China has no first amendment, but the Internet is becoming a detour around strict Chinese information control. One instance is Google’s ongoing struggle to get around online censorship. Another is the furor over news about a government official’s attempted rape of a waitress in a karaoke bar. She killed him in self-defense.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Google is publicly challenging China’s “Great Firewall,” an effort to keep the millions of online Chinese from surfing or e-mailing or texting anything that seems seditious or troublemaking.
Rather than censor its own search engine, Google has shifted its search site from mainland China to somewhat freer Hong Kong. Service to the new site was temporarily disrupted when Chinese users kept getting “error” messages. Google said that “it must have been as a result of a change in the Great Firewall.” The company said that its search traffic in China had returned to normal, but its relations with the Chinese government remain touchy.
As for the March 7 karaoke bar incident, The New York Times said a reporter sought comment from the governor of Hubei Province, where it occurred. Gov. Li Hongzhong, infuriated at being asked about the case, threatened to go to the reporter’s boss, grabbed her audio recorder and marched off.
Free-press advocates have seized upon the incident. Chinese journalists, lawyers and academics joined in posting a letter of protest on the Internet demanding the governor’s resignation. Two Communist Party elders publicly condemned the governor’s behavior.
The Times quoted Chang Ping, a prominent media commentator, as saying that the Internet had vastly complicated Chinese authorities’ task of reining in the media: “When the government tries to contain something, it could achieve the opposite result, spurring people on instead of putting people off.”
An account of the governor’s snatching of the reporter’s recorder and the comments of the party elders appeared on the Web site of the Beijing magazine Caijing. It quoted Mr. Li as asking the reporter which publication she represented. When she said she wrote for the People’s Daily, the official organ of the ruling Communist Party, he told her: “So you’re from a party paper. Is this how a party paper guides public opinion? I’m going to the chief of your paper.”
The account survived online for 18 hours before censors ordered it taken down.
The Times noted that just two days before the incident Prime Minister Wen Jaibao, reading aloud his annual report to the National People’s Congress, said that the government must “let the news media play their oversight role.”
Democracy has not come to China, but its media, plus the Internet, are forces in that direction.