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TEDGlobal 2012

Michael Anti: Behind the Great Firewall of China

June 29, 2012

Michael Anti (aka Jing Zhao) has been blogging from China for 12 years. Despite the control the central government has over the Internet -- "All the servers are in Beijing" -- he says that hundreds of millions of microbloggers are in fact creating the first national public sphere in the country's history, and shifting the balance of power in unexpected ways.

Michael Anti - Blogger
Michael Anti (Zhao Jing), a key figure in China's new journalism, explores the growing power of the Chinese internet. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
In the past several days, I heard people talking about China.
00:16
And also, I talked to friends about China and Chinese Internet.
00:20
Something is very challenging to me.
00:24
I want to make my friends understand:
00:27
China is complicated.
00:30
So I always want to tell the story, like,
00:33
one hand it is that, the other hand is that.
00:35
You can't just tell a one sided story.
00:39
I'll give an example. China is a BRIC country.
00:42
BRIC country means Brazil, Russia, India and China.
00:45
This emerging economy really is helping the revival of the world economy.
00:50
But at the same time, on the other hand,
00:56
China is a SICK country,
00:59
the terminology coined by Facebook IPO papers -- file.
01:02
He said the SICK country means Syria, Iran, China and North Korea.
01:08
The four countries have no access to Facebook.
01:14
So basically, China is a SICK BRIC country.
01:19
(Laughter)
01:23
Another project was built up
01:24
to watch China and Chinese Internet.
01:26
And now, today I want to tell you my personal
01:29
observation in the past several years, from that wall.
01:32
So, if you are a fan of the Game of Thrones,
01:38
you definitely know how important a big wall is for an old kingdom.
01:41
It prevents weird things from the north.
01:46
Same was true for China.
01:51
In the north, there was a great wall, Chang Cheng.
01:54
It protected China from invaders for 2,000 years.
01:58
But China also has a great firewall.
02:03
That's the biggest digital boundary in the whole world.
02:07
It's not only to defend the Chinese regime from overseas,
02:11
from the universal values, but also to prevent
02:16
China's own citizens to access the global free Internet,
02:20
and even separate themselves into blocks, not united.
02:23
So, basically the "Internet" has two Internets.
02:28
One is the Internet, the other is the Chinanet.
02:33
But if you think the Chinanet is something
02:37
like a deadland, wasteland, I think it's wrong.
02:40
But we also use a very simple metaphor, the cat and the mouse game,
02:47
to describe in the past 15 years
02:53
the continuing fight between Chinese
02:56
censorship, government censorship, the cat,
02:59
and the Chinese Internet users. That means us, the mouse.
03:02
But sometimes this kind of a metaphor is too simple.
03:09
So today I want to upgrade it to 2.0 version.
03:13
In China, we have 500 million Internet users.
03:18
That's the biggest population of Netizens, Internet users, in the whole world.
03:22
So even though China's is a totally censored Internet,
03:27
but still, Chinese Internet society is really booming.
03:32
How to make it? It's simple.
03:36
You have Google, we have Baidu.
03:39
You have Twitter, we have Weibo.
03:41
You have Facebook, we have Renren.
03:44
You have YouTube, we have Youku and Tudou.
03:47
The Chinese government blocked every
03:53
single international Web 2.0 service,
03:57
and we Chinese copycat every one.
04:01
(Laughter)
04:04
So, that's the kind of the thing I call smart censorship.
04:05
That's not only to censor you.
04:10
Sometimes this Chinese national Internet policy is very simple:
04:13
Block and clone.
04:18
On the one hand, he wants to satisfy people's need of a social network,
04:20
which is very important; people really love social networking.
04:25
But on the other hand, they want to keep the server
04:29
in Beijing so they can access the data any time they want.
04:32
That's also the reason Google was pulled out from China,
04:36
because they can't accept the fact
04:40
that Chinese government wants to keep the server.
04:42
Sometimes the Arab dictators didn't understand these two hands.
04:47
For example, Mubarak, he shut down the Internet.
04:52
He wanted to prevent the Netizens [from criticizing] him.
04:56
But once Netizens can't go online, they go in the street.
04:59
And now the result is very simple.
05:05
We all know Mubarak is technically dead.
05:08
But also, Ben Ali, Tunisian president,
05:14
didn't follow the second rule.
05:18
That means keep the server in your hands.
05:20
He allowed Facebook, a U.S.-based service,
05:24
to continue to stay on inside of Tunisia.
05:30
So he can't prevent it, his own citizens to post
05:33
critical videos against his corruption.
05:37
The same thing happend. He was the first
05:40
to topple during the Arab Spring.
05:44
But those two very smart international censorship policies
05:47
didn't prevent Chinese social media [from] becoming a really public sphere,
05:52
a pathway of public opinion and the nightmare of Chinese officials.
05:58
Because we have 300 million microbloggers in China.
06:04
It's the entire population of the United States.
06:08
So when these 300 million people, microbloggers,
06:12
even they block the tweet in our censored platform.
06:16
But itself -- the Chinanet -- but itself can create
06:21
very powerful energy, which has never happened
06:25
in the Chinese history.
06:29
2011, in July, two [unclear] trains crashed,
06:31
in Wenzhou, a southern city.
06:35
Right after the train crash,
06:38
authorities literally wanted to cover up the train, bury the train.
06:39
So it angered the Chinese Netizens.
06:44
The first five days after the train crash,
06:46
there were 10 million criticisms of the posting
06:50
on social media, which never happened in Chinese history.
06:54
And later this year, the rail minister
06:57
was sacked and sentenced to jail for 10 years.
07:01
And also, recently, very funny debate between
07:06
the Beijing Environment Ministry
07:11
and the American Embassy in Beijing
07:15
because the Ministry blamed
07:18
the American Embassy for intervening in
07:20
Chinese internal politics by disclosing
07:23
the air quality data of Beijing.
07:26
So, the up is the Embassy data, the PM 2.5.
07:29
He showed 148, they showed it's dangerous for the sensitive group.
07:36
So a suggestion, it's not good to go outside.
07:41
But that is the Ministry's data. He shows 50.
07:45
He says it's good. It's good to go outside.
07:51
But 99 percent of Chinese microbloggers
07:54
stand firmly on the Embassy's side.
07:58
I live in Beijing. Every day, I just watch
08:02
the American Embassy's data to decide whether I should open my window.
08:06
Why is Chinese social networking, even within the censorship,
08:15
so booming? Part of the reason is Chinese languages.
08:19
You know, Twitter and Twitter clones have a kind of
08:23
a limitation of 140 characters.
08:27
But in English it's 20 words or a sentence with a short link.
08:30
Maybe in Germany, in German language, it may be just "Aha!"
08:34
(Laughter)
08:37
But in Chinese language, it's really about 140 characters,
08:40
means a paragraph, a story.
08:45
You can almost have all the journalistic elements there.
08:48
For example, this is Hamlet, of Shakespeare.
08:52
It's the same content. One, you can see exactly
08:56
one Chinese tweet is equal to 3.5 English tweets.
09:00
Chinese is always cheating, right?
09:06
So because of this, the Chinese really regard this
09:10
microblogging as a media, not only a headline to media.
09:13
And also, the clone, Sina company is
09:19
the guy who cloned Twitter.
09:22
It even has its own name, with Weibo.
09:24
"Weibo" is the Chinese translation for "microblog".
09:27
It has its own innovation.
09:29
At the commenting area, [it makes] the Chinese Weibo
09:31
more like Facebook, rather than the original Twitter.
09:35
So these innovations and clones, as the Weibo and microblogging,
09:38
when it came to China in 2009,
09:43
it immediately became a media platform itself.
09:45
It became the media platform of 300 million readers.
09:49
It became the media.
09:53
Anything not mentioned in Weibo,
09:55
it does not appear to exist for the Chinese public.
09:58
But also, Chinese social media is
10:03
really changing Chinese mindsets and Chinese life.
10:05
For example, they give the voiceless people
10:10
a channel to make your voice heard.
10:13
We had a petition system. It's a remedy outside the judicial system,
10:16
because the Chinese central government wants to keep a myth:
10:22
The emperor is good. The old local officials are thugs.
10:25
So that's why the petitioner, the victims, the peasants,
10:29
want to take the train to Beijing to petition to the central government,
10:33
they want the emperor to settle the problem.
10:36
But when more and more people go to Beijing,
10:39
they also cause the risk of a revolution.
10:42
So they send them back in recent years.
10:45
And even some of them were put into black jails.
10:48
But now we have Weibo, so I call it the Weibo petition.
10:52
People just use their cell phones to tweet.
10:55
So your sad stories, by some chance your story
10:58
will be picked up by reporters, professors or celebrities.
11:02
One of them is Yao Chen,
11:06
she is the most popular microblogger in China,
11:07
who has about 21 million followers.
11:11
They're almost like a national TV station.
11:15
If you -- so a sad story will be picked up by her.
11:18
So this Weibo social media, even in the censorship,
11:22
still gave the Chinese a real chance for 300 million people
11:26
every day chatting together, talking together.
11:32
It's like a big TED, right?
11:35
But also, it is like the first time a public sphere
11:38
happened in China.
11:42
Chinese people start to learn how to negotiate
11:44
and talk to people.
11:47
But also, the cat, the censorship, is not sleeping.
11:50
It's so hard to post some sensitive words on the Chinese Weibo.
11:54
For example, you can't post the name of the president,
11:58
Hu Jintao, and also you can't post the city of Chongqing, the name,
12:01
and until recently, you can't search the surname of top leaders.
12:07
So, the Chinese are very good at these puns
12:11
and alternative wording and even memes.
12:16
They even name themselves -- you know,
12:19
use the name of this world-changing
12:22
battle between the grass-mud horse and the river crab.
12:24
The grass-mud horse is caoníma,
12:28
is the phonogram for motherfucker,
12:30
the Netizens call themselves.
12:33
River crab is héxiè, is the phonogram for
12:39
harmonization, for censorship.
12:42
So that's kind of a caoníma versus the héxiè, that's very good.
12:45
So, when some very political, exciting moments happened,
12:50
you can see on Weibo, you see a lot of very weird stories happened.
12:56
Weird phrases and words, even if you have a PhD
13:02
of Chinese language, you can't understand them.
13:06
But you can't even expand more, no, because
13:10
Chinese Sina Weibo, when it was founded
13:13
was exactly one month after the official blocking of Twitter.com.
13:16
That means from the very beginning,
13:21
Weibo has already convinced the Chinese government,
13:23
we will not become the stage for
13:27
any kind of a threat to the regime.
13:30
For example, anything you want to post,
13:32
like "get together" or "meet up" or "walk,"
13:35
it is automatically recorded and data mined
13:37
and reported to a poll for further political analyzing.
13:42
Even if you want to have some gathering,
13:48
before you go there, the police are already waiting for you.
13:50
Why? Because they have the data.
13:54
They have everything in their hands.
13:56
So they can use the 1984 scenario data mining of the dissident.
13:58
So the crackdown is very serious.
14:04
But I want you to notice a very funny thing
14:08
during the process of the cat-and-mouse.
14:10
The cat is the censorship, but Chinese is not only one cat,
14:13
but also has local cats. Central cat and local cats.
14:17
(Laughter)
14:21
You know, the server is in the [central] cats' hands,
14:23
so even that -- when the Netizens criticize the local government,
14:26
the local government has not any access to the data in Beijing.
14:31
Without bribing the central cats,
14:35
he can do nothing, only apologize.
14:37
So these three years, in the past three years,
14:41
social movements about microblogging
14:43
really changed local government,
14:46
became more and more transparent,
14:48
because they can't access the data.
14:51
The server is in Beijing.
14:53
The story about the train crash,
14:57
maybe the question is not about why 10 million
14:58
criticisms in five days, but why the Chinese central government
15:02
allowed the five days of freedom of speech online.
15:06
It's never happened before.
15:09
And so it's very simple, because even the top leaders
15:11
were fed up with this guy, this independent kingdom.
15:14
So they want an excuse --
15:18
public opinion is a very good excuse to punish him.
15:20
But also, the Bo Xilai case recently, very big news,
15:23
he's a princeling.
15:26
But from February to April this year,
15:27
Weibo really became a marketplace of rumors.
15:32
You can almost joke everything about these princelings,
15:34
everything! It's almost like you're living in the United States.
15:38
But if you dare to retweet or mention any fake coup
15:41
about Beijing, you definitely will be arrested.
15:46
So this kind of freedom is a targeted and precise window.
15:50
So Chinese in China, censorship is normal.
15:56
Something you find is, freedom is weird.
15:59
Something will happen behind it.
16:02
Because he was a very popular Leftist leader,
16:04
so the central government wanted to purge him,
16:07
and he was very cute, he convinced all the Chinese people,
16:09
why he is so bad.
16:13
So Weibo, the 300 million public sphere,
16:15
became a very good, convenient tool for a political fight.
16:19
But this technology is very new,
16:23
but technically is very old.
16:26
It was made famous by Chairman Mao, Mao Zedong,
16:27
because he mobilized millions of Chinese people
16:30
in the Cultural Revolution to destroy every local government.
16:33
It's very simple, because Chinese central government
16:37
doesn't need to even lead the public opinion.
16:40
They just give them a target window to not censor people.
16:42
Not censoring in China has become a political tool.
16:47
So that's the update about this game, cat-and-mouse.
16:53
Social media changed Chinese mindset.
16:57
More and more Chinese intend to embrace freedom of speech
16:59
and human rights as their birthright,
17:02
not some imported American privilege.
17:04
But also, it gave the Chinese a national public sphere
17:08
for people to, it's like a training of their citizenship,
17:12
preparing for future democracy.
17:16
But it didn't change the Chinese political system,
17:19
and also the Chinese central government utilized this
17:21
centralized server structure to strengthen its power
17:24
to counter the local government and the different factions.
17:28
So, what's the future?
17:33
After all, we are the mouse.
17:36
Whatever the future is, we should fight against the [cat].
17:38
There is not only in China, but also in the United States
17:42
there are some very small, cute but bad cats.
17:46
(Laughter)
17:50
SOPA, PIPA, ACTA, TPP and ITU.
17:52
And also, like Facebook and Google, they claim they are friends of the mouse,
17:59
but sometimes we see them dating the cats.
18:04
So my conclusion is very simple.
18:08
We Chinese fight for our freedom,
18:11
you just watch your bad cats.
18:14
Don't let them hook [up] with the Chinese cats.
18:18
Only in this way, in the future,
18:21
we will achieve the dreams of the mouse:
18:24
that we can tweet anytime, anywhere, without fear.
18:27
(Applause)
18:31
Thank you.
18:38
(Applause)
18:40
Translator:Thu-Huong Ha
Reviewer:Jenny Zurawell

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Michael Anti - Blogger
Michael Anti (Zhao Jing), a key figure in China's new journalism, explores the growing power of the Chinese internet.

Why you should listen

One morning in 2011, Michael Anti woke up to find himself a nonperson: His Facebook profile, with 1,000+ contacts, had been suspended. Anti, whose given name is Zhao Jing, ran up against Facebook's real-name policy--but he points out that for Chinese bloggers and information activists, the pseudonym is an important protection for the free exchange of information.

Facebook itself is blocked in China (along with Twitter and YouTube), but the country boasts some 500 million netizens--including 200 million microbloggers on sites like Sina Weibo, a freewheeling though monitored platform for text and photo updates that offers, perhaps for the first time, a space for public debate in China. It's not a western-style space, Anti clarifies, but for China it is revolutionary: It's the first national public sphere. Microblogs' role became clear in the wake of the high-speed train crash in Wenzhou in 2011, when Weibo became a locus of activism and complaint--and a backchannel that refuted official reports and has continued to play a key role in more recent events.

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