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Is Switzerland too sexy for the Chinese?

swissinfo.ch

Chinese internet users can continue to ogle the Aletsch glacier and Simmental cows, after Beijing shelved plans for compulsory computer filtering software.

This content was published on July 2, 2009 - 12:20

Readers there can also go on visiting the Chinese-language version of swissinfo.ch and see all its pictures without waiting interminably for the site to upload.

Beijing is seeking to bundle Green Dam Youth Escort software with all computers sold in China. The content-control programme is supposed to block porn sites, but computer-security experts argue it uses code banned by companies like Microsoft because it allows a computer to be hacked.

The programme also blocks thousands of innocent pages, including MySwitzerland.com, the official site of the Swiss tourism organisation with its pictures of glaciers and cows. Other indisputably pornographic sites get through.

The Chinese ministry of industry and information technology that ordered the programme says it works. "The software has been shown to effectively filter harmful content in text and graphics on the internet," it said in a statement.

The government announcement that the software was to be compulsory as of July 1 triggered a volley of protest at home and abroad. It came from the United States, the European Union, chambers of commerce and the World Trade Organisation, as well as Chinese lawyers and 80 per cent of Chinese web users.

A problem for Switzerland Tourism

The Swiss have expressed no reaction. Neither the embassy in Beijing nor any other official body would comment. "It is not customary for our country to comment about this kind of thing," a Swiss embassy representative told swissinfo.ch.

But for the Swiss tourism organisation, which is counting on the development of the Chinese market, any censorship of its site is naturally a problem.

According to spokeswoman Véronique Kanel, the organisation is "assessing the consequences of the possible censorship of our internet site in China", but added that she was "certain that we shall manage to find a solution".

For Kanel "it is up to the Swiss political authorities to comment on whether use of this software is well-advised or not".

Extra time

The Chinese authorities deferred making the software obligatory at the very last moment, although the China Daily newspaper reported on Thursday that it was only a matter of time before the directive came into effect.

Officially, the decision was taken because some PC manufacturers had asked for the delay, since they were obliged to install the programme in every computer they intended to sell in China.

The question now is whether the plan will be quietly buried, or whether the government is determined to go ahead with it, if only in order to save face.

Observers say the whole affair is more far-reaching than just internet censorship. If Beijing abandons the plan completely, it will represent an important victory for civil society and freedom of expression.

It also illustrates the growing power of public opinion in China and its ability to challenge central authorities.

Politics, not pornography

Beijing lawyer and human rights activist, Li Fangping, has lodged a legal petition to contest the Green Dam project. Having tested the software, he says its aim is to block political sites rather than pornographic ones.

"The number of web users interested in politics is growing, and it is becoming easier and easier for them to express their views and put pressure on the government to demand reform," he told swissinfo.ch.

"Internet presents a fatal challenge to a despotic party," says Zhang Boshu, professor of political philosophy at Beijing's Academy of Social Science, who uses the net to spread his ideas.

"My writings cannot be published in China, and there is no way I could ever speak on the official media. But I still manage to reach large numbers of readers. This is a recent development, which we couldn't have imagined five years ago, and which the authorities will not be able to stop."

Ahead of the game

The fact is, in China, surfers are ahead of the authorities. As a blogger with the username Jason NG puts it: "Anyone who wants to know has ways to get over the barriers if they want to. They have the tools to access sensitive data. Green Dam won't make any difference."

In his post for July 1 Jason NG welcomed the postponement of the plan. "This is a victory for public opinion. Green Dam will quickly be forgotten... Despite appearances, we have a good government which listens to its citizens."

Meanwhile, Swiss Tourism will certainly be relieved that the beauties of Switzerland can continue to lure the Chinese.

Alain Arnaud in Beijing, swissinfo.ch (Adapted from French by Julia Slater and Tim Neville)

In brief

Less than 100 days before the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China (October 1), the authorities are showing a rare nervousness.

Internet censorship, blocking Google, an attempt to bundle spyware in each computer sold in China, a commitment of 10,000 additional volunteers to monitor the web, the arrest of dissident Lu Xiaobo, and visa restrictions are among the measures the government has taken.

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Green Dam Youth Escort

The Chinese ministry of industry and information technology said the programme was needed "to build a green, healthy and harmonious online environment and to avoid the effects on and the poisoning of our youth's minds by harmful information on the internet."

A company called Jinhui Computer System Engineering created the programme, though a US-based company, Solid Oak, accuses the Chinese of illegally lifting code from its anti-porn filter, CyberSitter. A spokeswoman from Solid Oak said 55 million computers already have Green Dam installed.

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China tourism to Switzerland

Potential: Since 2004, the Chinese no longer need an exit permit for official travel to Switzerland. With more than 200,000 stays per year, the Chinese market still remains relatively modest in terms of market share (about 1%), but the potential is enormous.

Spending: With average expenditures of SFr430 ($399) per day, Chinese tourists spend the second most during their stay in Switzerland. Only citizens of Gulf countries spend more.

Schengen: Schengen agreements facilitate the arrival of Chinese tourists, many of whom choose to visit several European countries over a few days.

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