[Note: Staffer Deborah Fallows is now living with her husband in Shanghai and is sending reports every so often about the internet in China.]

Readers of the western press are familiar by now with reports of China’s internet content censorship and website blocking. Nothing about Tibet, Tiananmen, the Falun Gong, and a host of other politically sensitive or often random-seeming topics exists – for long! — on China’s internet.

This is personal now, since my husband and I live in Shanghai. But sometimes, lulled into complacency with my fast broadband connections and nearly flawless email service, I forget about it. Just yesterday, in an absent-minded moment, I tried to access Technorati to search for blog material. Of course, my search timed out. Half the time Technorati is off limits. (Like Wikipedia, it comes and goes. The reason is rarely 100% clear.) Silly me.

This morning, I was thinking about the reported 30,000 Internet police – or is it 50,000? — who monitor web content and keep Technorati off the radar, when I picked up the Shanghai Daily to see a front page headline about another area where the internet police had most certainly been busy, but this time in an arguably positive way. The paper reported on the shutdown of over 200 Chinese websites for video, music or software piracy violations. A director of China’s National Copyright Administration described pirated content as “a destabilizing factor in society,” and invoked a July 2006 regulation banning up- or down-loading content without permission of copyright holders. Some offenders were fined, some had equipment confiscated, others face prosecution.

What I realized reading this story is that while I have long become accustomed to such stories of warnings, shutdowns, censorship, crackdowns and control in China’s online world, I now see how these internet references fit into a larger context of oversight and control in much of offline China as well.

Here are other examples from today’s papers:

  • As part of a short-term crackdown that will last through the Spring Festival celebrations over the next few weeks, police began targeting beggars and unlicensed vendors in subway stations throughout Shanghai. Some offenders, the story said, will be sent to rescue and aid units for “legal education” (whatever that means), and repeat offenders “face detention or education through labor” (which sounds much worse). Others, who plead they operate illegally or beg because they can’t find jobs, seem to have figured out a good answer, as the story reported they will be helped to find work.
  • Regulators shut down Shanghai Consonancy Hospital today for “ripping off patients.” A public complaint reportedly got the ball rolling. Some argued that a criminal investigation should precede a shutdown, but it happened anyway.
  • In a half-hearted warning, Shanghai fire authorities, drew a circle around the city, which will allow setting off fireworks all night between 6 pm and 6 am over the upcoming Spring Festival outside – but not inside – the Inner Ring Road. The fire officials said, however, that since there is no regulation to penalize violators, the best the police can probably do is try their powers of persuasion to get celebrants inside the Ring Road to stop.
  • And finally, in the special 2008 Olympics glossy insert today, Games organizers warned people against buying any Olympics paraphernalia or products now online, as they are fakes. Same goes for products sold in unlicensed brick-and-mortar stores. Anyone who has spent more than a week in China could probably have figured this one out. The Games organizers suggest waiting until March 27, which marks the beginning of the 500-day countdown to the opening of the Games, and will also mark the first day of sales of official Games products. It will be interesting to see how warnings, oversight, and control play out starting March 28.