Chinese bloggers working to keep ahead of censors

July 06, 2008|By Juliet Ye and Geoffrey A. Fowler | Juliet Ye and Geoffrey A. Fowler,The Wall Street Journal

To slip past Internet censors quashing reports of a weekend riot in China's Guizhou province, some bloggers have started writing backward.

About 30,000 rioters set fire to government buildings last weekend to protest the way authorities handled the death of a teenager in the province's Weng'an County. While state-controlled news media provided immediate coverage, government censors moved fast to delete online posts providing unofficial accounts and deactivate the accounts of those users.

So bloggers on forums such as have taken to posting in formats that China's Internet censors, often employees of commercial Internet service providers, have a hard time automatically detecting. One recent strategy involves online software that flips sentences to read right to left instead of left to right, and vertically instead of horizontally.

China's sophisticated censorship regime - known as the Great Firewall - can automatically track objectionable phrases. But "the country also has the most experienced and talented group of netizens who always know ways around it," said an editor at Tianya, owned by Hainan Tianya Online Networking Technology Co., who has been responsible for deleting posts about the riot.

With the Beijing Olympics slightly more than a month away, the Chinese government has shown little patience toward dissent, online or offline. On June 27, authorities in Nanjing imposed a four-year prison sentence on Sun Lin, who had written posts on the overseas dissident Web site, after convicting him of "gathering crowds to cause social unrest" and other offenses. Media-freedom group Reporters Without Borders says that since the beginning of 2008, there have been 24 cases of journalists, cyberdissidents or free-expression activists being arrested or sentenced to jail terms.

Guizhou officials reopened the investigation Tuesday into the death of the 17-year-old student that led to the riots. Police had originally labeled her death a suicide, but outraged local residents believed she had been raped and killed by people who had connections with local officials.

Public-security officials defended the police actions Tuesday, saying they showed "great restraint," the state-run Xinhua news agency reported. It said about 100 police were among the 150 injured during the rioting, but that most injuries were slight.

Nonetheless, some Chinese journalists and Internet writers have been emboldened by the Guizhou incident. Some are using a tried-and-true method of burying coding inside search phrases, such as "Weng'an," that hide the words from online censors.

Citizen journalist Zhou Shuguang, who goes by the online name of Zola, has been using different kinds of technology. After arriving in Guizhou on Monday, he began sharing snippets of information via Twitter, a kind of public instant-messaging feed that delivers information more quickly than censors can block it.

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