Sea Change? – Sophie Beach

Below is an article I wrote for the latest issue of Dangerous Assignments, the magazine of the Committee to Protect Journalists. The full issue, which also features a cover article on China’s Hidden Unrest, can be downloaded (as a PDF file) here.

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Sea Change?

After China shuts a Web site, the government engages in an online debate.

By Sophie Beach

In March, a popular literary and news Web site called Aegean Sea was ordered closed by authorities in eastern China’s Zhejiang Province. The closure of a Web site in China is hardly news these days. Since President Hu Jintao assumed power in 2003, his administration has launched a crackdown on an increasingly outspoken media and online community.

But what transpired in the aftermath of Aegean Sea’s closure shows that the battle for control of China’s Internet may be shifting. Soon after the closure a debate raged online between the Web site’s supporters and provincial authorities who, in an unprecedented move, posted a lengthy reply to critics on an overseas news site, which itself is on the government’s list of banned sites.

The issue of Internet censorship in China has been in the international spotlight following revelations in the press about complicity by U.S. Internet giants in government censorship of the Web. At hearings in March, members of Congress lambasted the companies for sharing user information with authorities that led to the arrest of journalist Shi Tao (Yahoo), the censoring of a China-based search engine (Google), and the closing of a blog on orders from the government (Microsoft). International press freedom advocates, including CPJ, have called on the companies to cease compliance with government demands that violate basic human rights.

For Internet users in China, censored Web searches, closure of politically unacceptable Web sites, and the threat of arrest are conditions they have endured since the Internet first arrived. Following the passage of “Rules on the Administration of Internet News Information Services” in September 2005, authorities have stepped up censorship of sites that post news-and the number of such sites has declined as a result.

But Chinese Internet users are no longer just accepting this censorship as part of their fate. With 111 million people online, the Internet has become a daily necessity for personal and professional use for young, educated people in China’s cities. When the sites they rely on for information, discussion, and socializing are shut down, Internet users are increasingly taking it upon themselves to challenge the orders.

On March 9, 2006, the Zhejiang Province News Office and Zhejiang Information Management Office closed Aegean Sea. Because the site hosted online bulletin boards, forums, blogs, and discussions of news and literature, it had become a lively community for writers and others. The site, which authorities said contained “illegal content,” posted writing by authors banned in China, including economist He Qinglian, Beijing-based writer Liu Xiaobo, and Taiwanese writer Lung Ying-tai. It also published several essays and articles about the shuttering of the popular Freezing Point weekly magazine.

Almost immediately after the closure, an anonymous writer posted an online call for support from Chinese around the world. A few days later, former contributors to the site formed an “Aegean Sea Rights Defense Support Group,” which sought support from the “rights defense” (weiquan) movement of lawyers, scholars, and writers who are using Chinese and international law to challenge human rights violations. Meanwhile, dozens of the site’s supporters posted commentaries condemning the closure, many of which appeared on Boxun, a U.S.-based Chinese-language news site that often posts commentaries by pro-democracy advocates.

On March 15, another posting on Boxun caught the attention of Aegean Sea supporters. A lengthy unsigned statement, clearly written by a Zhejiang provincial official, accused the site of failing to register with authorities before posting news content, as required under the “Rules on the Administration of Internet News Information Services.” The letter further declared: “On March 9, it was learned that ‘Aegean Sea’ Web site had been closed according to law by the relevant Zhejiang province authorities. Online, we can see that a small number of people are hyping the situation, spreading false rumors and misleading some people who don’t understand the truth. .

“To manage the Internet according to law and to close illegal Web sites is a customary international method. In terms of legislation, Germany promulgated an ‘Information and Telecommunications Services Law,’ Australia promulgated an ‘Internet Censorship Law,’ and the United States passed a ‘Communications Decency Act,’ and ‘Children’s Internet Protection Act’ and other laws. When the relevant authorities penalized the Aegean Sea Web site, and stopped the illegal behavior, it should not be criticized but should be supported.”

Such public official comment on the closure of a Web site was unprecedented. Notorious for their lack of transparency, propaganda officials in China commonly give verbal orders of censorship to avoid any paper trail. When Web sites are closed down, there is no means of recourse for the editors, and no institutionalized process to appeal.

Yet in the past year, as Chinese Internet users and the international community have become more outspoken, government authorities have taken the rare step of offering a public defense of Internet control. In February, an official who supervises Internet affairs for the information office of the State Council declared, “If you study the main international practices in this regard you will find that China is basically in compliance with the international norm.” The following month, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao addressed the issue at a press conference, saying that China’s “Internet management” was “consistent with the established international practice.”

To many in China and elsewhere, this argument rings hollow. Soon after the Zhejiang official’s posting appeared, supporters of Aegean Sea posted angry responses, including an essay by “New Observer” that said: “You so admire the laws of Germany, Australia, America and France, but have you looked into their democratic systems? These are the world’s most representative free democratic countries. You are so eager to strike up a comparison, but are you really confident enough to do so?”

Such a bold and direct challenge to authority can be a dangerous move in a country where political dissidents are harassed, threatened or thrown in jail. But the Internet has given Chinese citizens some degree of anonymity and the support of close-knit online communities. “As long as you take care not to overstep certain political boundaries-whose location is never entirely clear-you have a great deal of freedom to express yourself in all kinds of ways, and to do all kinds of business,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Society and the Internet who studies the Internet in China. “You just have to take care that whatever your activities are, you don’t accidentally anger or threaten somebody who has a lot of power.”

Clearly Aegean Sea overstepped a boundary, and the editors do not expect the site to be reopened. Asked why the site was closed, Editor Lin Hui told Taiwan’s Central Broadcasting System: “They are afraid, afraid of expression and of the spirit that expression represents. … But the most important thing is not that the site was closed. Most important is that citizens awaken to realize their own rights-innate human rights, the right to free expression, and the right to publish.”

Sophie Beach is the executive editor of China Digital Times, a news Web site covering China’s social and political transition and its emerging role in the world.

Reprinted from Dangerous Assignments Spring/Summer 2006 © 2006 by Committee to Protect Journalists.

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For more on the closure of Aegean Sea (in Chinese) see Boxun.com (link).