Sat, May 13, 2006 - Page 4 News List

Volunteers help Beijing control Internet

WATCHFUL EYES China's Internet police may strike some as a sinister Orwellian army. But much of the monitoring is done by normal students like Hu Yingying


To her fellow students, Hu Yingying appears to be a typical undergraduate, plain of dress, quick with a smile, and perhaps possessed with a little extra spring in her step, but otherwise decidedly ordinary.

And for Hu, a sophomore 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 in unsuspected by other students to help police her school'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 what celebrities make the best role models, a topic suggested by a professor as appropriate.

Politics, even school politics, is 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 well-placed comments of their own.

Anything they deem offensive, she says, they report to the school'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 criticisms of Japan.

Part traffic cop, part informer, part discussion moderator -- and all without the knowledge of her fellow students -- Hu is a small part of a huge national effort to sanitize the Internet.

For years, China has had its Internet police, reportedly as many as 50,000 state agents who troll online, blocking Web sites, erasing commentary, and arresting people for what is deemed anti-Communist Party or antisocial speech.

Volunteer censors

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 force, an ostensibly all-volunteer one that the Chinese government is mobilizing to help it manage the monumental task of censoring the Web.

Last month, that effort was named "Let the Winds of a Civilized Internet Blow," and it is part of a broader "socialist morality" campaign, known as the Eight Honors and Disgraces, begun by the country's leadership to reinforce social and political control.

Under the Civilized Internet program, service providers and other Internet companies have been asked to purge their servers of offensive content, which ranges from pornography to anything that smacks of overt political criticism or dissent.

Chinese authorities say that more than 2 million supposedly "unhealthy" images have already been deleted under this campaign, and more than 600 supposedly "unhealthy" Internet forums shut down.

Critics of the program say the deletions, presented as voluntary acts of corporate civic virtue, are clearly coercive, since no company wants to be singled out as a laggard.

Having started its own ambitious Internet censorship efforts -- a "harmful-information defense system," as the university calls it -- long before the government's latest campaign, Shanghai Normal University is promoting itself within the education establishment as a pioneer.

Although most of its students know nothing of the university's monitoring efforts, Shanghai Normal has conducted seminars for dozens of Chinese universities and education officials on how to tame the Web.

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