Etech Liveblogging: Lessons from China for the World, Rebecca MacKinnon (Global Voices)

Rebecca explains the current viral anti-censorship protest video: The song of the grass mud horse. (In this case an alpaca)

It features videos of alpacas while child sing about the grass mud horse, but the difference in tones between “Grass mud horse” and “Fuck your mother” is just a subtle tonal change. Since song tones override speaking tones in Chinese, it’s a sweet choir of children singing “Fuck your mother.” They sound very sweet. The alpacas are fluffy, but slightly creepy.

Definitely best misheard lyrics since “wrapped up like a douche bag in the middle of the night”

This video is coming to represent the fight against censorship. If you type in obscene or politically sensitive words often the software or the server will bounce you to an error message, so people use puns and slight changes in language to defeat the software, but everyone knows what you’re really talking about. This is very like how people got around filtering in Napster oh so long ago now.

There’s another older meme about a rivercrab wearing three watches. (Ethan mentioned this last year.) It’s another homonym pun. It’s a play on two government mottos: the “harmonious society” and the “three represents.” Harmonious becomes rivercrab, and three represents becomes wear three watches. A rivercrab wearing three watches seems to be a bit about going along with the government plans.

So now there’s an intellectual discussion going on about the rivercrabs versus the alpacas.

Rebecca shows a video for a song about the fight. The song goes between folk and rap, and talks about the river crab invading the alpaca sheep’s territory and making it hard for the alpaca to live. This is how the Chinese are talking: indirectly through these videos and essays.

It’s a mistake to think that this is a question of Government vs. Internet. The Chinese government is learning how to use the internet well to promote itself and clarify things, and even solicit speech. The prime minister had a two-hour show answering questions– sometimes very human, personal ones. The public response was positive, the government figures became more relatable. The Chinese media claim that China is using the internet to become more democratic. There’s more e-government webstuff available: they even recently took policy suggestions online. There were comments on a government run website on how to fight corruption, and even a conversation about ending the one child policy in the forums.

But don’t mistake this for Chinese internet glasnost: Rebecca points out several activists in jail for trying to organize or speak on the Internet. The government isn’t willing to take it the whole way. Instead this is “authoritarian deliberation,” where there’s a lot of public discussion about policy, but there’s no real recourse to power or protections for the people.

China also has a strong cyber-nationalism. Last year there was a big backlash against western coverage of a Chinese crackdown on tibet–Chinese students protesting what they saw as slanted western coverage. There’s a huge argument going on between China, kind of a conversational civil war online about where China should be going.

The web and IT world is creating an opaque layer between the government and the people that favors the government. There’s the Great Firewall of China, and self-censoring companies. Self-censorship takes many forms– shows you Tiananmen square and the Nanjing massacre of WWII if you google Tiananmen massacre, whereas Baidu shows you nothing at all.

While we think of this with China, in fact this layer of companies and technologies with excessive government influence is actually global. The is an initiative of ideas on what companies should do to be a transparent layer between people and governments.

To tie it back to the history of dead white guys: the Hamiltonians vs Jeffersonians–this is the same debate we’re having between control and freedom all over the world. Do we lock up the internet for our safety or keep is free for civil liberties?

Which side are you helping? The river crab or the alpaca?