China’s leaders launch smokeless war against internet and media dissent

Benjamin Joffe-Walt – The Guardian

*· *News deemed contrary to national interest is banned
*· *Party summit decides to target ‘liberal elements’
Shanghai -Monday September 26, 2005*
Copyright The Guardian
China announced a fresh crackdown yesterday on the internet amid
further revelations of a plan by Hu Jintao, the president, to suppress dissent.
“The state bans the spreading of any news with content that is against national security and public interest,” said a statement from Xinhua, the official news agency. The announcement called for blogs and personal web pages to “be directed towards serving the people and socialism and insist on correct guidance of public opinion for maintaining national and public interests”.
The statement was just one of a series of initiatives by the government to root out politically sensitive news from domestic and foreign media.
On Thursday a Chinese journalist and former professor was given a seven-year sentence for “inciting subversion” by writing hundreds of articles for banned overseas news websites.
Last month the government tried to implement a scheme to pay journalists according to how much Communist party officials liked, or disliked, their articles. In July a political activist was given five years for posting a punk song on the internet deemed to be subversive, and in April a journalist was sentenced to 10 years for sending an email overseas about restrictions on freedom of speech.
Providing further evidence of an organised national crackdown, the New York Times reported yesterday that Mr Hu called for a “smokeless war” against “liberal elements” in China during a secret leadership meetingin May.
The government employs a cyberspace police rumoured to number 30,000 and has spent lavishly on internet filters. Journalists and human rights organisations say the “smokeless war” amounts to a transformation of the government’s tactics from violence, open harassment and the closing of
newspapers to more covert methods of maintaining control. Journalists who try write on forbidden topics are rarely attacked directly, but are discredited by charges such as corruption, sexual harassment and extramarital affairs.
They claim confiscation of notes, address books and mobile phones happen secretly beneath a facade that nothing is wrong, so as to defend the image of the party and its leaders.
“They are trying to safeguard the welfare of the regime, while simultaneously providing for the illusion of a free liberal press,” said Law Yuk-kai of the Hong Kong-based Human Rights Monitor.
“But the internet provides a new way to organise people and is therefore a mounting threat to the government.”
With a growing income gap and agitated unions, migrant workers and students, Mr Law said the government was feeling increasingly threatened by any media that provide outlets for expression of dissent. “They are in a bind. On the one hand they want to encourage economic development but on the other hand they want to strangle any political initiatives bythose not benefiting from the new China.”
While many governments prevent the free flow of controversial information by simply banning the internet altogether, China’s strategy has been one of controlled welcome – exploiting the internet’s
phenomenal potential to drive China’s its globalised economy while simultaneously suppressing its potential for freedom of expression.
The current struggle in the Chinese media began in the 1990s when the
government cut funding to various media outlets, forcing them to engage
in a balancing act between encouraging circulation [through genuine
news] and servicing the propaganda department [as most media are
required to do].
“When [former president] Jiang Zemin came to power, the propaganda
department began controlling all Chinese media,” said one high-ranking
editor of a party-run newspaper with close government connections.
“After Hu Jintao became president, there was an effort to open up. But
after about six months the central government started getting
from local officials about their inability to govern because of media
reports exposing corruption in their administrations … everything
reversed- there was a big policy change back to the way things were.”
The editor told the Guardian that the row in the party centred on the
president’s lack of authority over local leaders. Yesterday China
gambled with a goodwill gesture to pro-democracy members of Hong Kong’s
legislature, inviting them to mainland China for the first time in more
than 15 years. But the visit appeared to backfire when at least one
member of the group wore a T-shirt with a picture of tanks in Tiananmen
square, a symbol of the 1989 pro-democracy protests in which hundreds
students were killed.
China has built the most sophisticated government-controlled internet
on earth, often hailed as “the Great Firewall”. With the help of western
technology firms and internet companies, China filters foreign sites,
restricts blog postings, limits online chats and censors instant
messages for the second-largest online population in the world.
While the barriers are easy to get around with a bit of
techno-wizardry, journalists, editors, internet service providers and cybercafe owners
are all under heavy pressure to abide by the rules and to self-censor
to stay in business. The experience can frustrate – thousands of sites are
blocked, emails can just disappear and even search engines will not
turn up results for certain words. Banned phrases from news sites, blogs and
instant messaging services include independence, democracy, Taiwan,
Tiananmen Square, freedom and the Dalai Lama,3858,5294058-103681,00.html

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