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China Maintains Tight Grip on Communications


Google's threat last week to pull out of China following cyber attacks on its e-mail service is another reminder of the censorship and limits on Internet freedom in the country. Despite hopes that China would open up following the 2008 Olympics, Beijing continues to introduce new restrictions and monitoring systems on cell phones and Internet use.

Since ethnic violence flared in Xinjiang's capital Urumqi last July, China's government has kept the Internet switched off for most of the area's 20 million residents. Their thirst for the Internet inspired some people to travel hundreds of miles to a neighboring province just to visit Internet cafés.

Wang Dongsheng lives in the Xinjiang city of Kuerle and owns a business trading a local variety of jade. He says when he needs to look up information he calls a colleague in Nanjing and the colleague searches the Internet for him.

Wang says not having Internet access for almost half a year has been very inconvenient for his business and his personal life.

The Internet has been partly restored to the region, but only a few government-approved Web sites are accessible.

Until recently Wang also could not make international calls or send text messages. He says the government turned text messaging back on January 17th, but users are limited to sending 20 messages a day.

China says concerns about security are behind its clampdown on communications in Xinjiang. The government plans to double its spending on security in the far western region this year.

Outside Xinjiang, China often ties censorship measures to anti-pornography campaigns. This week local media reported an intensified collaboration between China's big cell phone operators and the government to monitor text messages as part of a crack down on texts with sexual content, known as sexting.

China Mobile, the largest cell phone provider in the country, says it will filter texts according to keywords provided by the state. Messages with sexual or other illegal content will result in service being cut off. Offenders must write a promise to the security authorities not to repeat their action to restore their texting privileges.

Cell phones are an important means of communication in China - last year more than half the population subscribed to cell phone services. China Mobile subscribers sent over 600 billion texts in 2008.

China also routinely blocks the Internet sites of foreign news organizations, including VOA, and activist groups. And social networking sites such as Facebook also are usually blocked.

Human rights activists say that measures like shutting off service in Xinjiang or sexting filters are really just pretenses for the government to limit communication.

Beijing human rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan says the rules about illicit text messages do not include proper standards to distinguish messages that might be a joke or otherwise represent no threat to society.

He says the government must not overlook the rights of cell phone users to communicate freely.

In addition to blocking telecommunications, China extensively monitors what its citizens, and others, say about it on line. The U.S. Internet giant Google says hackers recently attacked its e-mail service, apparently to spy on human rights activists. Google now says it is considering withdrawing from China unless its search system can operate without censorship.

Chinese officials have repeatedly denied responsibility for the attacks, and insist that the Internet is open, but say Google must comply with Internet laws.

Netizens in China have developed ways to navigate the Web more freely. A whole lexicon of Internet slang has evolved to evade censors, based mostly on the abundance of homonyms - words that sound alike but mean different things - in the Chinese language.

Another method of getting around censors is to use proxy servers or virtual private networks. Through these, a computer in China can log onto a foreign server and access the Internet without running into government filters. A spokeswoman for Hotspot Shield says about one million people in China use its free service. And executives at the paid service WiTopia say its user base in China doubles every year.

Alec Wang works at Johnson Computer Connections, a Beijing company that services medium-sized and small enterprises. He says over the past few years he has seen more individuals and businesses using virtual private networks, or VPNs.

He says VPNs allow users to visit a wider range of Web sites, which is especially helpful for international businesses to function.

While methods for scaling the "Great Firewall" multiply, so do Beijing's efforts to control telecommunications and online information. Many Internet users here are waiting to see if Google's brinksmanship will force China to show clearly that it has no intention of allowing full access to international telecommunications.

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