China delay 'victory for public opinion'

The communist government had originally ordered the software come with all PCs sold in the country from Wednesday, prompting criticism at home and abroad of what was seen as a new attempt to control the Internet.

Beijing defended its decision as necessary to filter pornographic content, but state media announced late Tuesday the order had been delayed “as some computer producers said such a massive installation demanded extra time.”

Analysts said the postponement was a climbdown in the face of pressure from domestic netizens, lawyers and even some state media, as well as foreign governments, rights and trade bodies.

“In all these years of Internet control and censorship policies, this is the first time the government has backed down while public reaction is so strong,” said Xiao Qiang, head of the University of California’s China Internet Project.

“It has never backed down on policies that need to control the public.”

The government has not yet given a new timetable for when computers in China will have to include the Green Dam Youth Escort software, but the move was welcomed.

“It’s very encouraging, it shows the government took the right decision on what was in its own interest,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“It shows China is not impervious to external and internal pressure, this is a victory for government and censorship critics.”

China has a history of blocking websites carrying politically sensitive topics such as the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown on democracy protesters, the banned Falungong spiritual movement or criticism of the government.

But observers say the nation’s huge online population, the world’s largest at around 300 million, is gaining in strength and influence.

“These are relatively well-educated people who know what they are doing, and that represent a new, powerful lobby,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, professor of political science at Hong Kong Baptist University.

The order that manufacturers either pre-install the software or include it on a disc accompanying new computers has also made people at home and abroad more acutely aware of China’s censorship policies, analysts said.

“By definition, people must not know censorship exists for it to succeed,” said University of California’s Xiao.

He pointed to all the keywords that had been revealed as being blocked by the software, spelling out to the public what the government considers sensitive.

The policy was formulated too quickly, said Mao Shoulong, professor of public administration at People’s University in Beijing.

“I think policymakers did not expect the backlash while making the policy, which was made too hastily. It was too simple and so problems arose,” he said.

The decision to delay the software could also be a sign of divisions within the top layers of government, some observers said.

“The fact that the government decided to bow to pressure at the cost of handing over a symbolic victory to netizens shows that the project was probably the brainchild of hardliner elements within the government,” said Bequelin.

“But they miscalculated and have now been burned by a very high-profile failure.”

However, Xiao warned that the delay was not a sign of any future relaxation of censorship rules, with online comments about news of the postponement blocked on major web portals such as sina.com and sohu.com.

“The government decided that giving more Internet freedom could threaten its power status quo, so censorship is an indispensable part of China’s Internet policy, I don’t think the failure of Green Dam will change that,” he said.

“I’m afraid they may even punish some netizens now, some bloggers who wrote about censorship recently received threatening messages on their blogs and they might use this to intimidate others, and even detain some”.

 

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China delay 'victory for public opinion'