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Beijing China Internet Censorship by Ryanne Hodson October 1st, 2008 Delicious



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China Dazzles The World Blind

Beijing, China

We recently returned from a 15-day trip to Beijing for this summer’s Olympic Games and what some would call China’s “coming out as a global superpower” party. Though we were not there to attend any of the official events, we had a very positive experience with Beijing citizens— their hospitality and generosity welcomed us at every corner. Every enthusiastic family we met exclaimed “Welcome to Beijing!” in English. It was also a treat to watch the games live as they happened, sometimes only a short distance away from where we were in the city.

Our mission was to document actions by Students for a Free Tibet, who were protesting China’s almost 60 year occupation of Tibet. Using a small HD camera and a laptop, we were able to grab high− quality video and photos, upload to a secure FTP server, and get the media out to the world.

Visiting Beijing during the ’08 Olympics for the specific purpose of documenting protests was like being in two very different places at once. The celebratory mood of the city could be felt everywhere. The games were shown 24 hours a day on TV screens in malls, buses, subway cars and station, and in every bar, cafe, hotel lobby, and tiny mom and pop store. We were essentially tourists, as you can see in my more personal videos. But underneath our point−and−shoot fascination with this rising global superpower was the specific task to capture the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

As independent media makers with no established credentials, it was a frightening task to attend an action and document it properly without getting arrested for just being there. We had no hand in the physical actions themselves. We were there only to document— much like Associated Press photographers and British ITV reporter John Ray who, incidentally, got pushed around, was questioned, and had media confiscated. These incidents made it clear that the cooperation of independent folks (videobloggers, photographers, etc.) with corporate media outlets was essential. Anyone with a camera, voice recorder, or a pen was equally threatening in the eyes of the Chinese government.

In a country so locked down on free speech, we had to often speak in hushed tones and not even mention the word ‘Tibet’ in public for fear of arrest. The Tibetan flag is completely illegal and cannot be shown in all of China. We coordinated with our SFT people mostly through Instant Message and Twitter, often preferring those tools to talking on the phone. Secure instant messages are silent and extremely effect in situations where you’re freaking out over possibly getting arrested. Several of our fellow media makers, in town for the same reasons, were not so lucky and got arrested and detained for seven days after being followed by plainclothes police for several days prior. Fortunately for them, this is probably the worst detention a Westerner would endure in China. A Tibetan or a Chinese person would most likely face disappearing indefinitely— a light way of saying they would probably be murdered. [Read the story of Tibetan filmmakers who recently “disappeared” after releasing Leaving Fear Behind, a film about life in Tibet under Chinese rule.]

I always shock myself when the Olympics roll around, as I tend to get swept up in the drama of the individual athletes. Their stories and accomplishments often triggering emotions that are not often reserved for ginormous, corporate−sponsored sporting events. Watching the games while in Beijing was certainly a once in a lifetime treat. But as the days went by, my emotional high was cut down by the reality of China’s government. We continued to roam the tourist−packed streets by day, but the presence of plainclothes police at potential protest sites at night was chilling.

A Tibetan flag, a canvas banner that says “Free Tibet,” or a person uttering the words “democracy” and “free speech“ were so threatening that they could only be displayed for moments. Any video or photos captured would only be seen by citizens outside of China since the government controlled all the media in the country. The only citizens who witnessed these events where the ones walking by at the moment. Reading the news online, for me, was the icing on the cake. You could access Google news results of protests, sure, but click on the links to read the article and you would get a “server timed out“ error every time. Cruise the New York Times homepage all you want, but many of the images were greyed out little checkerboards— and again, clicking around got you nowhere. We made sure to install the IP bouncing software Tor so that we could surf and read freely, though my search results were often in German or French. Hey, that’s better than nothing.

The Republican National Convention began right as we were coming home from Beijing. I read reports and saw videos of riot police pre−emptively raiding independent media and protesters offices before the convention. During the convention, credentialed photographers and journalists were being hauled away and arrested in droves during protests. What didn’t the police want us to see? Isn’t this the United States, where we have freedom of the press and freedom of speech? This news was not surprising, but I couldn’t help myself from being shocked and frightened at how similar it felt to being in China.

Reflecting on our trip to Beijing, we have a more clear understanding that this is not just about the Free Tibet movement— this is about basic human rights in Tibet, China, and the rest of the world. Tibetans can’t speak out about what is happening in their country. Chinese can’t speak out about what is happening in their country. Hell, we’re having a hard time not getting arrested in Minneapolis. Some might argue that this is the only thing these cultures have in common, but we believe it will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and the tiny spark that ignites decades of dissent from all corners of China. Most recently, the Chinese government has been slack on regulations, allowing food manufacturers to use poison in pet and baby food. Do they think their people aren’t going to get a little testy after their children and pets are dead? The protests by Students for a Free Tibet demonstrated to the world that China, with it’s oppressive treatment of their people and the block on information their citizens should have a right to access, cannot rise to the level of global superpower without facing the consequences of their actions.

For more info on China’s occupation of Tibet and how you can get involved, check out Students for a Free Tibet. Check out this wrap−up article on the CCTV Banner Hang in the Washington Post and an op−ed about China’s use of the Olympics to lie about human rights. We were also interviewed by Xeni on Boing Boing TV.


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