One of the sharpest challenges yet to China's stifling attempts at Internet censorship comes in the form of a lowly alpaca. Actually, the alpaca-like creature starring in online videos and lining Chinese store toy shelves is a mythical "grass-mud horse" whose name in Chinese sounds just like a vulgar expression involving a sex act and, well, your mother. Bawdy as it may seem, an Internet children's song about the animal, full of lewd homophones, has emerged as a galvanizing protest against the Communist government's efforts to ban "subversive" material political dissent, most importantly from the web. Purportedly a harmless fantasy, the wink-wink, giggle-giggle creation is a virtual thumb in the eye of China's unblinking censors.
For as long as there's been an Internet, China has sought to monitor and control how its citizens use it. That's no small task in the world's most populous country, which now has more web-surfers some 253 million than America. Technology known as "the Great Firewall" blocks web sites on an array of sensitive topics (democracy, for instance), while tens of thousands of government monitors and citizen volunteers regularly sweep through blogs, chat forums, and even e-mail to ensure nothing challenges the country's self-styled "harmonious society." Together this massive network of Internet nannying is imperiously called "the Golden Shield Project." Thousands of websites (many porn-related) are blocked outright, and destinations such as YouTube, Flickr and Wikipedia are heavily restricted. Web users in Internet cafes where the vast majority of Chinese go online must supply personal information in order to sign on. (See pictures of the Dalai Lama.)
Ironically, it was U.S. technology firms that created much of the technology supporting the Great Firewall, and companies such as Google, Yahoo and Microsoft have taken tough criticism from human rights advocates for tolerating the country's censorship. "I simply don't understand how your corporate leadership sleeps at night," the late Rep. Tom Lantos, a Holocaust survivor, told tech representatives at a 2006 House hearing. Yahoo has taken the most heat, after it acknowledged giving the government information that led to the imprisonment of at least one Chinese journalist. (The company says it was required to comply with Chinese law.) Google has established a separate web site for China, Google.cn, that it self-censors to satisfy Chinese authorities. The search giant argues that offering a limited set of information in China is better than no information at all.
The government's rules for what's permissible online are sweeping and, like much of its rhetoric, vague. News, for instance, should be "healthy" and "in the public interest." Audio or video content must not damage "China's culture or traditions." And nothing must challenge the Communist party. The guidelines leave many media outlets and web surfers baffled. Last December, for example, the New York Times reported that its website had been inexplicably blocked, while earlier in the year the BBC's English language content was just as surprisingly unblocked, with visitors on Chinese computers quickly jumping from about 100 to 16,000. James Fallows of the Atlantic writes that such "selective enforcement" can lead to the most stifling restriction of all self-censorship: "The idea is that if you're never quite sure when, why and how hard the boom might be lowered on you, you start controlling yourself, rather than being limited strictly by what the government is able to control directly." Not like most Chinese care, though. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 80% of Chinese think the Internet should be managed or controlled, and 85% think the government should be responsible for doing it.
Internet controls were loosened in advance of last year's Beijing Olympics, and many western journalists saw scant sign of the Golden Shield, as the Internet was kept largely unfettered during the games. Restrictions have tightened again, however, especially since December, when democracy supporters used the Internet to circulate the "Charter 08" petition challenging the government. That crackdown, in part, has fed the grass-mud horse craze and similar online double entendres designed to flout the government's role as Big Brother. As one Chinese blogger told the Times, even with the most modern technology trying to hold them back, people will find a way to express themselves. "It is like a water flow if you block one direction, it flows to other directions, or overflows."