Beijing plays with online fire

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 February, 2009, 12:00am

For the mainland's tens of millions of netizens, the hottest topic lately has been the central government's high-profile internet crackdown on so-called low-class content.

Seven government departments, including the Ministry of Public Security, launched the drive on January 5. It targeted internet sites and blogs containing content that 'harms public morality and corrupts youth'.

Since then, the government has shut down more than 1,500 so-called pornographic websites and has promised a long campaign against 'low-class' content. It has warned internet giants such as Google, MSN and Baidu that they could be shut down if they continue to link to such material.

Overseas media have questioned the motives for the campaign, wondering if it is part of the government's efforts to curb dissent in a year of politically sensitive anniversaries, including the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown.

Mainland officials have strongly denied there is a political motive, saying the move has won applause from many helpless parents who have been very vocal about widespread pornography on the internet and its negative influence on their children.

Indeed, about 36 per cent of the mainland's nearly 300 million netizens are aged 19 or under.

But mainland officials seem to have been overly confident. The latest crackdown, the biggest so far, will fizzle out just like the previous ones. Moreover, it may prove counterproductive to the government's intention to maintain social stability.

As officials have rightly pointed out, the government's move is no different from laws in the United States and Europe that aim to keep young people away from harmful sites.

But what officials failed to note is that while western countries have stepped up efforts against paedophiles, they do not have laws banning online pornography.

Even if they wanted to, pornography would be impossible to ban, especially because of people's natural interest in sex and because porn has been arguably one of the main drivers behind the explosive growth of the internet all over the world, the mainland included.

Many of the mainland websites that have become the targets of the crackdown have simply posted or provided links to nude pictures to attract viewers to their sites.

Just like previous crackdowns, the high-profile publicity over the latest drive is more likely to have an adverse effect among curious young people and generate more interest in porn.

Moreover, many netizens have argued in chat rooms that authorities have done a very poor job in sex education in schools, hence young people have no choice but to turn to the internet.

Many mainland intellectuals have also taken issue with the particular choice of the keyword the authorities have used to justify the crackdown: Di Su , or 'low class'.

The word has a derogatory tone and can refer to anything that is not considered highbrow. Such a sweeping definition can presumably enable the authorities to clamp down not only on porn, but also on superstition and other low taste things of which they do not approve.

But in such a culturally and educationally diverse society, it is nothing but wishful thinking for the government to expect any success in making everyone highbrow.

Finally, and this may sound cynical, but the government's online cleanup, part of a wider campaign to create a 'favourable atmosphere' to celebrate the 60th anniversary in October of the founding of the People's Republic, may prove counterproductive.

By blocking access to 'low-class content' in cyberworld, the government may inadvertently drive the attention of tens of millions of netizens, young people in particular, to focus on the harsh situation in the real world: faltering economic growth and soaring unemployment.