Andrew Jacobs, New York Times
February 4, 2009
BEIJING – It was meant to be a tongue-in-cheek alternative to the stultifying variety show beamed into hundreds of millions of living rooms on the eve of each Lunar New Year holiday. But the program, called “Shanzhai,” which roughly translates as “knockoff” or “underground” gala, was not to be.
After television stations withdrew their promised slots, the extravaganza’s producers turned to the Internet. Those who tried to download the three-hour program on Jan. 25, however, were disappointed. The show had been quashed by censors, presumably for its mockery of a hallowed state-molded institution.
The incident has provoked howls among China’s so-called netizens, who say it is another example of the Communist Party’s heavy-handed oversight of the Web. Since early January, the government has been waging a decency campaign that has closed more than 1,500 Web sites found to contain sex, violence or “vulgarity.” Numerous other sites, including Google, have responded by removing any pages that might offend puritanical sensibilities.
But indecency is often in the eye of the beholder. Last month, Bullog, a popular bastion for freewheeling bloggers, was shut down for what the authorities said were its “large amounts of harmful information on current events,” according to a notice posted by the site’s founder, Luo Yonghao. When Mr. Luo briefly resuscitated the site on Sunday using an overseas server, it was blocked again.
Many people here believe that Bullog may have crossed a line by posting information about Charter 08, an online petition calling for democratic reforms. Organizers say the manifesto has garnered thousands of signatures since its introduction in December. Within the Chinese Internet firewall, it is now nearly impossible to find a copy.
While some see the monthlong crackdown as a portent of increasing government restrictions on electronic expression, those who follow China’s evolving relationship with the Internet say it is too soon to tell.
“The authorities tighten the screws every few months, and some periods are tighter than others, so this is nothing new,” said Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at the University of California, Berkeley.
But the wild card this time, Mr. Xiao and others say, is an economic downturn that has the potential to put the Communist Party’s oversight of online content to a new test. For years, China has tried to strike a balance between allowing vigorous growth of the Web and preventing it from becoming a tool for undermining party rule. But popular anger against official corruption or ineptitude may become harder to contain in an era of economic pain.
Despite building one of the most technically sophisticated Internet firewalls, China still has a community of Web users that is among the most dynamic in the world. There are more than 70 million bloggers in China, and last month officials proudly announced that the number of Internet users had approached 300 million, more than in any other country.
The Web has become a forum for public activism that would be speedily suppressed, or widely ignored, if it occurred offline. In recent months, a spate of vigilante campaigns have been waged against low-level officials accused of corruption or unseemly behavior.
In one notable case in December, an ostensibly harmless photograph of Zhou Jiugeng, a Nanjing housing official, found its way onto the Web. Sharp-eyed bloggers could not help noticing the $15,000 Swiss watch on his wrist and the $22-a-pack cigarettes on the table in front of him. Two weeks later, Mr. Zhou was fired after investigators determined that he had led an improbably lavish lifestyle for a modestly salaried civil servant.
Two weeks earlier, a Communist Party official in Shenzhen resigned after he was accused of abusing an 11-year-old girl in a restaurant bathroom. What tripped him up was a security camera video, widely circulated online, that showed him waving off the girl’s distraught family as he taunted them with his lofty rank.
Then there is the case of a Wenzhou government delegation whose publicly financed junket to Las Vegas, Niagara Falls and Vancouver was exposed by a blogger who found a bag of incriminating receipts on a Shanghai subway. After the documents were published on the Web in December, two top officials were ousted from their jobs; the other nine travelers were forced to write self-criticism essays.
These and a score of other incidents have convinced commentators like Ai Weiwei that the Internet will pave the way to a new era of free speech and democracy. “As long as people care about society’s problems, they will go to the Web to look for information,” he said.
An artist who is one of China’s most widely read bloggers, Mr. Ai helped inspire a surge of populist support for Yang Jia, an unemployed 28-year-old convicted of killing six police officers in Shanghai. Although he was executed in November, Mr. Yang gained considerable public sympathy after Mr. Ai and other bloggers highlighted the abuse Mr. Yang said he had suffered at the hands of the police before his murderous rampage.
Mr. Ai acknowledged that the government’s noose would tighten if public unrest grew, but he insisted that any attempt to strengthen Internet restrictions would backfire. “Clamping down will only produce more of an outcry for democracy,” he said.
The government is well positioned to prevent that outcry from growing too voluble. Although imperfect, its weapons include a firewall that effectively blocks foreign Web sites by groups like Amnesty International and Falun Gong, and a number of Chinese-language media sites in Taiwan, to name a few. Algorithms weed out postings that include words like “democracy,” “Dalai Lama” or “Tiananmen massacre.” When those fail, the legions of censors employed by privately owned Web sites are ready to step into the breach.
Then there are the untold thousands of paid commentators who pose as ordinary Web users to counter criticism of the government. Known derisively as 50 Cent Party members, these shapers of public opinion are often paid a small sum, 50 Chinese cents, for every posting. [Ed. Note: That sounds familair, to judge by the volume of posts defending TASER deaths every day on the CBC's site. In the US, the Pentagon is known to pay bloggers in a similar scheme.]
Speaking at a media forum in Beijing last week, Liu Zhengrong, a top official in China’s Internet affairs bureau, warned his colleagues to be vigilant in the coming year, which will include the 20th anniversary of the crackdown in Tiananmen Square and the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising that led to the Dalai Lama’s exile.
“You have to check the channels one by one, the programs one by one, the pages one by one,” he said, according to Southern Weekend, a newspaper known for its investigative reporting. “You must not miss any step. You must not leave any unchecked corners.”
Rebecca MacKinnon, an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Center, has no illusions about the Internet as a vehicle for political reform. The Web may be a hurly-burly of opinion and criticism, she said, but the moment that participants talk about organizing, the conversation – and the site – are shut down.
“All this Internet discourse has not brought China closer to democracy than it was 10 years ago,” said Professor MacKinnon, whose expertise includes Chinese bloggers and Internet censorship.
In some ways, she said, the government uses the Internet as a pressure valve that allows aggrieved citizens to blow off steam before their fury comes to a head. [Ed. Note: You're still allowed to organize in Canada. Use it or lose it.]
“One can make the argument that the Internet enables the Communist Party to remain in power longer because it provides a space for people to air grievances without allowing real change,” she said.