In Taiwan and other democracies, if one wishes to know about the country’s leading civil-rights attorneys, an online search or glance at their blogs will provide quick and fairly accurate information. Not so in China. As artist Ai Weiwei (艾未未), and others caught up in the latest round of Chinese state abductions have slowly emerged from incommunicado detention, another insidious form of silencing is taking hold — the systematic deletion of their names and writings from the Internet, a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) tactic one might call “cyberdisappearance.”
As in many places, China’s leading lawyers and activists have used the Internet to expose human rights abuses, educate fellow citizens about their legal rights and advocate for reforms that would establish the rule of law.
Human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng (高智晟) published open letters documenting the torture and killing of Falun Gong practitioners. Xu Zhiyong (許志永) blogged about the inhumane treatment meted out to petitioners. Ai produced a video of people reading aloud the names of the children who died in poorly built schools during the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, then circulated it online.
However, what sets these efforts apart from those in other societies is that these activists must contend with the most robust, sophisticated and multifaceted Internet censorship apparatus in the world. Moreover, according to “Freedom on the Net,” a study on Internet freedom released by Freedom House in April, the system of online controls in China has grown even more comprehensive in its scope and depth over the past two years.
Chinese activists and lawyers have long encountered the gamut of censorship tools available to the country’s CCP rulers, from blocked Web sites and disabled blogs to offline tactics like cautionary “invitations to tea,” abductions and torture. Many dissidents have kept multiple blogs, hoping that one hosting service may be less thorough than another in enforcing party directives.
More recently, however, as real-world repression against these individuals has escalated to include much longer periods of arbitrary detention and abuse, a corresponding drive has begun to make them disappear in the virtual world as well. Following Ai’s abduction in April, leaked government censorship orders have not only proscribed his name, but also instructed Web outlets to delete within 10 minutes an editorial that included a veiled reference to him and his work on the Sichuan Earthquake.
The name of Gao, who has disappeared for more than a year, was already identified in 2009 as a sensitive keyword on a list leaked by an employee of Baidu, China’s most popular search engine. A query for his name primarily produces articles from state-run news sources, most of which refer to him as a criminal or are dated prior to 2006, when the CCP began to definitively view him as an enemy. There are no links to his own writings within the top 20 results. A search on Yahoo.cn turns up a similarly limited list.
What is striking in the cases of both Ai and Gao is that they were once the objects of notable official support and media coverage. In 2001, Gao was named one of the top 10 lawyers in China in a televised competition sponsored by the Ministry of Justice. Ai was famously invited to design the iconic Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. However, as their advocacy began touching on the sorts of abuses that the CCP most desperately wants hidden, they fell out of favor, and the authorities are now hoping that people will forget the latest chapters of their careers — or even that they exist at all.
In a dynamic that highlights the Chinese leadership’s wariness of social media, cyberdisappearance has been especially evident on the search engine of the Sina Weibo microblogging platform, which boasts more than 140 million Chinese users. After Ai’s release, China Digital Times reported that his name as well as various homonyms and nicknames had been banned on Sina Weibo’s search tool. Recent tests by Freedom House showed that searches for the names of six other leading journalists, lawyers and activists yield no results on Sina Weibo, though they do produce a cryptic explanation: “According to related laws and policy, some of the results are not shown here.”
The Chinese Internet censorship apparatus is not airtight, and deletion tactics are not applied with the same intensity to all activists. Nevertheless, even when compared with other countries known for systematic censorship, such as Saudi Arabia and Vietnam, China’s Internet controls are in a league of their own. No other country has such a nuanced, selective and malleable system, spurred on to ever greater extremes by the paranoid sensitivity of a regime that fears the independent thought of its own people.
Ironically, as rumors of his death spread online, Jiang Zemin (江澤民), the former Chinese president under whose watch the Great Firewall was born, has become the latest victim of cyberdisappearance.
Sarah Cook is an Asia research analyst and assistant editor at Freedom House. She is one of the editors of the China Media Bulletin.
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