Thursday, September 26, 2013

Chinese Authorities Retreat As They Confront Internet Realities

Yang Hui 



Two methods of censoring media in China – by regulation, and by targeting citizen journalists – came under attack recently. The country witnessed the authorities’ growing realisation that the world’s second largest economy cannot function without the internet despite the web's use by dissidents to challenge the Communist Party-dominated state.

The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post wrote earlier this week that measures are to be introduced to make foreign social media and the New York Times blog accessible to users within the free trade zone at Pudong in the country’s commercial capital of Shanghai. The free trade zone is to be inaugurated next month.

While acknowledging the limited availability of these facilities – the measures will apply only to a 30-square mile area, populated mostly by foreigners and the commercial elite – the Paris-based Reporters without Borders (RSF) welcomed it as a sign of technology driving change that political authoritarianism finds hard to prevent.

“By taking this decision, the Chinese government is acknowledging that Internet censorship is bad for business. We regret that this lifting of censorship will apply to just a limited part of the country and that the reasons behind it are purely economic. Targeted mainly at foreigners, this measure will probably not benefit the Chinese population,” RSF said

Meanwhile, a different battle was being waged on the other form of censorship – targeting citizen journalists who highlight crime by high-ranking state officials – far from the rarefied environment of Shanghai’s commercial district. On September 22, police in Zhangjiachuan, in the Gansu Province, arrested 16-year-old Yang Hui for posting online comments about the involvement of the police in the death of a karaoke bar owner. RSF said that Yang was arrested for “provocation and disruption,” after his comments were re-tweeted 500 times.

According to the New York Times, Yang was among the “first people to be charged under new regulations that criminalize the spreading of online rumours with up to three years in jail.” But as a robust online campaign exploded with over 10,000 people voicing their support for him, he was released after the authorities said Yang had confessed to his crime and punished. “Hours after his release, he posted online a photograph of himself flashing a victory sign. His shirt read, ‘Make the Change,’” the Times said.

“‘With the arrest of this kid, I think the public saw this rumour campaign for what it really is: a devious attempt to crush normal online expression,’ said Zhou Ze, a lawyer in Beijing who sought to rally public support for Mr. Yang’s case through his own account on Sina Weibo, China’s most popular microblog service,” the account by Times’ Andrew Jacobs continues.

The rumour campaign he refers to are the recent regulations brought in by Beijing to stifle any online dissent as a crime. “Those arrested include Xu Zhiyong, a prominent lawyer who had called on officials to publicly disclose their financial assets, and Xue Manzi, a Chinese-American investor who often railed against injustice to his 12 million microblog followers,” says the Times. (Please read this blog’s account of the arrests here.)

While these moves by the Chinese authorities are not indicative of the larger reality of draconian measures against the publication of any criticism of the government or the Communist Party, it shows only too well the dilemma posed by the internet to autocratic governments. While they need the internet to for the day-to-day running of the government, the economy and administration, cyberspace defies control the way traditional media does. It makes governance without consent all the more difficult.

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