that its own breaking story had been scooped by Weibo. This provoked a flurry of sarcastic commentary by witty weibo users, joking about how the government's propaganda apparatus had fallen victim to its own regulations.

The lesson of this episode? China's censorship and propaganda systems may be complex and multilayered, but they are obviously not well coordinated. Writing in the Guardian this week, dissident artist Ai Weiwei declared that while China's Internet censorship system may be the envy of autocrats worldwide, China's leaders need to understand that in the long run "it's not possible for them to control the Internet unless they shut it off." He was half right: While the Chinese government's tactics may be ham-handed and likely doomed to failure in the long run, they are working well enough to keep the Communist Party in power for the short to medium term."


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