China is taking a hard line on the use of the Internet just at the time when citizens’ efforts to publicize government corruption and cover-ups are getting real results.
If not for individuals posting reports and photos online, real devastation would not be widely known, including a horrific collision of two bullet trains in 2011 and violent attacks on children — 22 died in a December 15th school stabbing and, some days later, a man drove his car into a group of high school students. Nor would the misdeeds of government officials be aired. After a video showing Lei Zhengfu, a Communist party functionary in southwest China having sex with an 18-year-old woman was posted on the internet, he was quickly dismissed.
As Beijing journalist Zhu Ruifeng, who has exposed more than a hundred cases of government corruption via his website, says to the New York Times, “Something has shifted. In the past, it might take 10 days for an official involved in a sex scandal to lose his job. This time he was gone in 66 hours.”
It was also thanks to social media that thousands and thousands gathered to protest environmentally questionable projects in the cities of Shifang and Qidong.
But will the voices of ordinary Chinese citizens still be heard under the new restrictions announced on Friday by China’s Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress?
China Issues Restrictions on Internet To Ensure “Information Security”
Under the new restrictions, people can still use pseudonyms when posting on the internet but must now give their real names to service providers, a change likely to halt the lively exchanges (including criticism of China’s one-party political system) on the country’s microblogging services such as the Twitter-like Weibo (Twitter itself is banned in China). Similar requirements had been passed earlier but private internet providers, wary of how customers might react, have dragged their feet at enforcing them. Sina Corp., China’s largest Internet company, has noted that such restrictions will likely lead to a severe reduction in web traffic.
Internet service providers will also be required to “instantly stop the transmission of illegal information once it is spotted” by deleting postings. They must, however, save these records and report them to “supervisory authorities.”
According to Xinhua, China’s official state news agency, the new measures are intended to protect personal information and to “ensure internet information security, safeguard the lawful rights and interests of citizens… and safeguard national security and social public interests.” But the changes are really a sign that the recently installed Communist leadership under Xi Jinping is not at all inclined to loosen controls over information. The official now in charge of the internet, Liu Qibao, is reportedly a hard-liner who has called for “more research on how to strengthen the construction, operation and management of the Internet” and to broadcast what he calls “mainstream online themes” — a phrase that kind of sounds like doublespeak for “government propaganda.”
The Great Firewall of China Is Growing
The online response to the horrific attacks on schoolchildren illustrates just how important the internet has become in challenging the government’s monopoly on information. People reported about the attacks on Weibo and other sites with far more details and critique than did official state outlets, and a chilling video was posted of a man stabbing a young girl with a knife. All of this has raised the issue of how much, or rather how little, China is doing to protect its children: The recent school attack was hardly the first in China. In the past three years, there have been a number of similar incidents in which intruders brutally slashed and killed young children in schools.
The Chinese government already scrupulously tracks and censors the internet, blocking sites it deems potentially subversive through the Great Firewall of China and detaining those who publish politically sensitive statements online. References to topics such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and the daring escape last summer of human rights activist Chen Guangcheng are routinely deleted.
China’s new regulations on the internet are likely to further stifle dissent in the short run. But based on the determination and persistence of activists like Chen and Zhu Ruifeng, just as the Great Wall of China eventually failed to keep invaders out, the Great Firewall (however more “secure” China seeks to make it) will be breached, too.
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