By HOWARD W. FRENCH
Published: December 14, 2005 – Copyright The New York Times
SHANGHAI, Dec. 13 – One week after the police violently suppressed a demonstration against the construction of a power plant in China, leaving as many as 20 people dead, an overwhelming majority of the Chinese public still knows nothing of the event.
In the wake of the biggest use of armed force against civilians since the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, Chinese officials have used a variety of techniques – from barring reports in most newspapers outside the immediate region to banning place names and other keywords associated with the event from major Internet search engines, like Google – to prevent news of the deaths from spreading.
Beijing’s handling of news about the incident, which was widely reported internationally, provides a revealing picture of the government’s ambitions to control the flow of information to its citizens, and of the increasingly sophisticated techniques – a combination of old-fashioned authoritarian methods and the latest Internet technologies – that it uses to keep people in the dark.
The government’s first response was to impose a news blackout, apparently banning all Chinese news media from reporting the Dec. 6 confrontation. It was not until Saturday, four days later, with foreign news reports proliferating, that the official New China News Agency released the first Chinese account.
According to that report, more than 300 armed villagers in the southern town of Dongzhou “assaulted the police.” Only two-thirds of the way into the article did it say that three villagers had been killed and eight others injured when “the police were forced to open fire in alarm.”
But even that account was not widely circulated, and it was highly at odds with the stories told by villagers, who in several days of often detailed interviews insisted that 20 or more people had been killed by automatic weapons fire and that at least 40 were still missing.
The government’s version, like a report the next day in which authorities announced the arrest of a commander who had been in charge of the police crackdown, was largely restricted to newspapers in Guangdong Province.
“The Central Propaganda Department must have instructed the media who can report this news and who cannot,” said Yu Guoming, a professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at Renmin University in Beijing.
The government’s handling of information about the violence has drawn sharp criticism from a group of prominent intellectuals, more than 50 of whom have signed a statement condemning what they called the “crude censorship by the mainland media of any reporting of the Dongzhou incident.” Word of the petition has circulated online, but it has not been published in China.
Not one among several of China’s leading editors interviewed acknowledged receiving instructions from the government on how or whether to report on the death of protesters, but in each case their answers hinted at constraints and unease.
“We don’t have this news on our Web site,” said Fang Sanwen, the news director of Netease.com, one of China’s three major Internet portals and news providers. “I can’t speak. I hope you can understand.”
Li Shanyou, editor in chief of Sohu.com, another of the leading portals, said: “I’m not the right person to answer this question. It’s not very convenient to comment on this.”
A link on Sina.com – the third of the leading portals and the only one to carry even a headline about the incident – to news from Dongzhou was a dead end, leading to a story about employment among college graduates.
Even Caijing, a magazine with a strong reputation for enterprising reporting on delicate topics, demurred. “We just had an annual meeting, and I haven’t considered this subject yet,” said Hu Shuli, the magazine’s editor, speaking through an assistant.
Further obscuring news of the events at Dongzhou, online reports about the village incident carried by the New China News Agency were confined to its Guangdong provincial news page, with the result that few who did not already know of the news or were not searching determinedly would have been likely to stumble across it on China’s leading official news Web site.
The government also arranged more technologically impressive measures to frustrate those who sought out news of the confrontation.
Until Tuesday, Web users who turned to search engines like Google and typed in the word Shanwei, the city with jurisdiction over the village where the demonstration was put down, would find nothing about the protests against power plant construction there, or about the crackdown. Users who continued to search found their browsers freezing. By Tuesday, links to foreign news sources appeared but were invariably inoperative.
But controls like these have spurred a lively commentary among China’s fast-growing blogging community.
“The domestic news blocking system is really interesting,” wrote one blogger. “I heard something happened in Shanwei and wanted to find out whether it was true or just the invention of a few people. So I started searching with Baidu, and Baidu went out of service at once. I could open their site, but couldn’t do any searches.” Baidu is one of the country’s leading search engines.
“I don’t dare to talk,” another blogger wrote. “There are sensitive words everywhere – our motherland is so sensitive. China’s body is covered with sensitive zones.”
While numerous bloggers took the chance of discussing the incident on their Web sites, they found that their remarks were blocked or rapidly expunged, as the government knocked out comments it found offensive or above its low threshold. Some Internet users had trouble calling up major Western news sites, although those were not universally blocked.
By HOWARD W. FRENCH