China and the Internet

Posted Dec. 05, 2010, at 6:42 p.m.

China’s control of the news that reaches its people largely has succeeded in the print media. The government blacks out or shapes the way sensitive events and issues are published. But the flourishing Internet, with its Facebook, Twitter and other social networks, has become a new and threatening medium that often defies government control.

Recent efforts to suppress news of a sensational Chinese traffic death backfired, and word of the incident went viral on cybernetworks. As reported in The New York Times, a drunken 22-year-old driver raced down a narrow lane and smashed into two college students who were in-line skating. One of them, a poor farm girl, was killed. The accused driver was the son of Li Gang, the local deputy police chief, and was expected to escape prosecution.

Censors tried to black out the story, but the slogan “My father is Li Gang” quickly spread through the whole country as a joking excuse for any misstep and as a sly slur at government repression.

Censors have had similar trouble in blocking news of the beating of a reporter by a security guard at the Asian games, managing the forbidden celebration of the Nobel Peace Prize award to a political prisoner and continuing complaints about the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

Chinese officials ordered a news blackout of an October interview with Premier Wen Jaibao on CNN, in which he advocated reform and freedom in general terms. An Internet researcher at Beijing University wrote on Twitter that “a lot of people don’t know that their premier has been harmo-nized.” The word “harmonized” is a clever euphemism for “censored.”

A blog called RFA Unplugged, written by the staff of Radio Free Asia, reported in October that senior members of China’s Communist Party had sent a letter to the government calling for free speech and free access to information including what is carried on the Internet. Censors clamped down on news of the letter, but it’s a safe bet that the full text soon was circulating throughout China.

Democracies such as the United States have their own problems with the Internet. Think of the recent WikiLeaks disclosure of private and secret official memos about critical issues and foreign leaders.

A one-party authoritarian government such as China’s always has found it hard to control the news. The Internet makes the task far tougher, while a new generation uses it to share information and get a more realistic view of their own country.

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