Blogs, bulletin boards help Chinese get access to some of the real story

Web sites get leeway amid controlled media

July 28, 2005|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - After a flood last month in northeast China killed more than 100 children, a Chinese reporter trying to unearth details about the tragedy ran into a familiar skepticism: Locals suspected he would never report that officials had covered up the government incompetence that led to many of the deaths.

The journalist persuaded the locals to talk, and then found that they had been right to be skeptical. Even in carefully worded form, his dispatch for a government-owned newspaper was deemed too controversial.

The reporter decided to get the real story out anyway, on the Internet. He went to three Chinese bulletin boards and posted the banned report, along with his far more candid "field notes and personal observations. Within 10 days, several hundred thousand people had clicked their way to his damning conclusions about local officials.

"Everyone can see that they were trying to hide the truth," he wrote.

In a society where the mainstream sources of information are rigidly controlled by the state, the Internet is where the limits of speech can be tested - not just by activists and dissidents, but also by people with at least one foot in the system, including academics and journalists.

"The Internet and the traditional media are sometimes two different worlds. Certain information is sometimes barred in the latter," said the journalist, who asked to be identified by an Internet pen name, Shenxia, in a recent interview explaining his decision to post his story and notes. "I think it's very simple: If I get it published online, I am practicing freedom of the press, and I believe that the public should be able to enjoy the freedom of the press."

Shenxia faced no immediate repercussions for his decision, and several other Chinese reporters quickly followed his example last month in posting similarly candid reporting notes on bulletin boards, none of which has been shut down. But the government is surely watching, aware that Internet discussions can foment unrest.

It was on the Internet that anti-Japanese sentiments coalesced into a real-world movement, generating huge street demonstrations in Chinese cities last spring. And it was on the Internet that a routine car accident, in which a BMW struck and killed someone, became a flash point for angry debate about China's growing divide between rich and poor.

The government often steps in when these debates appear to become broad-based and politically charged. But Chinese cyberspace has grown to such a size that any blog or bulletin board can become a platform faster than the government can shut it down.

"The Internet and emerging civil society in China are energizing each other," said Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at the University of California, Berkeley by e-mail. Bulletin boards and blogs have "provided a communication forum for citizen participation in Chinese public life."

But who is participating? The typical Internet user in China is young, male, with access to a good education and - if he is out of school - well-paid. These are not China's discontented.

This may help explain why Shenxia has not faced retribution for his posting and why many bulletin boards and bloggers are allowed leeway. A blog's freedom to report sensitive information that won't be found on the country's closely monitored major news portals, like Sina.com.cn, may reflect its inability to pose a threat.

China has about 5 million blogs. But if China's leading blog hoster is any indication, a blog-led revolution is unlikely anytime soon.

"There is politically sensitive stuff, but it's so much less than [the bulletin boards], because people will not write a lot of illegal content within their own sphere," said Fang Xingdong, CEO of Bokee, host to more than 2 million blogs.

It's not just self-discipline by bloggers, but by Internet companies at the direction of the government. Fang has a staff of about 10 people monitoring tens of thousands of postings daily in search of inappropriate content.

In addition, the government uses sophisticated software and advanced Internet routers from Cisco Systems, an American company, to maintain control over what pages can be accessed in China. Microsoft, Yahoo and Google all have apparently allowed the government to filter searches on their sites; punching in any of a number of sensitive keywords will lead to a dead end and, often, a brief lockdown of the Web browser.

The punishment can be much harsher for users determined to post politically sensitive content on the Web. The government has imprisoned some who have repeatedly posted material on issues like Tiananmen or multiparty democracy.

"The reality of China is that there are few people in China now who would choose to be a martyr, but there are many people who will realistically weigh the pros and cons and try their best to push for the progress of this country," Shenxia said.

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