China Blocks U.S. Push on Web Freedom (Update)

This week U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a speech about global Internet freedom, in which she specifically referred to China. The speech was followed by a concerted outreach effort by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, targeting Chinese Internet users on local microblogging sites such as Sina Weibo, as part of a new strategy by the U.S. government to engage citizens in various countries online in their own language. Chinese propaganda officials, meanwhile, are trying their best to eradicate the discussions from Chinese cyberspace. From the Wall Street Journal:

Wednesday’s discussions about Internet freedom were initiated by U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman and others in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, tied to Mrs. Clinton’s speech on Internet freedom Tuesday. The embassy has been using microblogs and other online services as public-relations tools in China since 2009, posting information about U.S. customs and policies, among other things.

One post on Tencent Weibo by Mr. Hunstman quoted Mrs. Clinton’s remarks that “Liberty and security are often presented as equal and opposite,” and asked: “What do you think is more important, liberty or security?” Another post questioned whether other users agreed with Mrs. Clinton that “freedoms to assemble and associate also apply in cyberspace.”

The posts were published with keyword tags, such as “Hillary” in Chinese, to enable other users to repost and respond to related comments, a practice that is typical on microblogging services. Some of the embassy’s posts were reposted by Chinese Internet users, but the posts quickly began disappearing as government censors demanded that the sites remove them.

“We are disappointed that some Chinese Internet sites have decided to remove discussion of Secretary Clinton’s Internet Freedom speech from their websites,” Mr. Huntsman said in a statement. “It is ironic that the Chinese are blocking an online discussion about Internet freedom.”

Meanwhile, Reuters reports on the impact of microblogging– and of government censorship- on activism in China:

Beijing’s censors are in control for now, and most Chinese people use microblogs to follow celebrities. But activist users can be wily.

“Those that have potential to shape public opinion are wired and looking for leads, but they also have a keen sense of where the limit is,” Liu Yawei, head of the Carter Center’s China program in Atlanta, said of China’s microbloggers.

Microbloggers on popular and other Chinese websites recently spread debate about Egypt, often using oblique references to get around filters attempting to block discussion of the unrest that unsettled officials.

“Initially, the government agencies maybe didn’t expect microblogs would be so powerful,” said Li Yonggang, an expert on society and the Internet at Nanjing University in eastern China.

“Because microblog entries are very brief and fast, people have become adept at expressing themselves so that people in the know understand what’s being said, but those who aren’t can miss the point,” he said in a telephone interview.

Updated: Also related, see Gady Epstein’s column in Forbes on Sina’s microblogging site, which includes an interview with Sina CEO about social networking.

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