BEIJING – It's a real measure of Hong Kong's autonomy – enshrined in the "one country, two systems" principle contained in its constitutional document under Chinese sovereignty – that certain freedoms and rights not enjoyed in mainland China continue to flourish in the former British colony.
We notice it every time we visit. First, there's the regular assembly of Falun Gong supporters near the Hong Kong Convention Center in Wanchai, right where busloads of mainland Chinese tourists spill out.
It's always a curiosity to see how the tourists might react to seeing these folks. After all, the Falun Gong is a quasi-religious group banned in China, and authorities spare no effort in demonizing the organization among citizens.
Then, more recently, there are Zhao Ziyang's memoirs, selling out across bookshops in Hong Kong, both in English and in Chinese. The former Communist Party chief was ousted in May 1989 during a power struggle that underpinned the student protests in Tiananmen Square
that year. Under house arrest until he died in 2005, Zhao secretly recorded 30 tapes detailing the inner workings of the Party, and they were recently published in a book format to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Of course, the book is not for sale on the Chinese mainland.
And then, of course, there is the Internet. In Hong Kong and unlike in China, we never need to log onto our NBC intranet in order to access certain websites. YouTube plays instantly. The Huffington Post loads easily. And we have yet to see the "error" message so often encountered on the mainland.
So it was with great dismay that last Monday, while we were still in Hong Kong, we learned about China's latest efforts to shore up its Great Firewall.
The Green Dam
Bloggers and news reports quickly spread the news that the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) will require personal computer manufacturers by July 1 to include a filtering software in all computers either manufactured here or imported into the country.
Officials claim the technology is designed to protect Chinese youth. The software, known as the Green Dam Youth Escort, would link the computers with a regularly updated database of banned websites and automatically block access to those sites.
A predictable outcry has arisen not only from PC makers, who largely do not want to be quoted in the media while expressing their concerns, but also from many of China's almost 300-million strong Internet users, or as they call themselves in China, "netizens."
Popular online chat rooms were flooded with sarcastic, angry comments: "How I educate my kids is my own business! I don't need you to tell me what to do!" "Why should I buy a computer if I can't browse to porn sites?" "Why don't they monitor our phone calls and internet at home? When we go out they can use satellite and cameras to monitor us. Oh and they can send bodyguards to monitor us when we sleep – that's the best!"
Skeptics identifying themselves as taxpayers also expressed concern about Green Dam's porn-filtering credibility; amidst reports the contract secured with the Chinese government is worth around $6 million. Testers loaded pictures of three world famous cats – Garfield and two Japanese characters Doraemon and Hello Kitty – to see whether the filter worked.
The result? Doraemon – OK. Hello Kitty – OK. Garfield – "This information is malicious! It will be filtered!"
Apparently Garfield is a little too round and a little too yellow. The software deemed him suspiciously nude. "Undoubtedly, Green Dam will inspire a new trend of having sex with clothes on," said one comment on China's biggest Internet chat forum Tianya.
Outrage from all sides
A spokesman from Green Dam's developer, Jinhui Computer System Engineering Co., has refused to reveal what websites are on the blacklists, in order not to "promote these web portals." But an ad hoc group of bloggers and computer techies has discovered all sorts of key words censored by the software (including the phrase "Falun Gong") and has posted its findings and analysis on Wikileaks.
Meanwhile, PC users are afraid of possible personal information theft caused by the filtering software. In a survey on China's biggest web portal www.sina.com.cn, over 80 percent of the Internet users voted, "I will not consider installing Green Dam on my computer." They might not take much comfort from a University of Michigan study that found "serious security vulnerabilities due to programming errors" in Green Dam.
Gay rights groups also publicly protested the application because "homosexuality" is listed as malicious content alongside "pornography." Websites that contain words like "gay" or "lesbian" are prone to being filtered out by Green Dam.
The uproar from targeted customers is not the only headache Jinhui faces. An American company, Solid Oak Software of Santa Barbara, claims Jinhui stole their programming code to create Green Dam and has sent "cease and desist" letters to Dell and Hewlett-Packard requesting them not to distribute the software with PC shipments. Jinhui denies the accusation.
On Tuesday, an unidentified official with MIIT reiterated that users had the final say as to whether or not to use the software. "PC makers are only required to save the setup files of the program in the hard drives of the computers, or provide CD-ROMs containing the program with their PC packages," he was quoted on the front page of the state-run China Daily newspaper.
The article triggered many reports speculating whether the Chinese government was now backing down from its initial position, but one wonders what the Chinese authorities – no fan of mass movements of any kind – make of Iran's opposition protesters demonstrating against the election results. Especially in light of the emergence of Internet outlets like Twitter and YouTube in mobilizing Iranians onto the streets.
In the days leading up to the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, authorities here shut down both of those websites, in addition to several others. They're back up and running again, but only until the next sensitive anniversary or an outbreak of mass dissent or unrest like the Tibet riots.
But don't worry. As elsewhere, Chinese Internet users have long demonstrated a knack for getting around firewalls and filters.
A good example is Zhao's memoirs, which made it to China on the Internet as a Chinese-language Word Document illegally downloaded everywhere. As one comment on Tianya said, "The powerful and smart Chinese netizens have already figured out how to uninstall and crush the rogue software into ashes."