It's not news that China employs about 50,000 Internet police - just the high price of state control - but the New York Times reports on a new censorship force: a cadre of undergraduate researchers who report on "unhealthy" content on the Web and "guide" online discussions away from dangerous notions.
The effort is called "Let the Winds of a Civilized Internet Blow." The Times reports:
Under the Civilized Internet program, service providers and other companies have been asked to purge their servers of offensive content, which ranges from pornography to anything that smacks of overt political criticism or dissent.
Chinese authorities say that more than two million supposedly "unhealthy" images have already been deleted under this campaign, and more than 600 supposedly "unhealthy" Internet forums shut down.
The article profiles Hu Yingying, a sophomore at Shanghai Normal University, and a member of the Civilized Wind program. There are 500 such participants just at Shanghai Normal.
Ms. Hu beams with pride over her contribution toward building a "harmonious society." "We don't control things, but we really don't want bad or wrong things to appear on the Web sites," she said. "According to our social and educational systems, we should judge what is right and wrong. And as I'm a student cadre, I need to play a pioneer role among other students, to express my opinion, to make stronger my belief in Communism."
That's very quaint, of course, but critics say the program reveals the government's willingness to go to devious extents to control citizen behavior and information flow.
As they try to steer discussion on bulletin boards, the monitors pose as ordinary undergraduates, in a bid for greater persuasive power.
Even topics that to outsiders would seem devoid of political interest merit intervention. One recent discussion about the reported sale online of a video showing the torture of a cat grew heated. Some urged harsh punishment or even death to the animal abusers, while others said the video should be sold to the Japanese, because of their supposed fondness for perverse material.
At that, several monitors jumped in and began talking about the need to develop China's legal code to handle such matters.
The monitors do not see themselves as engaging in censorship or exercising control over the speech of others. In interviews with five of the monitors, each initially rejected the idea that they were controlling expression, and occasionally even spoke of the importance of free speech.
"Our job consists of guidance, not control," said Ji Chenchen, 22, who is majoring in travel industry studies. "Our bulletin board's character is that of an official Web site, which means that it represents the school. This means that no topics related to politics may appear."