The Great Firewall of China

For the people of China, the advent of the internet could have meant a new age of free expression, allowing them access to previously restricted and often sensitive information.

Unsurprisingly, then, Beijing has been quick to tighten its grip on the web, stopping potentially subversive material from crossing its borders.

Last year saw the birth of the State Internet Information Office, a new government body designed to control the content available to internet users.

It meant that while technology and social media were being celebrated as key factors in the Arab Spring uprisings, Beijing, ever aware of the threat of rebellion, was doing more than ever to ensure such tools were kept firmly in check.

In 2010, Google shut off its Chinese services and moved its operations from Beijing to Hong Kong, aiming to avoid being forced to self-censor search results.

Though government filtering means many of the results are still blocked, it marked the end of four years of Google censoring its own data for China’s online population – which, at 400 million, is the largest in the world.

Earlier this month censors banned Chinese web users from searching for the word ‘Ferrari’, after a Communist Party official’s son was said to have been killed when he crashed his supercar.

It adds to an ever-growing list of search terms that the government has seen fit to blacklist, ranging from the names of dissidents to instances of alleged human rights abuses.

Falun Gong, the dissident religious group smeared by the government as a cult, is high on the list of banned terms, while references to Tibet and the Dalai Lama are also restricted.

And, though it took place more than 20 years ago, searches relating to the violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square yield no results – demonstrating the Party’s determination to erase history.

The comments included rumours of the downfall of the country’s Shanghai leadership faction, a reference to high-level officials who hail from the coastal financial hub, which has traditionally been the home of reformers and modernisers in the Party.

Some of the comments claimed a possible ‘military coup’  had been attempted, along with other reports of gunfire and swarms of plain clothes and uniformed security officers on Changan Street, which is close to Tiananmen Square, the scene of the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy protesters.

All the reports have been removed by China’s army of internet censors and can no longer be accessed.

The rumours but the reports have caused a speculative and nervous atmosphere in the capital.

The alarming rumours were widely circulated early on Wednesday and follow the sacking of an ambitious corruption-busting official, Bo Xilai, who is reported to have close ties to nationalistic generals in the People’s Liberation Army.

Mr Bo, the Party Secretary of the mega-city of Chongqing in west China, was widely tipped to join the all-powerful, nine-strong Politburo Standing Committee in the autumn.

But he was sacked after his right-hand man and police chief, Wang Lijun, sought asylum at a U.S. consulate last month.

Mr Wang ‘feared for his life’ after he was dismissed for ordering an investigation into the business dealings of Mr Bo’s family.

The firing of Mr Bo, a telegenic, controversial figure who had been encouraging ‘Mao-stalgia’ – a return to the ‘red’ socialist culture and values of Chairman Mao Zedong –  has become a rare political drama in the authoritarian state as it prepares for a once-in-a-decade leadership change later this year.

Many observers of China’s opaque political elite are united in believing the ousting of Mr Bo has divided many within the Party, with the main division drawn between outgoing Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and officials close to the Minister of Public Security, Zhou Yongkang.

Mr Bo is the ‘princeling’ son of a famous communist revolutionary but his lavish lifestyle – his son reportedly went to Harrow and Oxford – and robo-cop approach to busting mafia gangs linked to businessmen and government officials caused controversy, with many claiming he used his anti-corruption drive to lock up political opponents.

But he curried favour with many Chinese with his calls for a revival of Maostalgia, a movement which saw Premier Wen Jiabao warn the country last week that it could not survive another Cultural Revolution, which, 45 years ago, caused untold misery and deaths, casting China back to the dark ages.

by Robbo Green

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