China torn over Internet freedoms
By Stephanie Wang

CHANGSHA, China - With access to the Internet, Chinese people nowadays enjoy unprecedented freedom of speech, though they often still need to exercise this right under pseudonyms.

To a certain extent, such online freedom of speech is now being encouraged by the central leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as it is of great help for them to have first-hand understanding of public sentiment and to supervise the behavior of local officials. At the same time, the CCP imposes tough censorship on any content on the Internet that is deemed a threat to its continued rule.

Ironically, while few of the nearly 300 million Internet users in China (or 298 million by the end of 2008) like the government's censorship on political content on the Internet, there are growing concerns about the abuse of freedom of speech on the web. People are alarmed that there is a lack of law enforcement to deal with people who deliberately spread false information online to attack others, particularly celebrities.

Such concerns reached a climax recently with two so-called "gate scandals" - "Bribery-gate" and "Spy-gate" - both of which involved attractive young hostesses from the state-run television channel China Central Television (CCTV).

"Bribery-gate" involved Chai Jing, a high-profile news anchor and on-camera reporter of CCTV. The grapevine had it that Chai, the star reporter of a prime-time news investigation program, had been detained by police and was under investigation for allegedly taking a bribe of 1 million yuan (US$147,000) from an illegal textile mill for an advertisement on CCTV. This seemingly reliable piece of "news" with vivid details was soon proved to be false. Chai quashed the rumor within 24 hours in her blog.

The other scandal, dubbed "Spy-gate", involved another CCTV hostess, Fang Jing, over a military matter. The source of the story, Zhou Yijun (also known as A Yi), is an associate professor at Peking University's School of Journalism and Communication, but better known as a former part-time host for the CCTV programs Topics in Focus and Straight Talking. A Yi mentioned the "breaking news" in passing in his blog on June 9 that Fang had been arrested for stealing military intelligence, implying she was a spy for a foreign country.

The sensational claim was immediately reprinted by numerous websites, including the official website of the People's Daily - the party's flagship newspaper. Beauty, espionage and military intelligence - the combination was worthy of a James Bond movie and soon aroused keen attention on the Internet.

However, only hours later, the dramatic news was quietly withdrawn from most of the websites. Fang also used her blog to silence the rumor. However, after her brief appearance on CCTV, she is out of sight again, leaving much room for speculation and imagination.

Such episodes are like a meteor shower in the Chinese online community. Most of them are short-lived, like a fleeting meteor, but occasionally there are impacts that damage the reputations of the people involved. As such cases proliferate, more people are hoping the government will step in to protect the privacy, rights and interests of individual citizens - though without infringing on their freedom of speech.

Contrary to what many Westerners might believe, China has made enormous progress in freedom of speech, particularly on the Internet. Even anti-government sentiments can be found, as long as they do not go too far. Beijing keeps a close eye on the virtual space, with sensitive websites blocked and sensitive keywords filtered from search engines.

For example, a couple of months ago, the CCP's Central Publicity Department, responsible for state propaganda ordered that all Internet search-engine firms screened out keywords like "Hu Haifeng+Namibia". This was to stop conjecture about the involvement of Hu Haifeng (President Hu Jintao's son) in a graft scandal in Namibia. Although junior Hu may have nothing to do with the graft, the timing is very sensitive because, in the meantime, China is suing four Rio Tinto employees for industrial espionage and for bribing Chinese officials.

If one thinks the sole purpose of the Internet police is to control the dissemination of sensitive information, this underestimates the CCP's political wisdom.

Freedom of speech (even just limited to the virtual space) can help Beijing better understand people's sentiments, supervise local governments and collect public feedback on its policies. Indeed, cyberspace is an essential source of truthful information for Beijing, because under China's authoritarian system, local governments tend to hide negative news from the central government.

It is believed that the major reason for the widespread famine in China in the 1950s and 1960s was that the power center in Beijing was blinded to what was really going on across the country. Therefore, it is not surprising that the authorities have now set up a special organ to monitor public sentiment and complaints, and report them in the form of briefings to high-ranking leaders.

In this sense, cyberspace is a new window for Beijing to glimpse popular opinion. For example, in 2003, the backlash from the Chinese Internet community's exposure of the death of Sun Zhigang (a college graduate who was beaten to death in a detention center in Guangzhou because he forgot to carry his identity card) led to the scrapping of a 21-year-old regulation on the internment and deportation of urban vagrants and beggars. This milestone event was regarded as the first great victory of the Chinese Internet community.

Since then, the power of the Internet has been increasingly recognized, and most importantly, utilized by enthusiastic netizens. Some are so passionate that they serve as Internet vigilantes to expose the personal information of anyone they see as violating public interests or moral values. In 2008, a new term "human flesh search" (renrou sousuo in Putonghua) was created to describe this new dynamic. Many supporters see this as a potent weapon to fight corruption.

In recent years, massive collaborative searching by netizens has played an important role in exposing corrupt officials. A former party secretary of the Shenzhen Marine Affairs Bureau was sacked after a video showing him assaulting a young girl was uploaded online.

Several officials in different localities across the country were discharged when evidence of them making overseas tours using public funds was substantiated online. A Nanjing real estate official, Zhou Jiugeng, was investigated and sacked after a photo of him was put online showing him sporting a 100,000 yuan (US$15,000) Vacheron Constantin watch and smoking cigarettes worth 150 yuan a pack.

It is said that after the Zhou episode, local officials only smoked inexpensive cigarettes in public for fear of being caught out.

Besides exposing corrupt officials, an even more important function of cyberspace is to blow the whistle on the abuse of power by local governments, which usually deem themselves out of sight and reach of Beijing.

On February 12 this year, Wang Shuai posted an ironic article on a major Chinese forum to report illegal land acquisition in his home town of Lingbao city in central Henan province. In his posts, Wang called for netizens' support and anticipated that with 100,000 "supporters", a group of county-level officials would step down, and that with 1 million, some provincial leaders would be dismissed.

Less than a month later, on March 6, Wang was arrested in Shanghai (where he works) and detained for eight days. The news of his arrest provoked uproar on the Internet. A month later, the People's Daily (on April 9) published an article in print and online entitled "How to maintain a government's 'reputation'," accusing the Lingbao government of "depriving people of the right to know, to participate, to express and to supervise".

The party mouthpiece also warned that grassroots governments should not dismiss Internet opinions as something "abnormal", or at every turn denounce popular opinions as "slander against the government", leading to arbitrary penalties.

In a sense, the Internet is an effective surveillance tool. Hu Xingdou, professor of economics at the Beijing Institute of Technology, agrees that the Internet is the best way for people to vent grievances at the moment. If used properly, it can improve governance and improve the government's image. Maybe that is why Beijing allows a certain amount of freedom of speech in cyberspace.

That being said, given the free-wheeling Internet's focus on celebrities, as in the cases above, tighter regulatory control might be needed. The Hangzhou government in Zhejiang province was the first locality to move in this direction. Starting from May 1, a real-name system is applied in every online forum; and defamation and malicious comments are expressly forbidden.

Yet, although Chai Jing's case was clearly defamation, under the existing legal framework it would be difficult to hold the offender responsible and impose penalties as the burden of producing evidence lies on the plaintiff, which scares off many people as it is very difficult and costly for an individual to find evidence in an online libel case.

The key issue is whether the authorities are willing to pay more attention to protecting the reputations and other legitimate rights of every citizen on the street, as they did for Wang Shuai, a whistle-blower. Otherwise, more "gate" scandals will occur.

Thus, ironically, many Chinese bloggers (and non-bloggers) are calling for greater government intervention in certain online activities to better protect the rights of individuals, despite fears this could give the government another excuse to tighten control on the freedom of speech on the Internet.

Stephanie Wang is a freelance contributor based in Changsha, China.

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