How Much Do the Chinese Know About Tibet?
AP/ABC News[Saturday, March 22, 2008 01:25]
Chinese Government Censors Clamping Down on News of Protests

TAIPEI, Taiwan, March 20, 2008 - With all eyes on Tibet and its violent anti-China protests this week, Beijing has been trying its hardest to control the world's view of the crisis, affecting journalists and citizens alike.

Chinese authorities report that 19 people have been killed. Tibetan exile groups have claimed over a hundred deaths.

Since the violence began in Tibet, officials in Beijing imposed strict Internet controls in an effort to regulate the news emerging from Tibet and neighboring provinces. Google News and YouTube, along with Taiwan news sites, were blocked last weekend.

Highly trafficked Chinese blogs such as Tian Ya were highly censored as well. Chinese versions of Yahoo and the wildly popular Microsoft MSN ran identical reports from the government run news agency Xinhua.

"CCTV has reported [on Tibet]. Xinhua News Agency has also reported it. But Tianya cannot," one user posted on a tourism-themed thread on Tian Ya's public bulletin boards.

Liu Yong, 30, an editor who lives in Beijing said he immediately felt the online impact as the Tibet conflict escalated earlier this week. On Sunday and Monday, he noticed that there was markedly less Chinese language coverage on the issue.

"I couldn't get onto's coverage of the situation in Tibet at first. So I tried to check foreign news outlets such as the [Associated Press]," Liu said. "I had trouble accessing."

Peter Wing, a 24-year-old American working in Beijing, also encountered the censorship this week.

"I first heard about the riots on CNN while watching TV at home [in Beijing]. They went to a 'Breaking News' segment to cover the story, and the screen went black for about five minutes," Wing said.

Wing was also prevented from accessing Reuters articles on the topic.

"I have never come across a specific article that has been blocked by China's firewall. Usually, if something is blocked, it's an entire site."

Journalists Affected

For journalists in China, getting reliable information on Tibet has at times been at the mercy of the Chinese government. Journalists and tourists have been banned from entering the region.

"It [has become] evident that there was some correlation between concern about unrest spreading and the degree of confidence that the official felt that the situation was under control," explained Francis Moriarty, a Beijing-based journalist from Radio Television Hong Kong.

"The more it looked like [the news of the protests] might spread, the more the news would get eliminated."

In China, censorship of popular sites is routine. Directly accessing Wikipedia, BBC News and various blog platforms is rare if not impossible. Google "Tiananmen Square" from a Beijing computer and search results will detail travel itineraries and images of the square dotted with tourists and trinket vendors with no mention of the famous democracy protests.

How Internet Censorship Works

The Central Propaganda Department is responsible for overseeing censorship in China. Several separate state agencies censor online content by blocking websites, blogs, bulletin boards and e-mail.

There is a variety of ways that online information is censored. When using a search engine, certain keywords have been limited to provide filtered search results. At times, an error page will appear. At the highest level, selected IP addresses are blocked.

Individuals working or volunteering with state agencies patrol emails and blog posts. Search engines such as Google and Yahoo have agreed with the government to calibrate their search engines to comply with the country's filtering. Chinese search engines such as Baidu, China's most popular search engine, also comply.

Of China's estimated 210 million internet users, most log online at public computers or Internet cafes, known as "wang ba." These wang ba are required to record individuals' official identification and file their customers' online activities for 60 days.

If a user tries to access inappropriate Web sites, the wang ba is supposed to disconnect the user and file a report with a state agency. If a violator is found, punishment can include fines and, reportedly, imprisonment. Given the huge number of users, however, this practice is not always enforced.

Circumventing Censorship

Savvy Internet users can circumvent Beijing's blockage with proxy servers such as the German proxy Anonymouse to access the unreachable Web sites.

However, as the tension in Tibet has escalated, the proxies have also become unavailable.

Moriarty explained, "It appeared that all of the usual proxies were also shut down, even in the case of people who are very Internet savvy. In the worst of it, I was unable to access my emails."

Some foreign Web sites are finding their way around the blockage. Wired's Threat Level blog has posted videos of the violence in Tibet as a way to circumvent the government blocks.

China Digital Times, based out of Berkeley, Calif., posted a rotating slideshow of events in Tibet as they have unfolded over the past week.

Individuals have attempted to skip the censors by emailing links and text. Few have been successful.

"My friend in Chengdu [Sichuan Province] sent me a link with news and photos from a Tibet-related event there. The link was blocked," Liu explained.

As the situation in Tibet continues, censorship seems to be lifting. On Chinese language sites, the situation is returning to normal.

"Today on Yahoo, it seems that things are back to normal. It can be seen that there has been a change in the policy," said Liu.

As the censors have been lifted, the censorship problem does not go away. With the Olympics quickly approaching, many wonder if controls will continue to tighten, despite the public nature of the Games.

"The timing of this — before the Olympics, on the anniversary of 1959 uprisings in Tibet, and during [Central Communist Party] legislative meetings in Beijing – has probably also influenced the intensity," Liu told ABC News.

"I personally think this is not a simple problem," Liu said.

Wing, who has been living in Beijing for over two years, is troubled by how information is so easily influenced by government censors.

"It's frustrating that no one throughout the world knows what is going on. But it's more frustrating that, since I live in China, I know even less."