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China Pulls Back From Censorship Confrontation

Chinese people can recite old sayings and proverbs that relate to almost any situation, probably because their culture and language reaches all the back to when people first started thinking up these sayings. Also, Chinese as a language is clearly rich in the use of visual imagery.

Thus yesterday's decision by China's government to back off from its broad software censorship policy, in combination with a WTO ruling opening the Chinese market to U.S. media products, is probably covered by a boatload's worth of proverbs all having to do with how no person (or country) can remain isolated from every other, especially in the age of social communication networks.

The government's retreat from requiring every new computer sold in China to be equipped with so-called "anti-pornography" filters that, in fact, would allow the government to censor a broad array of political content, was not complete; it continues to insist that all public computers (in schools, libraries, Internet cafes, etc.) will contain the software.

So the relatively small (if growing) segment of the population that owns their own computers will be free to use them without fear that this aggressive element of government censorship will reach into their own homes -- a loophole that may in fact spur the growth of PC sales among the middle classes going forward.

The original government order, issued in mid-May, was met by an loud outcry by foreign computer manufacturers, who said it was unfairly burdensome, and by Chinese Internet users. The U.S. government had warned China that the filter could be another violation of WTO regulations.

The scale-back was hardly unprecedented. As one experienced industry exec inside the country told me, "It is not atypical for the government to modify their initial announcements when they hear a lot of negative feedback, as in this case."

Which brings me back to those old proverbs. Maybe the government was just bending with the wind: "All things change, and we change with them." Or, maybe it felt it had already made its point: "Once bitten by a snake, you are even frightened by a rope that resembles a snake." Or, just being a responsible, if condescending, custodian of the country's value system: "Parents who are afraid to put their foot down usually have children who step on their toes."