Message to authorities: our text lives are private

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 January, 2010, 12:00am

Just as people in the West have become addicted to thumbing on their BlackBerries as a main form of communication, most mainlanders cannot live these days without the text-messaging function on their mobile phones.

By sending or receiving short text messages, mainlanders exchange greetings, solicit business transactions, swap gossip, flirt, propose marriage or terminate a relationship. Text messaging is instant, chic, private and cheap, averaging 10 fen per item, and it has become an integral part of daily life for mainlanders.

According to data, mainlanders send or receive 1.5 billion text messages every day and analysts have calculated that they account for over half of the total volume of text messages sent globally every year.

As the mainland authorities have been trying to tighten controls over traditional media and the internet, text messaging has become an even more preferred form of communication.

That explains the strong public reaction to the announcement last week by China Mobile, the mainland's largest mobile phone operator, that it would suspend text-messaging services to mobile phone users in Beijing and Shanghai who are found to have sent messages containing 'unhealthy' content. Although the operator didn't define 'unhealthy', it usually refers to messages containing sexual content.

State media reports later suggested that the two other major mobile phone operators, China Telecom and China Unicom, would also follow suit and so would China Mobile branches in other provinces and municipalities.

Mobile phone operators said the campaign was mainly aimed at filtering out the 'dirty' messages, part of a wider national campaign against pornography, and said the text messages would be scanned for 'key words' provided by the police. The message function may be resumed only after the police evaluate the message and issue a certificate.

Mainland analysts say the latest campaign is part of the government's efforts to tighten control over the internet and other forms of communication, and while the authorities highlight pornography as the top priority, analysts believe the campaign is also aimed at cracking down on political dissent or any other information deemed inappropriate by the government.

For ordinary mainland mobile phone users, the latest crackdown is a blatant invasion of their privacy. Internet forums and blogs are full of angry and sarcastic comments aboutthe announcements, with some complaining the mobile phone operators have no right to screen private messages and they have failed to release details of what constitutes a 'dirty' message.

Others are worried that private messages containing a sexual flirtation between a husband and a wife or between lovers may qualify for suspension.

Many, including well-known on-line writer Han Han , have said in their blogs that since the announcement they have been sending large volumes of messages containing sexual innuendos in order to test the limit and patience of the mobile phone operators and the police.

Others have wasted no time in crafting and circulating sarcastic messages mocking the announcement mercilessly.

One of the popular messages has the Ministry of Agriculture issuing a notice to crack down on 'unhealthy' produce - ordering cucumbers and carrots to be cut into pieces before sale because of their 'unhealthy' shapes and for a ban on the growing of bananas.

Compared with the 'dirty jokes' told by comedians on TV or clubs in Western countries, the Chinese versions are truly moderate, mainly using sexual innuendo to liven things up.

Some bloggers have speculated that the authorities appear to have little stomach for those jokes partly because many of them poke fun at corrupt officials who have mistresses or visit prostitutes.

On the other hand, mainland mobile phone users receive numerous junk messages every day from senders who flog fake invoices, real estate, massage services, used cars and even guns, but the authorities and mobile phone operators do not seem to know how to stop those messages, which have increasingly become a nuisance.

All the authorities have to do is launch a campaign against such junk messages.

That would surely win applause from tens of millions of mainlanders.