Tue, Feb 10, 2009 - Page 9 News List

China’s ‘decency’ campaigns may face new challenges

Internet censorship is nothing new in China, but the wild card this time may be an economic downturn that is feeding public discontent

By Andrew Jacobs  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BEIJING

Then there is the case of a Wenzhou government delegation whose publicly funded junket to Las Vegas, Niagara Falls and Vancouver was exposed by a blogger who found a bag of incriminating receipts on a Shanghai subway. Two top officials were ousted from their jobs; the other nine travelers were forced to write self-criticism essays.

These and other incidents have convinced commentators like Ai Weiwei (艾未未) that the Web will pave the way to an 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, Ai helped inspire a surge of populist support for Yang Jia (楊佳), an unemployed 28-year-old convicted of killing six police officers in Shanghai. Although he was executed in November, Yang gained considerable public sympathy after Ai and other bloggers highlighted the abuse Yang said he had suffered at the hands of the police before his murderous rampage.

Ai said the government’s noose would tighten if public unrest grew, but any attempt to strengthen Internet restrictions would backfire.

“Clamping down will only produce more of an outcry for democracy,” he said.

The government is positioned to prevent the outcry from growing voluble. Although imperfect, their weapons include a firewall that effectively blocks foreign Web sites by groups like Amnesty International, the Falun Gong and Chinese-language media sites in Taiwan.

Then there are the untold thousands of paid commentators who pose as ordinary Web users to counter criticism of the government. Known as “50 Cent Party” members, these shapers of public opinion are often paid a small sum for every posting.

Speaking at a media forum in Beijing last week, Liu Zhengrong (劉正榮), one of the government’s top propaganda officials, 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,” MacKinnon said.

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.

“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.

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