China tightens web, fearing slowdown and Tiananmen anniversary

John Garnaut – The Age

Copyright The Age
January 12, 2009
CHINA’S Communist Party has significantly tightened propaganda controls by shutting down the country’s most vibrant and influential intellectual discussion platform.
The move to shut down the Bullog website follows a prominent warning last week by China’s propaganda chief, Li Changchun, that the Party would tighten internet controls over “vulgar” content.
Bullog founder Luo Yonghao did not answer phone calls yesterday but he previously told a news agency that he received official confirmation on Friday afternoon of the site’s closure.
Mr Luo told The Age he had received an email from the Beijing Communications Administration saying the website contained harmful comments on current affairs and therefore would be closed.
Bullog has recently grown to become the most important platform for Chinese intellectuals and commentators to debate policy and political developments, with its daily viewers exceeding 1 million last April.
Increased propaganda restrictions are being interpreted as a sign of leadership panic about the social ramifications of China’s sudden economic slowdown and a series of politically fraught anniversaries that could act as a lightning rod for dissent.
“This is a question of the current political climate,” said a leading blogger who contributes to Bullog and writes under the name North Wind. “Bullog has been closed before, but this time it’s going to be hard to reopen.”
But Mr Luo told The Age: “We will definitely open again. If it can’t be in China then we will open our website overseas.”
Data is likely to be released this week showing a precipitous decline in exports and industrial production for December, which may signal an outright contraction in an economy that has averaged 10 per cent annual growth for the past 30 years.
Chinese estimates of the number of manufacturing, construction and other workers who have already lost their jobs range from 6 to 20 million.
The economic turmoil will coincide with a year of political milestones including the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square “incident”, the 50th anniversary of the “Liberation” of Tibet and the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic.
Websites are far more important social and political discussion forums in China than elsewhere because they generally allow a greater range of debate than the country’s tightly controlled mainstream media.
“China lacks freedom of speech but the blog is like a private medium for intellectuals,” said Chinese media researcher Michael Anti.
“If you shut down all the liberal platforms for bloggers, that means the liberal voices cannot be heard in the public sphere and that will be a real problem for civil society,” he said.
Bullog was the leading domestic source of information and commentary about “Charter 08”, a democratic manifesto signed by hundreds of leading Chinese intellectuals last month.
Liu Xiaobo, an intellectual behind the Charter who was also a veteran of the Tiananmen protests, was detained at the time of the Charter’s publication a month ago while dozens of other signatories have been interrogated.
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