- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 7, 2008

BEIJING — Chinese Internet censorship is little more than a joke to Li Shenwen, an unemployed computer game enthusiast who remained glued to his keyboard well past midnight in a dingy “Wangba” or “NetBar” on a recent Saturday night.

Official blocks on controversial or political Web sites pose no obstacle to any experienced user who wants to get past them, said Mr. Li, who picks up spending money by amassing points in computer games and selling them to a broker who in turn sells them online to avid but inept Western gamers.

Reluctant to be distracted from his profitable pursuit, Mr. Li, in his mid-20s, offered a $14 wager that he could get to any three blocked sites in less than five minutes. The bet was made.

Opening a new browser, he promptly brought up outlawed content in Chinese and English from YouTube, Voice of America, Falun Gong and, for added measure, Reporters Without Borders — all within less than three minutes.

“You could have asked anyone here to do this,” Mr. Li said with a wave around the room. But he added, they are more interested in using skills to access restricted pornography sites than to read about politics.

“I don’t care about the stuff you want to see. What’s the point?” he asked.

China now has or will soon have the world’s largest Internet population, having drawn roughly equal with the 215 million American users after a 53 percent increase last year, according to the China Internet Network Information Center.

And while Western human rights groups agonize over China’s use of technology to censor the Internet, a great many of those Chinese Web users are much like Mr. Li — tech savvy but bored by politics.

Nevertheless, Chinese authorities are relentless in their efforts to weed out access to what they consider inappropriate content — an effort that is becoming even more determined in the run-up to the Beijing Olympic Games, which begin in August.

Officials are acutely aware that presence in China of 20,000 journalists and a predicted 500,000 visitors will offer a prime opportunity for political dissidents to air their grievances to a worldwide audience.

The most recent Internet content to come under the censors’ thumb is user-generated and -posted videos of the sort that have become widely popular on the U.S.-based Web site YouTube.

Under newly promulgated regulations, such video sharing can be hosted only by state-run companies, which can be trusted to quickly take down any images that might spread dissent or damage China’s image ahead of the Olympics. Similar restrictions apply to information posted by the country’s bloggers as well as message boards and chat rooms.

The crackdown on video distribution was sparked by footage of marital problems between famed sportscaster Zhang Bin and his wife, Hu Ziwei, who accused him of infidelity during the prerecorded launch of state-run China Central Television’s Olympics channel on Dec. 28.

Mrs. Hu’s accusation was not broadcast on television, but the edited tape of her outburst appeared hours later on Tudou, a Chinese video site. While the clip was quickly taken down by the Chinese portal Sina, it has been viewed several hundred thousand times on YouTube, which is outside China’s control.

China has also come under criticism over a clampdown on a list of specific Internet search phrases, a move that was denounced on Feb. 1 by Reporters Without Borders and China Human Rights Defenders, an international network of activists and rights monitoring groups.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Liu Jianchao responded to that criticism earlier this week, saying China’s government had adopted “a very open attitude toward management of the Internet.”

“Chinese people have easy access to the information they need, and we have policies in place to guarantee their access to information,” he said.

“Some say the Chinese government should make the Internet completely free, but this is not in the interest of the people, so the government adopts necessary measures, and we hope outside organizations view this in an objective manner.”

Asked about reports that China has jailed 30 journalists and 50 other citizens for comments made online — more than any other country — Mr. Liu said the Chinese constitution enshrined freedom of speech and “we do not accept such accusations.”

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