Chipping Away at the Great Firewall, Pebble by Pebble

Online cencorship is relatively commonplace in China, but lately the country’s micro-blogging platforms seem to be gaining more attention from government censors.

The tentacles of this issue stretch into various nooks of the tech world, from the logistical challenges of policing the biggest Internet-using country in the world to the economic vitality of these companies: What, if any, impact will these sorts of actions have on Chinese Internet companies’ value in the eyes of Western investors?

In this podcast, ECT News reporter David Vranicar talks with Clifford Coonan, China correspondent for the Irish Times and The Independent. Coonan, who lives in Beijing, dissects the recent government censorship taking place on China’s micro-blogging platforms.

Listen to the podcast (18:09 minutes).

David Vranicar: Today we’re going to be talking with Clifford Coonan, who is the China correspondent for the Irish Times, and also The Independent.

He is in Beijing and we’re going to be talking a little bit today about some of the goings-on in the world of Chinese social media, and the recent spate of censorship that’s taken place and what some of the broader implications of that might be.

Clifford, thanks a lot for taking the time to chat, I really appreciate it.

Clifford Coonan: My pleasure.

Vranicar: First off, let me ask you about the broad theme of media censorship in China, or free speech issues. This of course is nothing new, although it seems like with the proliferation of social media and other online platforms, this rather old issue has a lot of new variables. You’ve been in Beijing for nine years, I think it is — what have you seen evolve with this issue? It’s been around for a long time, but there are a lot of new facets to it. How do you see it playing out right now?

Coonan: What we’ve seen over the last decade is sort of an evolution with how people express their opinions in China. Newspaper have always been very tightly controlled by the government. All of them are owned by the government to different degrees, so this means there has always been lots of control on the traditional media. …

As the internet has grown in China — and it’s grown a lot, as we all know — we’ve seen this evolution take place with blogs, people using the Internet with bulletin boards and other things. As they’ve done this, the government has created these sort of controls, almost like patches, that sort of block off things here and there and ultimately becoming more systematic about it. It’s resulted in what is colloquially known as the “great firewall of China,” which is particularly focused on taboo issues such as Tibet, Xinjiang, anything to do with criticism of the government, basically.

However, because the technology is evolving so fast, even the great firewall is being breeched, and that leads us to the current situation, where we see the microblogs which are really at the cutting edge in terms of people finding ways to express themselves in China.

Vranicar: I wanted to ask you about the technological challenges. I mean, it seems like an impossibly daunting task to legislate what people are typing, especially as the number of places that people can use as a platform has grown considerably. It seems like a real cat and mouse game. Is the Chinese government able to keep up? To what extent are they successful — not so much with the newspapers and TV — but with these other media that you’re talking about?

Coonan: Well I think cat-and-mouse is a good way to describe it …

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