| | Blinking = vigilance |

I learned a lot of things while reading the New York Times‘ fascinating article on Google and Internet censorship in China (available online here), but it was Jingjing and Chacha that really got to me. The deceptively innocuous-looking anime-style characters, with their wide eyes and tiny police uniforms, are the new face of Chinese government censorship online—a constant reminder that someone is watching. Deployed earlier this year by police from the city of Shenzhen, the two characters appear on the city’s major web portals, “reminding all [Chinese] Netizens to be conscious of safe and healthy use of the Internet, self-regulate their online behavior and maintain harmonious Internet order together,” according to an article in the Beijing Youth Daily. Both characters have their own blogs and automated web chat sytems, allowing users to interact with them directly. But the Chinese government is the first to admit that “the main function of Jingjing and Chacha is to intimidate,” according to an official quoted by the Daily.

All of China’s network traffic passes through a set of state-controlled routers—referred to as the “The Great Firewall of China”—giving the government control over what comes in and goes out. Blockage from the firewall is often sporadic and random (a “master” blacklist is not available publicly), as is the punishment meted out for bad behavior. Therefore, China relies largely on self-censorship, both by fearful Chinese citizens who must register their name, address and phone number in order to surf, as well as Internet companies like Google, which must sign a license with the government agreeing to block access to politically sensitive information. Jingjing and Chacha are meant to perpetuate the climate of fear and encourage more thorough self-censorship.

Still, some believe that the Internet—even while heavily censored—can have only positive impacts on society. Through blogs and message boards (the latter being incredibly popular), many young Chinese are developing a public voice previously unavailable to them; even while simply blogging about a favorite video game or television show, the new experience of contributing to a massive public forum can be profoundly liberating. It’s a captivating issue, one that will significantly affect the shape of China as an emerging superpower. —John Mahoney