Consider Yourself Warned

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The people moving my stuff to Beijing are not the sort to let a few things go astray. So I should have expected this email that came yesterday:

Dear Austin,

I got the information from the customs that due to the China not allowed to import Anti-Goverment books.

So, there are two books was sequestrated by customs and the books’ name is “Tian an Men Diary” and “China Fragile Super Power.”

I have to admit I felt a certain surprise. After all, I haven’t been caught with contraband materials since my mother searched under my bed back in high school. It doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense to nab those books–a thin journal by New York Times’ reporter Harrison Salisbury about his coverage in 1989 and a recent scholarly work by Susan Shirk–when there was more controversial stuff in the boxes, like the Mao biography by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. Even more strange was that Customs announced what books they were taking and why. Should they have merely disappeared I would have never given it a second thought.

But now I think the disclosure was the point, something more important than keeping me and the people of China protected from the information in those books. It is similar to what IT experts say about the Great Firewall–the collective name for the various techniques the Chinese government use to keep people from seeing online content that might be harmful to state control. The point of the GFW isn’t to block all access to content Beijing opposes. So much useful information would be caught up that the Internet would be useless. Rather, the point is to remind people that the system is being monitored.

That’s also the point of the new animated web police that were announced in Beijing this week. From the descriptions I’ve seen, the cartoon figures won’t actually kick in your browser when you look at forbidden content. They pop up at regular intervals on popular sites and, as the AP puts it, “remind [users] that authorities closely monitor Web activity.” In other words, big brother is watching. He’s also reading my books, though I’m sure my mom could hook him up with something much more lively from my old stash.