Denials aside, repression as usual online in China

China has denied any involvement in the cyber attacks that Google revealed on January 12, and has said the country’s Internet is open. Local Internet users and entrepreneurs, however, know otherwise.

The official denials are no surprise. China responded the same way in the past when criticized for rigorous censorship tactics. During the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, CPJ collected examples of denials in the face of facts, including this one from a top Internet official:  “No one in China has been arrested simply because he or she said something on the Internet.”

CPJ research has for years put the lie to these official pronouncements. At least 24 Chinese journalists were jailed at the time of CPJ’s December 2009 prison census, and well over half were picked up for writing online articles that were critical of the government.

Google’s allegations, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s request on Thursday that China investigate them, have shone a spotlight on a reality that Chinese Internet users live with every day. Cartoons now circulating online (collected here by the China Digital Times Web site) are reminiscent of the humor that local “netizens,” or wang min, brought to ever-strengthening Internet restrictions last year.

It’s easy to overstate the importance of Web sites that we all know and use, but Google, Twitter, and Facebook have stiff competition from local companies in China. They, too, are under constant pressure to monitor content. Chinese business magazine CBN Weekly recently interviewed four Internet entrepreneurs whose Web sites were shut down in 2009. Two—microblog Fanfou and media-sharing Web site BTchina—have yet to reopen, according to the article.

Here’s an extract from Chen Haozhi of community translation portal Yeeyan, translated by the EastSouthWestNorth blog:

On November 30, the IDC [China Unicom’s Beijing Internet Data Centre] gave us a call to say that the Web site was shut down for violations. The supervisory department said that we violated the regulations on news/information services. Our Web site contained contents that violated those regulations and we were being punished. … Frankly, for the past three years, we thought that we were doing something that was good for society. Very simple and very pure.”

Chen’s experience mirrors that of the other four entrepreneurs and countless others operating online in China, and their message is clear: The Internet is far from open.

Unlike Google, they can’t threaten to leave; they strike a more prosaic tone. “Life goes on,” Fanfou’s Wang Xing says. And Dou Yi of blogging platform Blogbus sums up: “There is always a key to open the lock. …The biggest problem will be when we can’t find the key.”