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Clifford Coonan: Online giants help state erect Great Firewall of China

Internet cafés in China buzz with the exchange of information and ideas, popular forums in a country where democracy constantly founders against the Great Firewall of China. In every small town, the internet cafés are packed with young people playing online games, or checking the latest exploits of actress-turned-director Xu Jinglei, whose blog is the most popular in the world.

The economy is opening up and Chinese people have never had such a high level of freedom as they do now. But the government is cracking down on political dissidents who use the internet as a platform for debate. Cyberspace is considered a hothouse of subversive thought, and with the help of the world's biggest internet names including Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft, China has been successful in blocking online content behind the Bamboo Firewall.

Already the world's leading jailer of journalists, with at least 32 in custody, there are 50 internet campaigners in prison, according to figures from the media freedom advocate, Reporters Without Borders.

Beijing has reportedly recruited 40,000 web watchdogs to check the capital's cybercafés and internet service providers, routinely monitoring e-mail and websites. China is the world's fastest-growing internet market, with more than 120 million webizens.

There are regular cases of censorship and journalists going to jail with what appeared to be the help of some of the top names on the internet. This week, Li Jianping was jailed for three years for an internet essay praising pro-rights protests in Hong Kong.

A student participant in China's 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations, Li was found guilty of "inciting subversion of state power" for an essay on overseas Chinese websites in 2003.

Just days ago, Guo Qizhen was jailed for four years for inciting subversion over anti-government essays he posted. Guo denounced the late Chairman Mao Zedong and called the country's government "evil" for its suppression of civil rights.

Human rights groups have urged Microsoft, Yahoo! and Google to stop kowtowing. Last year, Yahoo! was accused of supplying data to China that was used as evidence to jail Shi Tao, news editor at Contemporary Business News in Hunan province, for 10 years for leaking state secrets, apparently using his Yahoo! e-mail account.

Microsoft has admitted it responds to directions from the Chinese government in restricting users of MSN Spaces from using certain terms, and Google has launched a censored version of its international search engine in China.

Google has also come under fire for blocking politically sensitive terms on its China site, www.google.cn, bowing to conditions set by Beijing, and Microsoft has closed blogs hosted on MSN Spaces. Domestic giants such as Sohu and Baidu, along with China sites operated by Yahoo! and Microsoft, routinely block searches on politically sensitive terms.

The internet companies say that providing some information is better than none and if they ignore the restrictions, all of their services would be blocked.

But it is not all bad news. Last week, the Chinese government lifted its block on the English-language version of Wikipedia, almost a year to the day after access was first denied. The Chinese-language version is still blocked.