The ranks of China’s censors are visibly growing along with measures aimed at monitoring the public’s communications and personal data. The authorities have just announced that China’s microblogging websites – sites offering Twitter-style services – will be told to appoint “self-discipline commissioners” to be responsible for censorship.
In a parallel development, the authorities have announced that, to combat curb mobile phone spam and fraud, anyone wanting to buy a mobile phone that uses pre-paid SIM cards will now have to show identification.
“China’s censors are giving themselves an additional layer of control,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The Great Firewall of China is getting human reinforcements to boost its effectiveness. But if they are held to strict performance criteria, it seems these commissioners are being assigned an impossible mission, given the volume of information circulating online for which they will be responsible.”
The press freedom organisation added: “Nonetheless, their very existence will be dangerous because of their nuisance value and because they could encourage microbloggers to censor themselves. Meanwhile, under the pretext of combating spam, a new blow has been dealt to the personal data of China’s mobile phone users.”
The decision to create to appoint self-discipline commissioners was taken at an Internet oversight meeting in Beijing on 27 August. According to the government media, the results of an initial experiment with microblogging self-censorship in Hebei province were deemed sufficiently satisfactory to extend it to eight microblogging platforms in Beijing: Sina, Sohu, Netease, Iphonixe, Hexun, Soufang, 139Mobile and Juyou9911.
The microblogging platforms will themselves have to hire the commissioners whose job it will be to monitor and censor anything that could threaten China’s security and social stability. They are supposed to target content linked to illegal activities, pornography and violence, as well as baseless rumours and politically sensitive issues. Although hired by the site, each commissioner will be responsible for its content and will be operationally independent. They will also be independent of the official Association of Journalists of China.
This week’s announcement follows a crackdown in mid-July on certain social-networking websites, especially microblogging services, which are very popular in China (http://en.rsf.org/china-authorities-turn-their-sights-on-16-07-2010,37971.html).
It is not the first time the authorities have forced online media to police themselves. The Internet Society of China (ISC), an offshoot of the information industry ministry, drafted a “Self-Discipline Pact” in August 2007 that was signed by more than 20 companies that provide blogging services, including Msn.cn, Renmin Wang, Xinlang, Sohu, Wangyi, Tom, Qianlong Wang, Hexun Wang, Boke Tianxia, Tianji Wang, Yahoo.cn, Huasheng Zaixian, Bolianshe and Tengxun. The pact can be used to get service providers to censor content and identify “subversive” bloggers.
Some 300 websites and Internet service providers signed a similar self-discipline pact in 2002 that was promoted by the Chinese Internet Association. They undertook “not to produce or disseminate harmful documents or content liable to endanger national security or social stability; and not to break the laws or regulations or to spread false news, superstitions or obscenities.” The pact also envisaged “cooperation by sites in combating cyber crime and failure to respect intellectual property rights.”
The reinforcement of control over microblogging websites has been accompanied by a new offensive against the proxy servers employed by Chinese Internet users to get around the Great Firewall. Access to Freegate and Ultrareach, two of the most popular proxies, was made very difficult for several days from 27 August. Their developers reacted to the blocking by making updated versions of their software available. The game of cat and mouse between censors and the promoters of circumvention techniques continues.
In parallel to the crusade against online anonymity (http://en.rsf.org/china-government-crusade-against-online-07-05-2010,37412.html), the authorities are tightening their grip on mobile phone communications. Under new rules that took effect on 1 September, anyone wanting to buy a mobile phone that uses prepaid SIM cards will have to produce identity papers while anyone already owning such a phone will have three years to register their ownership.
According to the state-owned newspaper Global Times, there are 800 million mobile phone numbers currently in use in China, of which 320 million were acquired anonymously. Those who sell SIM cards to the public, many of whom are newspaper and magazine vendors, will be required to make photocopies of the buyer’s ID papers and register their personal details in a centralised databank of mobile phone users.
The ministry of industry and information technology says these regulations are needed to help combat mobile phone spam and fraud. While this is a laudable goal, the new measures provide new possibilities for identity theft and, above all, increase the ability of the authorities to monitor calls, SMS messages and data exchanges and identify those who criticise the government or take part in demonstrations.
Netizens continue to be harassed and some are even in physical danger. Fang Zhouzhi, a blogger who has exposed cases of scientific fraud, said he was attacked by two men on 29 August, minutes after being interviewed by two journalists about Li Yi, a Daoist abbot who claims to have supernatural powers. According to the account posted in his blog New Threads (http://xysblogs.org/xysergroup/archives/7140), one of his assailants sprayed something in his face while the other one chased him and threw a hammer that hit him in the lower back, causing a minor injury. He reported the attack to the police, who are investigating.
The assault on Fang Zhouzhi has parallels with an attempt in June to murder a friend of his, Fang Xuanchang, a science reporter for the magazine Caijing who has written about medical charlatans, fake discoveries and questionable practices in the health sector (http://en.rsf.org/china-private-sector-companies-in-battle-26-08-2010,38216.html).
Details are meanwhile continuing to emerge about the government’s purges in the troubled province of Xinjiang. Those tried and convicted include several people who appear to have been targeted for cooperating with Uyghur websites based abroad. It has been learned that Mehbube Abrak, a People’s Radio employee in Urumqi, was given a three-year jail sentence in 2008 on a charge of inciting separatism (http://www.duihua.org/work/publications/nl/dialogue/nl_txt/nl40/nl40_3a.html) and that Gulmire Imin was given a life sentence on charges of separatism, revealing state secrets and organising a demonstration. She contributed to the Salkin website, two of whose webmasters are currently detained. Reporters Without Borders is investigating both cases.
In some rare good news, the US and Hong Kong-based Dui Hua foundation has reported that several dissidents, including dissidents who took part in the June 1989 protests on Tiananmen Square, have been released or granted sentence reductions (http://www.duihuanews.org/).
One of the beneficiaries was Li Zhi, a cyber-dissident and former civil servant who was sentenced to eight years in prison in December 2003 for “subversive” use of the Internet. He was freed last November, nine months before completing his sentences. He was one of the netizens who were convicted thanks in part to information about their email accounts that Yahoo! provided to the Chinese authorities.
Reporters Without Borders hails Li Zhi’s release and urges the Chinese authorities to continue freeing detained journalists and bloggers, 106 of whom are still being held in what is the world’s biggest prison for reporters and netizens. (See the list: http://en.rsf.org/press-freedom-barometer-journalists-imprisoned.html?annee=2010).
Information provided by Yahoo! also helped the Chinese authorities to identify Wang Xaoping, a cyber-dissident, and Shi Tao, a journalist who was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2005 on a spying charge. Both are still in prison. Shi Tao was recently transferred from Chishan prison in Hunan province to Yinchuan prison in the autonomous region of Ningxia Hui. This means he is now closer to his family.