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Behind the 'Great Firewall': China's 'first blogger' speaks out

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Chatting with a Chinese blog pioneer
  • China's censoring of the internet is akin to "a snake swallowing its own tail"
  • Isaac Mao is an influential Chinese blogger who co-founded in 2002
  • Mao: Recent disruptions to Gmail in China show Beijing is "testing the tolerance"
  • "We can do a lot of things ... because people find many creative ways to do it"

This week News Stream on CNN International focuses on the world's largest internet market: China. Follow online or watch News Stream every week day at 8 p.m. in Hong Kong, 1 p.m. in London and 8 a.m. in New York.

Hong Kong, China (CNN) -- The battle of Chinese censors to block political commentary on the internet is akin to "a snake swallowing its own tail," said Isaac Mao, an influential Chinese blogger.

"I think the problem to the whole country is that if we censor more and more keywords, we will be stopping the country from more and more innovations," said Mao, considered China's "first blogger" and outspoken critic of his country's online censorship. "I described it as a snake swallowing its own tail because the snake is trying to find the food and attack, but eventually he found his own tail."

Mao runs Isaac Technology Venture Corp. and is a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. He started blogging in 2002 and is followed closely as an influential figure who works behind the constraints of China's so-called 'Great Firewall', which closely monitors and restricts online content. The state policy on online media led to a public fight last year with Google when the company decided to side-step Chinese censor laws by moving its search engine functions to servers outside the mainland.

The problems with Google's Gmail service in China is Beijing's way "to test the tolerance of the people," Mao said.

On March 21, Google announced that it appeared the Chinese government was at the root of problems that have dogged domestic use of Gmail since the end of January. The move signaled a new front on the internet giant's ongoing battles with Beijing since the service wasn't overtly blocked, but instead bedeviled with performance issues such as long log-on times, difficulties sending mail and using instant messenger.

We try to persuade the authorities that it will hurt the whole country's development
--Isaac Mao, China internet activist
  • China
  • Internet

"There is no technical issue on our side; we have checked extensively. This is a government blockage carefully designed to look like the problem is with Gmail," the company said in a statement. Beijing has denied it is behind problems with Google's email service in China.

"I think the Chinese government is trying to slow down people's communication, and is trying to slow down the speed of information flow in China," Mao told CNN in an interview with Kristie Lu Stout. "They cannot block Gmail totally, at this moment, because millions of people are using Gmail. If it is found that the government did this, people will react even more."

While some China watchers observed the problems came to light as netizens tried to organize "Jasmine Revolution" events -- a Chinese equivalent to the protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa -- and the China People's Congress annual meeting earlier this month.

"I think they are trying to test the tolerance of the people. At the same time they are trying to see if the netizens, Google, and the government can have a better move to a new kind of balance," Mao said. "I think (Gmail use) is much better than one or two weeks ago, because that was the moment of the Congress (meeting)."

Bloggers like Mao work in one of the most restrictive internet environments in the world, where words now block for search include: Empty Chair (signifying the Chinese dissident Liu Xiao Bo), sex, protest, Jasmine, Chinese human rights figure Teng Biao as well as American political figures such as Hillary Clinton.

Internet users in China, however, employ euphemisms to get around blocked material. "We can do a lot of things with that kind of tough environment, because people find many creative ways to do it. If they cannot talk about 'Jasmine' they can talk about the tea of jasmine in some ways," Mao said. "It is that kind of creativity, people find their niches to try and bypass the censorship system."

One popular technique is for individuals and businesses to use virtual private networks, or VPNs, to circumvent Chinese censors. However, VPN users are now reporting troubles in China, too -- earning the ire of not just individual Chinese online users, but companies and western expatriates living in China as well. "I think it is a kind of test from the authorities, to try to see if this type of new censorship strategy could cause economic consequences," Mao said.

While China is the world's largest internet market with 457 million online users, few western companies have made inroads as top players such as Facebook and Twitter are blocked there, raising fears that China could become an internet island unto itself.

"The worst thing would be if China cut off the whole internet, and made itself into an intranet. We don't want to see that day coming," Mao said. "So we try to persuade the authorities that it will hurt the whole country's development in the future, and the economy eventually."

CNN's Kevin Voigt and Pamela Boykoff contributed to this report


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