On March 23, the day after Google pulled its search operations out of mainland China, a woman who uses the online pseudonym Xiaomi arose in her Shanghai apartment and sat down in her bedroom office for another day of outwitting Internet censorship. She leads a confederation of volunteer translators around the world who turn out Mandarin versions of Western journalism and scholarly works that are banned on China's Internet--and that wouldn't be available in Mandarin in any case. That day, working in a communal Google Docs account, she and her fellow volunteers completed translations of texts that ranged from a fresh New York Times interview with Google cofounder Sergey Brin to "The Limits of Authoritarian Resilience," a seven-year-old analysis of China's Communist Party from the Journal of Democracy.
What happened when Xiaomi hit "Post" reveals that the government's constraints have their limits. The pieces went live on a blog and a public Google Docs page. These links were broadcast to the nearly 4,000 people who follow her on Twitter (as @xiaomi2020), the 1,170 more who follow her on Google Buzz, and others on five Chinese Twitter clones. Although Blogspot and Twitter are blocked in China to those without circumvention software, anybody in the country can open the Google Docs page--at least for now. (The government did block Google Docs for a time last year but relented after protests from companies and universities.) Once posted, Xiaomi's translations are often reposted 10,000 times or more on blogs and bulletin-board-style discussion sites. There, they can survive for various lengths of time, though the hosting services--which are required to self-censor--generally take them down. The total readership may be orders of magnitude higher than the number of repostings, since each post is presumably read by many people, some of whom also copy the translations into group e-mails.