LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
Thousands of westerners are about to converge on China for the 2008 Olympics. When they log on to the Internet, they may discover that connections to certain foreign news sites are likely to be slow or maybe not work at all. They'll be bumping up against what many have called the Great Firewall of China. Most Americans assume the Chinese are bothered by censorship. But NPR's Laura Sydell reports, they're not.
LAURA SYDELL: There are probably hundreds of Internet cafes all over the city of Beijing. Most of them are like this one, stuffy rooms with rows and rows of pay-per-use computers. Today, there's a customer in almost every seat. But I find an open spot and sit down with my assistant and translator Gia Han (ph) to do an experiment. We try searching in Chinese the most forbidden topics in China, Falun Gong, Taiwan, Tiananmen Square, and Tibet. We get the same result each time.
SYDELL: What happened?
Ms. GIA HAN (Translator): So the Wikipedia entry in Chinese won't show up. Also, it says (unintelligible), which means this web page cannot be displayed.
SYDELL: Inside this Internet cafe, many don't really know the Internet is being censored. 27-year-old Wan Jen Fu (ph) just graduated from college, where she studied Japanese. She comes to the cafe to email, watch movies, check news, and do research.
Ms. WAN JEN FU (Beijing Resident): (Through translator) So sometimes, if I want to see a website on a book, I may try to check it up and then go to that website, but oftentimes, I cannot open it. I'm not really sure why that happens. Maybe the connection is not very good, or it was reset.
SYDELL: Making the hand of government almost invisible is particular to China.
Professor ANDREW LIH (Former Professor of Journalism, Columbia and Hong Kong Universities): Saudi Arabia or United Arab Emirates, they watch and put an explicit message on those screens, saying you've been blocked from accessing this site because it goes against the standards of UAE.
SYDELL: Andrew Lih is a former journalism professor at Columbia and Hong Kong Universities, who is now writing a book about Wikipedia. Lih, who lives in Beijing, thinks the Chinese method of censorship is more effective.
Prof. LEE: It just looks like a technical error. So a lot of users in China aren't quite aware of the Chinese government actually explicitly censoring certain websites.
SYDELL: But the Chinese government also actively takes down postings on blogs and websites. Chinese Internet users do see that. Jong Ju (ph), a 19-year-old college student, saw the censors at work during recent protests in Tibet.
Mr. JONG JU (Beijing Resident): (Through translator) There's a lot of confusion on the Internet, as you have many people with many different ideas and opinions and voices. And then, very quickly, the message boards were closed, and then we were only able to read what the government wanted us to read.
SYDELL: Although he noticed the censorship, Jong thinks it's OK. He believes sometimes the government needs to interfere.
Mr. JONG: (Through translator) You know, maybe in an ideal world, everyone will be able to say what they wanted to. But realistically, when there's confusion on the Internet, it can harm social stability.
SYDELL: His attitude's not uncommon in China. According to a recent poll, almost 85 percent of those surveyed say they think the government should be responsible for controlling the Internet. The poll was a collaboration between the Pew Internet and American Life Project and a group of respected Chinese academics.
Deb Fallows of Pew says many Chinese, especially older ones, view the Internet with its online games and movies as a dangerous place, especially for young people. Fallows says for them, there's only one place to turn for protection.
Ms. DEB FALLOWS (Research Fellow, Pew Internet & American Life Project): There is a different kind of relationship and expectation of what their government can and should and will and has always done for them than we have in the U.S.
SYDELL: Still, there are voices of dissent in China, even if you can't find them there on the Internet. Yu Jia (ph), a writer and government critic, meets me one afternoon in a cafe in Beijing. He posts his writings on websites in Taiwan and in the west.
As we speak, he points to the door of the cafe. I do see that there was a security official who just came by and glared at us while we're sitting here. Does this worry him to have these around? It must make him nervous. I do hear noise.
Mr. YU JIA (Chinese Government Critic, Writer): (Chinese spoken)
SYDELL: Yu says at this point, he's used to it. He's even spent a few days in jail for his writings on religion and free speech. The 35-year-old has a wife and child that he worries about. Yu realizes that other Internet dissidents have been sentenced to as much as 10 years in prison. However, he takes a middle position on U.S. companies that comply with Chinese censors.
Mr. YU: (Through translator) Of course, I think that it's better to have these companies here than not. I think that they should value a very basic level of human freedoms and rights.
SYDELL: For example, Yu thinks that last year, Yahoo went too far. It handed over names of dissident writers to the Chinese authorities. But overall, he thinks having the technology is better than not.
Yu says some Chinese see his work with the help of software that gets around the censors. His writings are posted anonymously on sites inside China, and some people send his ideas along in text messages on cell phones.
Mr. YU: (Through translator) Today's China is very different from Chairman Mao's China. I think then, it used to be like an iron slab, and there was only really one idea. It was completely impermeable. But now, it's more like a fishnet, and there are holes.
SYDELL: Yu does realize that most Chinese don't bother to look for the holes in that fishnet. He knows that despite the limits, most of them are too busy enjoying the Internet they have rather than thinking about the one they don't have. Laura Sydell, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.