Tag Archives: China

Crowdsourced justice, or just Vigilantism2.0?

Anonymous vigilantism against Kenny GlennThere’s been a steadily increasing number of stories about “crowdsourced justice” of late, a phenomenon that arguably started in China but which is spreading across the world to anywhere that has a population with ready access to the internet.

For example, you may have heard about the 4chan crusade against one Kenny Glenn, a teenager foolish enough to post videos of himself abusing a kitten; Anonymous doesn’t respect many things, but it sure loves cats, and swiftly unearthed enough information about Kenny to land him in very hot water (and to get the cats rescued, natch).

An article at H+ Magazine takes an in-depth look at the phenomenon, which the Chinese refer to as the “human flesh search engine”:

Fortunately, human flesh search engines don’t end the lives of their victims, like the witch-hunts or lynching of the past.

(Erm… they don’t yet.)

We will not know for some time how these cyber-hunts will shape the future of our privacy, freedom of speech and sense of justice and security. But there is no doubt that these cases are just the beginning a vast social change taking place right now. What we can see from these incidents is that the flow of information will no longer be controlled and that the power of public outrage will not easily be quelled.

Kitten Killer of Hangzhou and her cameraman will walk away from their brutal act.. An apology is hardly appropriate recompense for the death of the tiny tortured feline. But these small stories will remain a part of our collective human memory and help guide the decisions of future societies, because the Internet does not forget, does not forgive and cannot be stopped. Ever.

While containing more than a mote of hyperbole, that final sentence is very telling – not because it is de facto true, but because many people believe it to be true. It’s that motivation combined with the ease of acting upon it en masse that gives human flesh search engines their power. [image sourced from Anonymous’ Kenny Glenn site]

And via SlashDot we find that it’s not just animal abusers who can become the focus of public ire, even in censorship-ridden China: the China Digital Times has a report regarding the dissemination of personal information about one Chen Hua, a deputy director of the Beijing Internet Propaganda Office who was foolish enough to boast of his own corrupt practices to a girl he was seeing “in a personal capacity”. Whether the story is true or not is irrelevant; word got out, the human flesh search engines dug up a lot of Chen’s personal details, and Beijing is now trying to contain the viral spread of said information… which makes me wonder yet again about how effective the blackout on the Tiananmen massacre really is.

Much as with any other technology, the uses to which the internet can be put are decided by the people with access to it; most of these cases could be argued to be ethically justified to a greater or lesser degree (though the lines are as fuzzy as ever), but that may not always be the case. The lord of the flies tends to follow us wherever we go, and I can’t see the transition to the digital world slowing him down too much.

Is Chinese web censorship effective?

Soldier guarding portrait of Mao Zedong in Tiananmen SquareThe last week or so has seen a number of stories regarding today being the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in China, many of them focussing on the sad but unsurprising fact that the Chinese government has locked down access to a swathe of web tools (like Twitter) and news sites (like HuffPo) in anticipation of its citizens talking about a subject on which it is still hugely touchy.

The first question I asked myself was “how effective will that be, anyway?” I’m obviously not the only person to wonder the same thing – though it seemed my initial optimism was unfounded, as BoingBoing linked to a short post by Beijing-based journalist James Fallows, who reports that knowledge of the Tiananmen protests among young Chinese is virtually non-existent:

I have spent a lot of time over the past three years with Chinese university students. They know a lot about the world, and about American history, and about certain periods in their own country’s past. Virtually everyone can recite chapter and verse of the Japanese cruelties in China from the 1930s onward, or the 100 Years of Humiliation, or the long background of Chinese engagement with Tibet. Through their own family’s experiences, many have heard of the trauma of the Cultural Revolution years and the starvation and hardship of the Great Leap Forward. But you can’t assume they will ever have heard of what happened in Tiananmen Square twenty years ago. For a minority of people in China, the upcoming date of June 4 has tremendous significance. For most young people, it’s just another day.

Similar sentiments crop up in a series of PBS interviews with journalists and experts in Chinese sociology [via MetaFilter], though there is some hope as well – here’s author and journalist Jan Wong:

I don’t know what it tells you about a country when you could have such a cataclysmic event as Tiananmen Square and then suddenly you lop off the reality for all the people coming after. … But the great thing about China is that history is valued so that it will come out one day. People will keep records, people will eventually write about this. It’s not that it’s disappeared forever. You know, in Chinese history, each dynasty has secrets that it suppresses, and then it’s up to the next dynasty to write the true history of the previous dynasty. Each dynasty writes its own propaganda, the next dynasty writes the true history, so I assume this will happen in China, too.

But how long will we have to wait for this to occur? Has the old cultural chain of the dynasties been snapped by the Communist Party’s ubiquitous censorship, or is it just another Emperor in different clothes?

Of course, one of the great claims about the internet is John Gilmore’s belief that it “treats censorship as damage and routes around it”; whether that is still the case (or if it ever was) is a subject for debate, but it’s reasonable to suggest that the internet must be a difficult beast to cage, even with the immense amount of manpower available to the Chinese government. China specialist Orville Schell suggests that China is the ultimate test of Gilmore’s aphorism:

We do have some interesting wild cards, like the Internet, and I think the Internet is fundamentally a liberalizing force. But I think China, in this regard, is the great petri dish for whether the Internet can be brought to heel, or whether it is, on the face of it, a sort of spontaneous free agent that will catalyse China into a more open direction. And I think the returns are not in yet. China needs the Internet, and it’s using it to good effect in business. And the Party is using it very effectively to help communicate with the provinces, the counties, the police units, the army. It isn’t purely an engine of dissident energy or of individualism or of democracy. We’ve seen many technologies from telegraph to radio to television that have been brought to heel quite nicely by commercial interests. So we’ll see.

Now you can’t control the Internet completely. I don’t even think that’s their aspiration in China. But their aspiration is to make it difficult enough for most people so that they’ll stay within the confines of the intranet, not the Internet. The intranet being China’s sort of hermitically sealed room, which is connected to the outside world by a very limited number of gateways. And it is through those gateways, that all the information to the outside world flows, both ways, and that’s where it can be controlled.

As with so many things, only time will tell. But I find myself wondering about the curiosity that is so much a part of being a young adult, at least here in the West – can censorship and obfuscation have really erased that completely among China’s young citizens? Would they not notice the increase in website blocking and wonder what is being hidden so carefully, like a child told to stay out of the cupboard under the stairs as Christmas approaches?

Maybe I’m more optimistic than I thought – I imagine that knowledge of the Tiananmen massacre isn’t as rare as it might appear to outside eyes, perhaps passed around in secret by good old word of mouth, quiet whispers and hand-written notes guarded closely against the surveillance of the state, a tiny precious flame shielded against the wind and rain, never shown to outsiders for fear that to do so would incur the wrath of the Party.

Or maybe I’m being naive; perhaps curiosity is easily quenched. After all, it’s not as if the ‘free’ West isn’t full of people who cultivate their own ignorance of political history, so as to avoid having to ask themselves awkward questions about the way the world works. [image by Gene Zhang]

Fusion power: now even more futuristic!

Fusion power is just around the corner, it’s often said… but my father told me they told him the same thing when he was an apprentice back in the early sixties. It seems to be fusion’s destiny to have its reality date rolled back perpetually – the latest example being the announcement that the France-based ITER international experimental fusion project is being scaled down, with the prospective date for its first actual power-generating experiments delayed by a whole five years from the original schedule:

Faced with ballooning costs and growing delays, ITER’s seven partners are likely to build only a skeletal version of the device at first. The project’s governing council said last June that the machine should turn on in 2018; the stripped-down version could allow that to happen. But the first experiments capable of validating fusion for power would not come until the end of 2025, five years later than the date set when the ITER agreement was signed in 2006.


Indeed, the plan is perhaps the only way forward. Construction costs are likely to double from the €5-billion (US$7-billion) estimate provided by the project in 2006, as a result of rises in the price of raw materials, gaps in the original design, and an unanticipated increase in staffing to manage procurement. The cost of ITER’s operations phase, another €5 billion over 20 years, may also rise.

Bit of a bummer – but then maybe we’d be better off investing in energy technologies that we already have working versions of. €10 billion could probably make a huge difference to the current state of play in solar, geothermal and other sustainable energy sources , I’d have thought. [via SlashDot]

But don’t despair, fusion fans – the wonderfully-named National Ignition Facility in California is working on a laser-fusion method that comes with all the too-cheap-to-meter promise of those thast have come before. I’d love to see fusion arrive in my lifetime, and perhaps I will – but in the meantime I think I’ll stick to pragmatism. The Chinese seem to be on a similar wavelength, as they’re suddenly ploughing a whole lot of cash into developing renewable energy sources like solar power. Place your bets, ladies and gents, place your bets…

The Red Dragon has no head – China’s citizen hackers

Chinese flagsThere’s been plenty of press recently about the threat of Chinese hackers undermining infrastructure in the West, and about the GhostNet network, which may or may not be a covert espionage tool of China’s government.

The trouble is that the line between state-sponsored or military hackers and young patriots with time and talent isn’t clear; it may be that the bulk of the “red hackers” aren’t employed by their government, and are just hobbyists with a convenient target. Some folk do it “for the lulz”; these people are allegedly doing it for their nation. [image by parrhesiastes]

From China, where I’ve lived for four years, this assessment looks spot-on. Hackers are pervasive, their imprint inescapable. There are hacker magazines, hacker clubs and hacker online serials. A 2005 Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences survey equates hackers and rock stars, with nearly 43 percent of elementary-school students saying they “adore” China’s hackers. One third say they want to be one. This culture thrives on a viral, Internet-driven nationalism. The post-Tiananmen generation has known little hardship, so rather than pushing for democracy, many young people define themselves in opposition to the West. China’s Internet patriots, who call themselves “red hackers,” may not be acting on direct behalf of their government, but the effect is much the same.

Is this, perhaps, the new emergent youth politics? Going out and fighting for what you believe in out in the digital trenches – even if the thing you’re fighting for isn’t quite what you think it is. And hey – if you get powerful enough, maybe it’ll start changing to be more like what you want to keep you sweet, as it becomes increasingly dependent on your leverage beyond the border. Talk about grass-roots change, right? [via Bruce Sterling]

What’s interesting to me is that patriotism can motivate these kids to hacking. Here in the UK, the most that nationalist sentiment can seem to stir up in young folk is the desire to thump brown people, and those easily swayed by such desires aren’t often in the possession of a mentality that would lend itself to 00b3r-1337 computer skillzorz; as a general rule, Western hackers tend to work against governments and authority (how much is that due to the influence of cyberpunk literature?), so it’s a cognitive dissonance moment for me to read about kids voluntarily furthering the cause of their nation rather than their own interests.

Which is one of the things that makes me wonder just how true all of these stories are. As a general trend, the last twelve months have seen a big increase in news stories that give us reason to fear an amorphous and distant conceptual bundle labelled “China”, in inverse proportion to coverage of the previous faceless multiplex global enemy, namely Muslim extremism. The economic crisis has made this particularly easy (China is buying up western debt! China is stockpiling commodities!), and climate change is a nice lever too (China won’t stop polluting, so why should we?).

While I understand the need for political rhetoric (and the media that feed from it, remora-like) to set up ideological opponents against which to rally the diminishing regiments of Western patriots, I sincerely hope we’re not headed for some sort of Cold War re-run. We’ve enough problems on our plate as it is.

Geithner kinda backs world reserve currency

euro_coinsHighlighted because I have a penchant for old school technocracy that can only be assuaged by stories of mass graves and pyramids of skulls.

Here we have news of US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner hinting support for a global reserve currency run by the IMF:

The Chinese proposal, outlined this week by central bank governor Zhou Xiaochuan, calls for a “super-sovereign reserve currency” under IMF management, turning the Fund into a sort of world central bank.

The idea is that the IMF should activate its dormant powers to issue Special Drawing Rights. These SDRs would expand their role over time, becoming a “widely-accepted means of payments”.

Mr Geithner’s friendly comments about the SDR plan seem intended to soothe Chinese feelings after a spat in January over alleged currency manipulation by Beijing, but he will now have to explain his own categorical assurance to Congress on Tuesday that he would not countenance any moves towards a world currency.

New World Order anyone?

[image from helmet13 on flickr]