The electronic Great Wall around China is getting taller and more effective. The government still controls most of the print media. Communist Party and government leaders continue to order arrests of journalists, bloggers and intellectuals. Directives from the Central Propaganda Department and local officials trample on media freedom.
But, with perseverance and courage, journalists, Internet users, bloggers, artists, lawyers and intellectuals are managing to open breaches in China’s censorship. In recent weeks, Reporters Without Borders has noted a series of encouraging victories by these tireless free speech activists.
It is up to the Chinese above all to wage the fight against censorship in China, but they need the support of the international blogosphere and information sector companies. The fight for free expression in a country that is now a major international power also needs significant solidarity gestures.
That is why Reporters Without Borders is supporting Chinese intellectual Liu Xiaobo’s candidacy for the Nobel Peace Prize. A staunch defender of free expression who was given an 11-year jail sentence for helping to draft the Charter 08 manifesto, Liu Xiaobo embodies the peaceful and selfless struggle for freedom being waged by activists in China and many other parts of the world.
Recent events in China suggest that a turning point is being reached in the possibilities for effective action by journalists and Internet users against repression and censorship.
“I will never regret writing this book,” Xie Chaoping claimed when he was freed on 17 September after being detained for several weeks in the central province of Shaanxi for writing about the Sanmenxia dam. He was released for lack of evidence after winning a strong show of support from the Chinese public. More information: http://en.rsf.org/china-journalist-arrested-for-writing-07-09-2010,38299...
“I wrote the truth,” said Economic Observer reporter Qiu Ziming at the end of July after the authorities in the eastern province of Zhejiang withdrew the libel charges they had brought against him for accusing a local battery manufacturer of improper practices. When Qiu went into hiding and protested his innocence in his blog, he won an enormous amount of support online and was transformed into an Internet hero. More information about Qiu: http://en.rsf.org/china-business-reporter-taken-off-most-03-08-2010,3806...
“The Beijing police chief apologised to me, the magazine Caijing and all the journalists,” Caijing deputy editor Luo Changping wrote on Twitter on 21 September. Luo, who was arrested by the Beijing police for a story headlined “Security companies given special task of intercepting petitioners,” said the police finally promised not to prosecute anyone in connection with the article. To follow Luo on Twitter: http://twitter.com/lianyue
Journalists sticking together
These positive developments were the result of public support, which is having an increasing impact on the Chinese authorities. In some cases, this “agitation” was initiated by news media or informal groups of journalists in certain regions.
“The Internet’s development opens up new possibilities,” Xiao Jianfeng, the editor of Hunan Ribao (Hunan Daily), wrote after the authorities closed down an online discussion forum that was appreciated by many journalists. “If a website is closed, another is created elsewhere. The government is mistaken. Suppressing and closing websites is not a good method. It should instead try to solve the problems.”
Launched by Nanfang Dushi Bao, a newspaper based in southern China, the Dushibao Lianmeng (Association of Metropolitan Journalists) website was used by the staff of 13 local newspapers for exchanging information and discussing issues.
Some of the debates on Dushibao Lianmeng, such as the one about the residence permit system known as the “hukou,” upset some Communist Party leaders. The journalists had all called for the abolition of the system, which discriminates against rural residents working in the cities. The Propaganda Department recommended closing the forum in the conclusions of its March investigation into this “incident.”
Ye Du, a journalist based in the southern city of Guangzhou who belonged to the forum, said mutual assistance among news media is quietly growing in China despite new regulations. For example, if a newspaper cannot report a local story because it has been censored by the provincial authorities, a newspaper from another province may take on the job of covering it. While regretting the forum’s closure, most of its participants think its disappearance will have little impact on press freedom as another one will soon spring up in its place.
“The police do not have the right to arrest journalists without reason,” said the banner displayed by ten journalists in Yichun, a northeastern city near the Russian border, on 28 August. They were protesting against the detention of four fellow-journalists, who had been arrested by the local authorities while covering a plane crash in which 42 people were killed. The ten journalists staged two silent and anonymous demonstrations outside the local Propaganda Department office. The images of the protest circulated immediately online. The detained journalists were freed in the afternoon and received apologies from the local authorities.
Puns and cartoons – new weapons against censorship
The Chinese love plays on words. Their language lends itself to punning as it has lots of homophones.
Internet users have been attacking the online censors with humour and creativity for years. The resistance against censorship has come above all to be represented by a mythical creature called the “Cao Ni Ma” (Grass Mud Horse), a homonym for “Screw Your Mother.” Internet users mock the Party’s censorship by posting bogus animal reports and songs about the Cao Ni Ma: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wKx1aenJK08&feature=player_embedded
More recently, stories of an imaginary lizard called Yake (Ya Ke Xi in Mandarin) have circulated in response to a Chinese New Year show on state TV that showed Uyghurs from the troubled western province of Xinjiang singing the government’s praises and repeating that the Communist Party Central Committee’s policies were “good” (“yakexi” in Uyghur).
Shocked by the crudeness of this propaganda when the situation in Xinjiang is so problematic, humorists invented a lizard (“xi” in Mandarin) called Yake who patrols and censors the Internet and symbolises Central Committee policies. According to its creators, Yake is now dying out in Russia (after a golden era there) but is still thriving in Cuba, North Korea and China. Yake, who has a forked tongue, feeds on river crabs (“he xie” in Mandarin). “He xie” is a homonym of the word for “harmonising,” President Hu Jintao’s political leitmotiv and a government euphemism for censorship.
In all, Chinese bloggers and Internet users have invented about ten creatures to represent China’s online censors.
Cartoons are also increasingly being put into the service of media freedom. When Xie Chaoping, the author of the book about the Sanmenxia dam, was detained, lots of cartoons appeared in support of the campaign for his release.
Twitter and bloggers
Journalists detained by the authorities are often helped by the fact that their lawyers and relatives use their blogs or Twitter to circulate information about developments in the judicial proceedings against them and to rally support.
“I say what I want, and if I cannot talk then I am being stifled to death,” lawyer and blogger Lan Zhixue posted on Twitter on 14 September. “The right of expression is the basis of all the other rights,” he added. His blog’s address: http://blog.sina.com.cn/lanzhixue1
“Justice will not be easily rendered so Xie Chaoping needs us to keep following his case,” Xie’s lawyer, Zhou Ze, posted on his blog after Xie’s release. Zhou has been very conscientious about updating his blog as he is aware of the importance of online support for his client. The address of Zhou’s blog: http://blog.sina.com.cn/zhouze
Voices that cross borders
“It is important for an author not to censor himself, it is important for him to express his thoughts,” censored writer Liao Yiwu said in an interview for Deutsche Welle after finally being allowed to visit Europe. “Unfortunately, there is too much self-censorship in China because authors above all want to be published.”
Liao said only writers and some journalists are able to freely express what the people experience because the authorities cannot accept any accurate portrayal of the country’s reality. Liao does not regard himself as a dissident but all of his works have been censored by the authorities. He spent four years in jail for a poem called “Massacre” about the crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests.
Chinese journalists who have moved abroad often continue to actively support fellow journalists who have stayed behind and to work at keep news and information flowing. Read a Reporters Without Borders interview with a radio journalist: http://en.rsf.org/china-radio-journalist-talks-about-14-09-2010,38351.html
Support for human rights activists
The fate of human rights activists is very rarely mentioned in the Chinese media because of the draconian censorship of all stories relating to dissidents, but they can count on certain journalists and bloggers to circulate information about their activities online.
“One thing is sure, as long as democracy is not fully respected in China, I will not stop fighting and my democratic convictions will never change,” writer and political dissident Chen Shuqing said the day he was recently released after four years in prison. A member of the banned China Democracy Party, Chen was jailed on a charge of “inciting the overthrow of the state.” His statements have never been published in the Chinese media but they have circulated online.
Self-trained lawyer and human rights activist Chen Guangcheng’s release earlier this month was not mentioned in the Chinese media but it was reported online. “I have not changed one iota,” said Chen, despite still being under constant police surveillance. His statements were rapidly reported in Mandarin on Twitter, to which thousands of Chinese journalists and Internet users have access thanks to proxy software that circumvents censorship.
After four years and three months in prison, Chen plants to resume defending the legal rights of his fellow citizens as he did in the past, when he campaigned against forced abortions and sterilisation. More information about Chen: http://en.rsf.org/petition-olympic-prisoners,34043.html
Ploy, distraction or glimmer of hope?
Launched by the authorities on 8 September, Zhitong Zhongnanhai (Direct line to the Zhongnanhai) gets its name from the central Beijing district where the government has their headquarters. It is intended to be a way for the public to send messages to the leadership. By 13 September, no fewer than 23,000 comments had been left for President Hu alone on such subjects as rent increases, corruption, pollution and violations of civil liberties.
But this window of expression is subject to 26 rules. Cyber-citizens may not, for example, post comments that could endanger the state’s honour and interests, incite abuses of the right of association or assembly, or incite illegal demonstrations liable to destabilise the social order.
Those that send this kind of message can be punished by having their IP address permanently withdrawn. But messages cannot be sent to this government address from IP addresses located outside China. And they cannot be sent anonymously from Internet cafés either, as Internet café users are now routinely asked to show ID.
Despite the risks, critical comments manage to get through. “When will prices fall? The only things that do not rise are wages!” or “Comrade Hu, isn’t it interesting to note that I have left so many messages and all of them have been harmonised?” an Internet user posted on the new Zhitong Zhongnanhai website. “Can’t you let us tell the truth?” The website’s address: http://cpc.people.com.cn/GB/191862/191865/index.html
A battle not lost in advance, but far from won
While there is no shortage of examples of successful support campaigns, there are still many cases of journalists and bloggers who have been the victims of ill-treatments.
“You will be punished in kind,” a member of the Guobao (public security squad) told Liu Shasha, a young Beijing resident and blogger who was interviewed by a French journalist about her arrest in July.
“They put me on my back and began pouring water on the sacks placed over my head. I could not breathe, it was awful,” Liu said. “Then they removed the sacks and put a cloth soaked in spicy oil under my nose. Then they began pouring water on me again to make me asphyxiate. I couldn’t take it anymore and I said I would make a statement."
“They sat me in a chair with my hands and feet tied and asked me: ‘Who did you contact today?’ I replied that I was going to file a complaint against them. They responded by throwing me to the ground, this time on batons, to make the treatment more painful, and they resumed the water torture session.”
What was this young woman’s crime? She had urged people on Twitter to place wreaths outside the building that houses the Chinese Internet firm Sohu after it reportedly eliminated the blogs of hundreds of free speech activists. Read Liu’s story (in French): http://www.ecrans.fr/Chine-blogs-et-chatiments,10872.html
Around 100 journalists, bloggers, Internet users and human rights activists are currently detained in China.
“He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a brave man”
The Great Wall of censorship continues to rise higher and higher around the Middle Kingdom’s readers, listeners, viewers and Internet users. But the defenders of press freedom manage to climb it or circumvent it. If the efforts of all these people are united, victory will be theirs. It is up to governments, corporations and Internet users in the democratic countries to give them unwavering support.