When I started my article about the Chrter 08 last month I couldn’t help wondering if it was well worth the effort. Most of the English speaking blogs and media had been very quiet about this issue, and in China nobody seemed to know anything about it. Two weeks after the Charter’s publication, I thought perhaps that was all we were going to hear of it.
I am pleased to see after all that the Chrter 08, in spite of the weaknesses I noted, is indeed slowly “flying into 2009″. From the English language blogs, it has since got more attention, with featured posts by Xujun Eberlein, Peking Duck, FM, and now also ESWN. Most importantly, in the Chinese speaking circles it is slowly gaining momentum, as is proven by the fact that the government is getting nervous and has closed down the whole site bullog.
ESWN and the CSM have written about this rather optimistically in my opinion. CSM quotes :
Zhang says more than 300,000 websites now link to the charter, and it’s being discussed on blogs, QQ groups, and other chat rooms. “It’s impossible to block information in society now,” he says.
I am afraid this statement has yet to be proved. Like ESWN’s Roland Soong notes, this number 300,000 is taken from the number of Google.com results. It is a relatively large number and it indicates that the subject has become popular in the Chinese internet forums. But little more than that. Of these results, only 1/3 come from mainland China, and 100,000 is attained easily by many of the hot topics coming up regularly on Chinese BBS (see ChinaSMACK).
The fact is that Chrter 08 is still an unknown movement in mainland China. Out of 5 local friends I asked, all with university degrees and fluent English, even today only one of them had heard the term (but knew no details). As for the majority of Chinese who live out of the cities and don’t use the internet, there is no way they can have heard about it. I don’t know who is the “peasant” that CSM mentions as a signer, but until I get some tangible evidence otherwise, I maintain that China doesn’t know about the Charter.
This is a very important point because, of the difficult path that Chrter 08 will need to run to achieve its goals, the first unavoidable condition is to become known to the public by beating the censors at their own game. As I said in my previous posts, the government has done an impressive job of silencing Chrter 08, but it is a sign of hope to see it little by little creeping back into the mainstream.
As I see it, the 3 phases and 3 main difficulties that the Charter will have to face to grow into a real mass movement are, in this order:
1-To be Known vs. internet censorship and lack of freedom of speech
2-To be Trusted vs. weaknesses that make it easy to manipulate against
3-To be Loved vs. lack of a spark, a leader, a name: the material of which Change is made
Charter Step 1 and the Internet Underworld
We will leave point 3 for a post in the future, supposing we ever get there. For the moment we are still stuck in phase 1, and it is far from clear that the Charter will make it past this point. We know that the Chinese government has developed a very sophisticated system to control information on the internet. But how does it work? What are its strengths and weaknesses to oppose the Charter? Following ESWN, I have conducted some research on Google and found the curious results below.
First, as Roland points out, if you search for Chrter 08 in Chinese, Google.cn is sending back this message:
“Some results are not displayed according to local laws, regulations and policies.”
This has made me think that indeed, when it comes to fighting censorship, the Charter has an insurmountable flaw: it is a document. Therefore, its title and content are fixed and it is extremely easy to locate by a bot. Worse even, in this era of internet search engines, nobody has still given the Charter a better nickname than that easily searchable title 08宪章. Any internet conversation where the Charter comes up, even if the contents are not copied, is sure to attract the Censor’s eye.
It might sound ridiculous at this point, but I’m serious: The Chrter 08 should be named Wang. Or Zhang or Liu, any other term that is not exclusively related to it and therefore cannot be banned. Two centuries ago, the first Spanish constitution of 1812 was nicknamed by the people “La Pepa”, a popular name for a girl that many intellectuals scorned at the time. Two years later, during the reign of autocrat Fernando VII, this name became extremely useful to dissidents to acclaim the Constitution without risk to their lifes, with the famous slogan “Viva la Pepa!!”
Do you still think this is not relevant? Well, follow me with the next google experiment. If you are in China, try to search Google.cn for sensitive political terms like: Falungong, Tiananmen 89 massacre, Liu Xiaobo, you name it. You might be surprised to find not the message above, but rather a reset connection, which only affects viewers from mainland China and which is easily bypassable with a proxy or VPN. It looks like this:
So what is that first message that Roland Soong and myself have been obtaining? It is not the political censorship message, but another one with which many Chinese men are acquainted. It is the notice you get when you look for some well defined terms, like those found in pornography. As an example, I suggest you try a search for the word “口交”. I will not translate it directly here, but let’s just say it is not a blog job. Run the search, surprised? Try any other “vulgar” word and you will end up with Google’s Chrter 08 message. This is the first and most basic level of defense in the Great Wall, the porn block !
Pretty annoying for the drafters, I guess. But above all, it is very negative for the transmission of Chrter 08, because by calling it this name, the supporters are giving themselves away directly to the Censors. And this is before phase 2- direct manipulation- has even kicked in.
So we are back to the basics. Like I already said, this Charter is lacking the popular element, the leadership that succesful movements have had in the past, the brand and name and life that would make a whole people roar “Viva la Pepa!”, or the one that years ago inspired a man to dance with the tanks on Changan Avenue. As it stands, it is the cold work of the intellectuals, and nobody has felt the urge to call it Wang.
Note on Censorship
Finally, one more thing I cannot leave unmentioned. It is not news for anyone that Google have a deal with the Chinese government to collaborate in the repression of the internet. What is news to me is that Google is so openly censoring the principles by which all decent democratic countries abide, including the most basic of Human Rights. Google should be careful, they are entering a dangerous area, one which can backfire in a not very far future.
One more final test for the shame of the censors: when you run the Charter o8 search on Google.cn and you get the message screen, go to the number 4 item on the list of results. I just did that tonight and I believe I found out the essence of Google’s repression algorithm: “Ban all except the People’s Daily”. Indeed, this is the only way I can imagine that a People’s Daily article comes up as the single result for the search 零八宪章. It is a random PD article that coincidentially contains separate instances of 宪章 and 零八.
What a shame, Google, what a shame. Watch your steps today, lest you might find tomorrow that the people does not forget.
UPDATE: The results on Google change with time, and this last People’s daily result is not on page 4 anymore. In any case, the search for 零八宪章 on Google.cn gives results that have always one thing in common: they are all from websites controlled by the government, like china.com, cctv, etc. No results from the thousands of forums and blogs that discussed the issue.
UPDATE2: See this post for a more clear explanation of how the internet censorship works in China and this one for the ways in which Google -and many other search engines- collaborate with the Chinese government. I have learned a lot in the year since I wrote this article, and I know now some of the info contained is not technically correct. I am not updating the text above anymore, so if you are interested in the technical part you should absolutely visit these two posts.