China is the world’s biggest market, but for Western media firms trying to expand it can be a bruising experience.
So it was perhaps inevitable when the New York Times decided to launch a Chinese-language Web site in June that it would fall foul of the censors. The government on Friday blocked access to the site, accusing it of trying to “smear” the country’s name. Its crime was to publish an article claiming that the family of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) had accumulated US$2.7 billion during his time in power.
China swiftly blocked access to the paper’s Web sites and censored searches for the New York Times as well as the names of Wen’s children and wife on microblogging service Sina Weibo.
The media group responded by saying it would “ask the Chinese authorities to ensure that our readers in China can continue to enjoy New York Times journalism.”
The New York Times hired 30 staff for its Chinese Web site, most of whom are working as translators and editors, and publishes about 30 articles a day on national, foreign and arts topics, in addition to editorials. Two-thirds of the content is translated from the US paper and a third is written by Chinese editors and local journalists.
Diplomacy would be needed to re-establish its service, said William Dutton, professor of Internet studies at the Oxford Internet Institute.
“It will be impossible for China to stop people seeing this story even by censoring the site because there will be so much re-posting of the story. So I don’t think censorship can be totally effective. This particular article will be more circulated and better known because of the censorship of the New York Times,” Dutton said.
He said Chinese officials had become more effective at filtering stories, but adopted a two-faced approach to criticism.
“It is OK for someone to protest in China, but not in Tiananmen Square; it is OK to criticize China, but not OK to criticize the prime minister. This is a symbolic reaction,” he said.