Thu, Apr 02, 2009 - Page 9 News List

The Internet that China can’t stop

No matter what controls the communist government has in place, there remains great potential for crusading Web surfers

By Ian Ransom  /  REUTERS , BEIJING

Already under pressure to create jobs and growth while clinging to absolute power, China’s Communist Party faces a growing headache from Internet users keen to expose its members’ sometimes questionable habits.

A pair of receipts from an upscale karaoke club sparked the latest Internet-led furor over government corruption earlier this month, ending the career of a mid-level bureaucrat from Liuyang in Hunan Province.

Scanned and uploaded by a nameless surfer, the dockets listed 47,000 yuan (US$7,000) worth of dining, massage and other services, prompting Internet users to ask how a public servant in a local media watchdog could stretch his meager government salary so far.

The Liuyang scandal followed a string of similar media storms in recent months, triggered by the Internet exposures of officials enjoying luxury overseas holidays in the name of “study” trips, or photographed wearing expensive-looking watches.

With China’s state-controlled media often reluctant to report, and Party-appointed watchdogs sometimes embroiled in scandals themselves, China’s Internet users have taken it upon themselves to ferret out official corruption.

“There is a sense that the central government has lost control over the county and city level officials in many places,” said Rebecca McKinnon, an Internet expert at Hong Kong University. “We’ve got the financial crisis and a lot of people concerned about corruption and how the nation’s finances are managed.”

Graft is hardly new in China, where the ruling Communist Party has warned it could prove to be its downfall.

But the latest scandals come amid demands for more transparency in the central government’s 4 trillion yuan stimulus plan to pump up the flagging economy.

“This year is clearly a very sensitive year politically ... We’ve got all kinds of reasons why the government would feel nervous,” McKinnon said.

Fall-out from the global financial crisis has seen China’s once-booming export machine falter and some 20 million workers lose their jobs, fanning fears of social unrest.

Another 1.2 million university graduates are out of work, weeks before Beijing passes the 20th anniversary of a bloody crackdown on student-led demonstrations centered on Tiananmen Square.

As always, the government has attempted to stifle calls for political reform, launching an Internet crackdown in January ostensibly targeting pornography, but also shutting down blogging Web sites hosting debate deemed too edgy.

The ham-fisted suppression campaign, accompanied by the detention of dissidents calling for democratic reforms in a widely circulated online petition, has failed to silence critical Internet chatter.

Surfers have delighted in the “grass-mud horse,” an Internet fad of videos and cartoons that uses a vulgar pun to mock the government’s “harmonious society” slogan and protest online controls.

The corruption cases keep appearing online, then appearing in the papers, while edgy political discussions remain no less visible.

A LOSING BATTLE?

With an estimated 3,000 new Web sites created daily and more than 6 million new users coming online every month, the government is fighting a losing battle to stifle undesirable content, according to analysts.

“Scale is the killer here as far as control goes,” said a Beijing-based IT manager who declined to be named.

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