NET GAINS
Information about China thrives on the Net, mainly originating from outside the country, but aiming to subvert the tight rein on the flow of information held by the nation's leaders

Pity the Chinese living in Britain. The rest of us in the Christian world are emerging from the traditional January post-festive blues, with the prospect of Easter on the horizon. But they celebrated their New Year last week, and still have the long haul towards summer stretching ahead.

On the other hand, their zodiac at least has a bit more comic potential than ours. Their years are named after a cycle of 12 birds and animals (this is the year of the tiger) which makes for some humour; for some reason, when I tell my friends that I'm a cock, they dissolve into helpless laughter. This system (by accident or design) also allows for a way of divining a person's age without having to ask them outright. As long, that is, as they're neither excessively fresh-faced or haggard.

There are a number of sites dedicated to the Chinese zodiac. One of the better English-speaking ones, The Art of China, contains a wealth of links to cultural, historical and artistic sites. (There are Chinese-speaking sites, too, but whatever fonts you need to view them, I certainly don't have them.) It all looks rather good, though; the bright colours of traditional Chinese art transfer well onto computer screens.

Of course, with China's political landscape, what's really interesting is how the country's leaders cope with the potentially subversive aspects of the Internet. Instead of attempting to denounce it as in some way unhealthy for their style of rule, the country's leaders, after first denouncing the Net for its pornographic content, set up a kind of national Intranet (effectively a closed Internet within the country, which allows the authorities in Beijing to censor everything entering the country). But this is generally regarded as something of a Catch-22 situation, though. The authorities face the dilemma of either allowing the Net's Western influence into the country or keeping the content so banal as to be of no interest to users. When you bear in mind that Internet users in China have to register with the police, you can see there are ways to attack even the supposedly sacrosanct concept of on-line freedom of speech.

There is still, however, a morass of material put together by ex-pats. The Democracy in China home page, produced from California, is an excellent place to start, with a number of links to organisations promoting the cause of freedom of speech, as well as highlighting the plights of a number of political prisoners. It also contains a link to the home page of Harry Wu, the campaigner who highlighted the atrocities of the country's prison camp system.

It's a lesson for those who say the Internet is all just sex and Star Trek.

http://pasture.ecn.purdue.edu/agenhtml/agenmc/china/ art.html

The Art of China home page. Zodiac information, plus links to other historical and cultural sites.

http://www.aweto.com/china/

A complete index to China.

http://www.christusrex.org/www1/sdc/sdchome.html

Democracy in China home page

SITE UNSEEN

http://www.christusrex.org/www1/sdc/laogai.html

Harry Wu's page dedicated to the horror of the Chinese forcedlabour camp system

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