Blocking porn is a good technique for blocking other speach

Pity Chinese pornographers. Not only is the government cracking down on their Web sites, but China’s now offering a 10,000 yuan ($1,450) reward to people who report them.

The Chinese Ministry of Public Security reports that in 2009 it closed over 9,000 sites and arrested more than 5,300 people as part of a pornography crackdown.

Some might think this a severe response to the country’s one-handed typists but the government takes its porn — or at least its censorship — quite seriously.

“Purifying the Internet environment and cracking down on Internet crimes is related to long-term state security,” the ministry says, and promises that its Internet policing will intensify in 2010.

The action fits a familiar pattern for China watchers. Chinese censors are known to block sites such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, the New York Times and Human Rights Watch among a laundry list of others. In 2006, Amnesty International reported that the country had “the largest recorded number of imprisoned journalists and cyber-dissidents in the world.”

Last July, the government deleted the site of artist, activist and inveterate blogger Ai Weiwei. The site contradicted “official” figures and listed 5,000 children that died in the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake. One police beating later and Ai needed emergency brain surgery. He fortunately received it in Germany.

Using an anti-smut moral crusade to censor the Internet is nothing new. The country’s Green Dam Youth Escort was (and yes, still is) an attempt to preinstall filtering software on every computer sold in the country. As the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology explained, Green Dam would be used “to build a green, healthy, and harmonious online environment, and to avoid the effects on and the poisoning of our youth’s minds by harmful information on the internet.”

As a generous bonus, the ministry pointed out that “the whole society may use it free of charge.”

And just to bask in its own beneficence:

After comprehensive testing and pilot use, the software has been shown to effectively filter harmful content in text and graphics on the Internet and has already satisfied the conditions for pre-installation by computer manufacturers.

Unfortunately, as critics pointed out, most of the “harmful content” blocked was political rather than pornographic. After this inconvenient fact brought waves of protest, the ministry waved mandatory pre-installation for home and business computers, but still requires it for schools, Internet cafes and other “public use” computers.1

Which brings us back around to the Chinese crackdown on pornography: moral crusade or ruse to block sites the government does not like?

Possibly and probably a mixture of the two. This is a country, after all, where researchers once refrained from asking rural women if they’d ever experienced an orgasm because they felt the concept wouldn’t be understood.

So too is it a country with a long — and not so proud — history of suppressing speech and those who may dare speak it.

Image used with this article: Televiseus via Creative Commons/Flickr

Correction: The original article indicated that Sony and Acer among others continue to ship with Green Dam installed. As of September, this was no longer the case.