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Censorship in the Age of Wan-ba's

Internet cafes abound, but news is on a "need to know" basis.

overcast 21 °C

I was curious to read the other day in an American news story that China is licensing no new Internet cafes, "amid official concern that online material is harming young people."

Judging by what I've seen in many a Chinese wan-ba, I can't imagine anything worse than dazed eyes, limpid limbs, and perhaps a latent desire to fence one's comrades in real life.

The cavernous wan-ba's are jammed with row after row of blank-faced young men fighting dragons and other mystical creatures while the young women webcam with love interests. The keyboards are often sprinkled with cigarette ash from the last user.

Wan-ba's are already proliferous and cheap, something like 10-cents for a half-hour use, making them affordable to most anyone here so long as they can read, read pinyin, and operate computer technology.

But with the Chinese government already blocking many online news and information sites like the BBC and, up until recently Wikipedia, it takes a bit of skill to get through to anything potentially "dangerous."

You'd also be stupid to try anything funny. You have to register to get into a particular computer, often giving your identification card or passport.

Links to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests repeatedly brings up "problem loading page" messages, though curiously, references to it as a tourist site clear quite fine. Tony's been having trouble getting onto some physics sites. Oddly enough, www.phdcomics, a geeky site featuring the lifestyle of geeky stick-figure graduate students, is also blocked. Wonder who's threatened there.

Chinese censorship seems particularly acute in the news. We've had occasion to watch CCTV9, the English language news channel. It seems the best way to create societal apathy is to bore viewers stiff with inconsequentials on segments about trade or cultural expos or footage of international meetings where officials blab at microphones.

CCTV9 covered one such trade meeting with the U.S. using footage of American government officials waxing thick about China. The New York Times the next day reported that the trade talks were a disaster.

In China, the press release is the news story.

The extent to which the government is forced to address an issue, such as a major algae outbreak in some lakes that recently shut down drinking water, the news is always presented in a proactive "here's-how-we're- going-to-fix-it" attitude.

Sometimes it seems less is better. "Flooding in Western China," a story of legitimate interest to any traveler, failed to mention where, exactly, the floods were. After some further research, we discovered it was in eastern Sichuan, though perhaps elsewhere too. A bridge collapse in Guangdong province was easily explained the same day as the sole fault of a passing boat, apparently no investigation necessary.

Then there's the story about a slave operation in central China where hundreds of people were stuck working in brick kilns without pay or ability to escape. My first question was, which local party officials were part of this racket? The new story in the China Daily the next day pointed out that several officials were part of the 168 arrested. No names, no accountability.

My favorite example, however, is the recent food poisoning scares. The only news I've read about anti-freeze in toothpaste and cough syrup for export, and babies dying with enlarged heads because of tainted formula is in Western sources.

The Chinese news sources report, without context, that the government, too, has found problems with Western imports: ants in some pistachio nuts.

I can't help but wonder why the Chinese people put up with such shoddy information and government heavy-handedness, even when their lives could be at risk. Information about the SARS outbreak, after all, was first distributed by text messaging, not by the government.

But judging by the screens at Internet cafes and the wispy-thin major newspapers, I'd say the Chinese people seem conditioned to tune out the news. Thirty years after this county swallowed the bitter pill of the Cultural Revolution, it accepted de-politicization as a way to move on.

Besides, who'd want to sit through segment after segment of Chinese expo news. A good game of mahjong is certainly more interesting, and group tai chi in a nearby park more invigorating.

Posted by ahawkes.

Here are some of our recent photos, which did not make it onto the last blog because of upload limits.

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Our pot of chicken stew comes to life.

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Yaks walk down the center of the street at a town in western Sichuan.

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The Tibetan men of Litang, a town in far western Sichuan, are a tough bunch with a love for cowboy hats and motorcycle riding.

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Western Sichuan and Yunnan are the supposed home of the first flowering plants. Many natives are garden varieties in the West.

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Tony turns down this man's generous offer to pick his ears on the street.

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A streetside noodle fryer in Xi'an demonstrates "breath of the wok."

Posted by ahawkes 07:48 Archived in China Tagged backpacking

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