By Howard W. French
Copyright The New York Times
MONDAY, MAY 8, 2006
SHANGHAI To her fellow students, Hu Yingying appears to be a typical undergraduate, plain of dress, quick with a smile and perhaps possessed of a little extra spring in her step, but otherwise decidedly ordinary.
And for Hu, in her second year at Shanghai Normal University, coming across as ordinary is just fine, given the parallel life she leads. For several hours each week she repairs to a little-known on- campus office crammed with computers, where she logs on, unsuspected by other students, to help police her university’s Internet forums.
Once online, following suggestions from professors or older students, she introduces politically correct or innocuous themes for discussion.
Recently, she says, she started a discussion of which celebrities make the best role models, a topic suggested by a professor as appropriate.
Politics, even university politics, are banned on university bulletin boards like these. Hu says she and her fellow moderators try to steer what they consider negative conversations in a positive direction with a well- placed comment of her own. Anything they deem offensive, she says, they report to the university’s Web master for deletion.
During some heated anti-Japanese demonstrations last year, for example, moderators intervened to cool nationalist passions, encouraging students to mute their criticisms of Japan and discouraging any bellicose remarks.
Part traffic cop, part informer, part discussion moderator – and all done without the knowledge of her fellow students – Hu is a small part of a huge effort in mainland China to sanitize the Internet. For years, China has had its Internet police, reportedly including as many as 50,000 state agents who are online, blocking Web sites, erasing commentary and arresting people for what is deemed anti-Party, or anti-social, speech.
But Hu, one of 500 students at her university’s newly bolstered, student-run Internet monitoring group, is a cog in a different kind of machine, an ostensibly voluntary one that the Chinese government is mobilizing to help it manage the monumental task of censoring the Web.
In April, that effort was named “Let the Winds of a Civilized Internet Blow,” and is itself part of a broader “socialist morality” campaign started by the Chinese leadership to reinforce social and political control, known as the Eight Honors and Disgraces.
Under the Civilized Internet initiative, Internet service providers and other companies have been urged to purge their servers of offensive content, ranging from pornography to anything that smacks of overt political criticism or dissent.
The Chinese authorities say that more than two million supposedly “unhealthy” images have already been deleted under this campaign by various mainland Internet service providers, and more than six hundred supposedly “unhealthy” Internet forums were shut down.
These deletions are presented as voluntary acts of corporate civic virtue, but have a coercive aspect to them, because no company would likely risk being singled out as a laggard.
Having started its own ambitious Internet censorship efforts, or “harmful information defense system,” long before the latest government campaign, Shanghai Normal University, where Hu monitors her fellow students, is promoting itself within the education establishment as a pioneer.
Although most of its students know nothing of the university’s Internet monitoring efforts, the leaders of Shanghai Normal conducted seminars last week for dozens of other Chinese universities and education officials on how to emulate their success in taming the Web.
University officials turned away a foreign reporter, however, making clear that the university does not wish to publicize its activities more broadly. “Our system is not very mature, and since we’ve just started operating it, there’s not much to say about it,” said Li Ximeng, deputy director of the university propaganda department. “Our system is not open for media, and we don’t want to have it appear in the news or be publicized.”
For her part, Hu beams with pride over her contribution toward building what the government calls a “harmonious society.”
“We don’t control things, but we really don’t want bad or wrong things to appear on the Web sites,” she said. “According to our social and educational systems, we should judge what is right and wrong. And as I’m a student cadre, I need to play a pioneer role among other students, to express my opinion, to make stronger my belief in Communism.”
While the larger Civilized Internet campaign all but requires companies to step forward and demonstrate their vigilance against what the government deems harmful information, the new censorship drive on college campuses shows greater subtlety and some might say greater deviousness, too.
It is here that the government is facing perhaps its most serious challenge: how to orient and maintain control of young people’s thoughts in a world of increasingly free and diverse information. And the answer relies heavily on stealth.
For one thing, interviews with numerous students at a sprawling and well-manicured campus of Shanghai Normal University showed that few knew anything about the student-run monitoring, and none of those who had heard of it had imagined that such a large number of students had been enlisted for it.
“It’s true there are some bad things on the Internet, but they shouldn’t overdo it,” said one student, Liao Xiaojing. “Five hundred is too many.”
Others expressed more alarm. “Five hundred members sounds unbelievable,” said a male undergraduate who gave his name only as Zhu. “It feels very weird to think there are 500 people out there anonymously trying to guide you.”
As they try to steer discussion on university bulletin boards toward what the authorities consider to be a healthy direction, the monitors pose as otherwise ordinary undergraduates, in a bid for greater persuasive power.
Even topics that would seem to outsiders totally devoid of political interest merit the monitors’ intervention. When one recent discussion about the reported sale online of a video showing the torture of a cat grew heated, with some commentators urging harsh punishment or even death to the animal abusers, and others saying the video should be sold to the Japanese, because of their supposed fondness for perverse material, several monitors jumped in and began talking about the need to develop the Chinese legal code to handle such matters.
Just as remarkable, though, is how the monitors themselves have been convinced that they are not engaging in censorship, or exercising control over the free speech of others. In interviews with five of the monitors, each initially rejected the idea that they were controlling expression, and occasionally even spoke of the importance of free speech.
“Our job consists of guidance, not control,” said Ji Chenchen, 22, majoring in travel industry studies. “Our bulletin board’s character is that of an official Web site, which means that it represents the university. This means that no topics related to politics may appear.”
A classmate, Tang Guochao, 20, spoke in fervent terms about what he and his fellow monitors were doing. “A bulletin board is like a family, and in a family, I want my room to be clean and well-lit, without dirty or dangerous things in it.”
Chinese efforts to censor and control the Internet in the broader society have often come up short against the curiosity and inventiveness of ordinary Web surfers, who constantly develop ingenious ways to find content that is banned and to discuss controversial topics.
Several students at Shanghai Normal University said they expected the same thing to happen there.
“I don’t think anybody can possibly control any information in Internet,” said Ji Xiaoyin, 20, a third-year student studying mechanical design. “If you’re not allowed to talk here, you just go to another place to talk, and there are countless places for your opinions. It’s easy to bypass the firewalls, and anybody who spends a little time researching it can figure it out.”
Ma Lihong, an education major, questioned whether it was possible to monitor every Web site. “If there is a hot topic, people can never be prevented from finding it,” Ma said. “People’s thoughts can never be strangled. With one click on the Internet you can find anything.”
By Howard W. French