Virtually impossible

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 May, 2007, 12:00am


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Some 30,000 to 40,000 people who monitor the internet for the mainland authorities are no longer enough for the job. From the end of next month, 'virtual cops' will join them. Cartoon icons of policemen will appear on websites nationwide to remind internet surfers that the government is watching. The idea is that their mere presence will make people pause before posting messages on sensitive subjects.

News of the virtual police plan, which was introduced on Shenzhen websites last year, emerged at the same time as the Ministry of Public Security - in conjunction with nine government agencies - launched its latest crackdown on illicit internet activity. Like previous campaigns, the ministry's main targets are pornography, online strip shows and gambling websites, including the numerous unofficial online lotteries.

Vice-Minister of Public Security Zhang Xinfeng said the aim was to purge the internet of all 'decadent' and illegal websites. As noble as that sounds, the crackdown is doomed to fail, like previous attempts to clean up the Web. In the case of pornography, the simple fact is that while porn sites account for just 1 per cent of all webpages, a University of California survey last year found that one in four Web searches involve pornography.

There is an argument that says the internet would never have expanded so quickly if it were not for porn. The fact that mainland citizens are prepared to risk lengthy prison sentences to supply porn suggests that, rather than indulging in futile attempts to stamp it out, officials might look at legalising pornography. It would take the industry out of the shadows and help stop the exploitation of the women working in it.

But common sense is in short supply on internet policy and other aspects of popular culture. Soon after the ministry announced its campaign, the Ministry of Culture disclosed details of a licensing system for 30 categories of cultural workers. Apart from employees in museums, libraries and institutions such as art galleries, performers - including singers, musicians, dancers and actors - must pass an exam to prove their worthiness to work in the cultural sector. Newspaper columnists and netizens have attacked the plan as arbitrary and ill-thought-out. Apart from the ludicrous idea of proving artistic merit via a written exam, it is seen as another way to raise additional revenue because there will be a licence fee. Above all, it seems unnecessary.

Issuing endless edicts on regulating popular culture has been the year's theme. Also on the horizon are plans to require online magazines, such as actress Xu Jinglei's new venture Blossom, to apply for licences. With the 17th Communist Party Congress set to take place in October, officials want to be seen to be pro-active. But introducing unenforceable rules only makes them appear out of touch and ineffectual.

David Eimer is a Beijing-based journalist