China's Quieter, Gentler 'Great Firewall' Or Social Media Ploy?

Today, China released a white paper titled, "The Internet in China," that in Western parlance could be considered a public relations make-over for a brand that has long been associated with censorship and government control. Is there a crack in the Great Firewall, or has China been dogged into corner by its netizens crying for their right to free speech on the Internet?

Issued by the National People's Congress (NPC) of the People's Republic of China, described as the "highest organ of state power," the 31-page treatise was released approximately 3 months after a censorship battle prompted Google to cease and desist its operations, as one of the mainland's search engines.

Describing its small percentage of Internet users as a "digital gap," the government looks to its increase its netizen population base of 384 million from 29 to 45 percent. Apparently, in addition to the make-over, China would like to get a decent return on its investment (ROI). The white paper indicated that the People's Republic claims to have already spent 4.3 trillion yuan on its Internet network over the course of the last 12 years (1997 to 2009).

Oddly enough, the white paper spoke favorably of Twitter, even though the microblogging service has been banned in China since last year. It lauded the platform as a "fast-growing service that allows people to express themselves."

Also, China, which routinely blocks Web sites such as Facebook and YouTube gave no sign there would be an easing up on the "Great Firewall" — the nickname for the network of filters that keep mainland Web surfers from accessing material the government deems sensitive.

While it's rhetoric on censorship was toned down from previous declarations of this type, it did refer to its Chinese law that prohibits the spread of "contents subverting state power, undermining national unity, infringing upon national honor and interests, inciting ethnic hatred and secession" as well as the typical condemnation of pornography and acts of terror.

The paper also warned, that "citizens are not allowed to infringe upon state, social and collective interests or the legitimate freedom and rights of other citizens. No organization or individual may utilize telecommunication networks to engage in activities that jeopardize state security, the public interest or the legitimate rights and interests of other people."

As far as the blogosphere, China has over a million bulletin boards and 220 million bloggers - over 80 per cent of Web sites offer some kind of forum or reader comment system. Every day some three million messages are posted on such boards or blogs.

Reinforcing its make-over posture, the Chinese government believes this online debate that the Internet offers in the confines of its territories is far in advance of any other country. Focusing on altruism, it seeks to make its netizens believers that it has their best interest at heart.

Perhaps the government's grip on its society will eventually fade with time, and the Great Firewall will soon open up more portals for its citizens to past through. We could only hope - because for those that have read Martin Jacques book, "When China Rules The World," we may all have to contend with the rules and regulations this country's controls and dictates in the decades to come.

But for the time-being, take our POLL and let us know how you feel about China's attempt at a 'censorship make-over.'