Despite the government restrictions, the internet has emerged in recent years as a primary source of news and a forum for discussion for many Chinese, particularly among the younger generation. According to a 2008-2009 study by CNNIC, 113 million users were found to update either a blog or personal website on a regular basis.68 Chinese cyberspace is replete with online auctions, social networks, homemade music videos, a large virtual gaming population, and spirited discussion of some social and political issues.69 Internet users are also able to hold government and CCP officials to account, though only to a limited extent.70 Civil society organizations involved in education, health care, and other social and cultural issues that are deemed acceptable by the authorities often have a dynamic online presence.
In several cases in 2009 and 2010, Chinese users were able to challenge official misconduct, organize strikes, and obtain justice for ordinary citizens. In a series of strikes at factories owned by the Japanese automaker Honda, workers used internet chat rooms and text messages to coordinate their actions and share information and videos with workers in other locations.71 The relationship between investigative journalism and online networks can also be mutually reinforcing, particularly when reporting by local commercial outlets is amplified via the internet, enabling wider exposure of the story. In August 2009, after a local newspaper in Shaanxi ran a short article about lead poisoning among children due to pollution from a nearby smelting plant, the popular internet portal Netease picked up the story, drawing national attention to the incident. Jonathan Ansfield, “China Starts New Bureau to Curb Web,” New York Times, April 16, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/17/world/asia/17chinaweb.html.
CNNIC, 2008-2009 Report on Chinese Bloggers’ Market and Behavioral Studies, (Beijing: CNNIC 2009), http://research.cnnic.cn/html/1247813014d1063.html (in Chinese).
H. Yu, “Blogging Everyday Life in Chinese Internet Culture,” Asian Studies Review 31 (2007): 423–33.
J. Lacharite, “Electronic Decentralization in China: A Critical Analysis of Internet filtering Policies in the People’s Republic of China,” Australian Journal of Political Science 37 (2002): 2, 333–46; Guobin Yang, The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).
David Barboza and Keith Bradsher, “In China, Labor Movement Enabled by Technology,” New York Times, June 15, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/17/business/global/17strike.html.
Qian Gang, “Central Party Media ‘Grab the Megaphone,’” China Media Project, August 21, 2009, http://cmp.hku.hk/2009/08/21/1709/.
CHINA FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net Sina Weibo, a microblogging application, has especially grown in popularity since its launch in 2009. As of October 2010, it reportedly registered 50 million users.73 It has played an increasingly important role in empowering Chinese citizens. In November 2010, Shanghai residents used microblogging and instant messaging services to pressure the local government to conduct an in-depth investigation into a deadly fire that claimed more than fifty lives.74 In December 2010, the suspicious death of a village head who had been protesting forced demolitions ignited a wave of public outrage as a graphic image of the man’s crushed body under a truck was circulated on China’s major web portals.75 Chinese grassroots activists used Sina Weibo to organize citizen investigation groups76 and disseminate information regarding the incident.77 However, due to the local government’s control of key informants, the results of the citizen investigation appeared less independent than many had hoped.As controls have tightened in recent years, a growing number of individuals are reportedly seeking out knowledge and techniques for circumventing censorship. In some cases, their specific aim is to join Twitter, which is blocked in China. An activist community of some 30,000 to 50,000 people within China, mostly living in urban areas like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, use the tool to rapidly transmit news, connect with other socially conscious individuals, and take advantage of an uncensored medium.79 Other methods for getting around censorship include using witty alternatives and homonyms for banned keywords, opening multiple blogs on different hosting sites, and using peer-to-peer technologies to circulate banned information. It has become increasingly common for users—including those who would not normally consider themselves politically active—to criticize censorship itself. Throughout the first half of 2009, for example, internet users widely circulated cartoons and videos of a mythical “grass-mud horse” and its struggle Austin Ramzy, “Wired Up,” Time Magazine, February 21, 2011, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2048171-2,00.html.
Jeremy Page, “Thousands Mourn Fire Victims in Shanghai,” Wall Street Journal, November 21, 2010, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704444304575628360108943100.html; Oiwan Lam, “China: Messages Behind the Flowers to the Shanghai Fire Victims,” Global Voices, November 22, 2010, http://globalvoicesonline.org/2010/11/22/china-messages-behind-the-flowers-to-the-shanghai-fire-victims/.
Xiyun Yang and Edward Wong, “Suspicious Death Ignites Fury in China,” New York Times, December 28, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/29/world/asia/29china.html.
“Netizens form Groups to Conduct Independent Investigation into Qian Yun Hui Incident [Wang You Zu Tuan Du Li Diao Cha Qian Yunhui Shi Jian],” Dong Nan Morning Daily, January 1, 2011, http://news.163.com/11/0101/09/6PA8AFDJ00014AED.html.
“Citizen Alliance Qian Yun Hui Investigation Report [Gong Meng “Qian Yunhui Zhi Si Zhen Xiang” Diao Cha Bao Gao],” blog post, Xushiyong Blog, December 31, 2010, http://xuzhiyong.fyfz.cn/art/874568.htm.
Andy Yee, “China: Qian Yunhui’s Death and the Role of Citizen Investigation,” Global Voices, January 5, 2011, http://globalvoicesonline.org/2011/01/05/china-qian-yunhui%E2%80%99s-death-and-the-role-of-citizen-investigation/.
Jason Ng, “Zhong Wen Twitter Yong Hu Qun Chou Yang Diao Cha” [Investigation of Random Sampling in Chinese Twitter Users], [Kenengba, January 27, 2010, http://www.kenengba.com/post/2540.html (in Chinese).
CHINA FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net against the “evil river crab” in an allegory and play on words aimed at voicing discontent with the effects of the government’s antipornography campaign.Overtly political organizations, ethnic minorities, and persecuted religious groups like Falun Gong remain underrepresented among websites that are freely accessible within China, though they have been able to use some ICTs to advance their causes. Charter 08, a prodemocracy manifesto published in December 2008 that calls for multiparty democracy, a free press, and an independent judiciary, garnered 7,000 signatures despite being targeted by censors. Police intimidation and repeated blog shutdowns have not prevented Woeser, a Beijing-based Tibetan blogger, from emerging as an important voice for Tibetan rights, and a source of information on events in the tightly controlled Tibetan region since 2008. After being driven underground by a violent persecutory campaign, adherents of the Falun Gong spiritual practice have used the internet and mobile phones to maintain contact with one another, communicate with overseas practitioners, and download censored information for inclusion in offline leaflets and video discs that expose rights violations and cast doubt on party propaganda. Meanwhile, overseas groups such as Radio Free Asia, Human Rights in China, and the Epoch Times have reportedly sent millions of e-mails into the country, supplying users with news summaries on Chinese and international events, instructions on anticensorship technology, and copies of banned publications like former CCP leader Zhao Ziyang’s memoir, the Nine Commentaries, or the prodemocracy Beijing Spring magazine.
VIOLATIONS OF USER RIGHTS Article 35 of the Chinese constitution guarantees freedoms of speech, assembly, association, and publication, but such rights are subordinated to the national interest and the CCP’s status as the ruling power. In addition, the constitution cannot, in most cases, be invoked in courts as a legal basis for asserting rights. The judiciary is not independent and closely follows party directives, particularly in politically sensitive freedom of expression cases. A wide variety of regulations have been issued by different government agencies to establish censorship guidelines. In one recent change, the National People’s Congress in April adopted an amendment to the State Secrets Law81 that requires telecom operators and ISPs to cooperate with authorities on investigations involving the leaking of state secrets.82 The law took effect on October 1 and has been generally met with compliance from companies, mostly because the economic stakes of disobedience and loss of business license are so high.
Michael Wines, “A Dirty Pun Tweaks China’s Online Censors,” New York Times, March 11, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/12/world/asia/12beast.html.
“Zhong Hua Ren Min Gong He Guo Zhu Xi Ling, Di Er Shi Ba Hao” [The President Order of The People’s Republic of China, No.28], http://www.gov.cn/flfg/2010-04/30/content_1596420.htm (in Chinese).
Reporters Without Borders, “Amendment Enlists ICT Companies in Protectino of State Secrets,” news release, April 29, 2010, http://en.rsf.org/china-amendment-enlists-ict-companies-in-29-04-2010,37238.html; Jonathan Ansfield, “China Passes Tighter Information Law,” New York Times, April 29, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/30/world/asia/30leaks.html.
CHINA FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net Although most of these entities already work closely with security services, the move was widely seen as an attempt to reinforce companies’ legal liability should they refuse to comply with official requests.
Vague provisions in the criminal code and state-secrets legislation have been used to imprison citizens for their online activities, including publication of articles criticizing the government or exposing human rights abuses, transmission of objectionable e-mail messages, and downloading of censored material from overseas websites. Trials and hearings lack due process, often amounting to little more than sentencing announcements.
In one of the most high-profile free expression cases in recent years, democracy advocate and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo was sentenced in December 2009 to years in prison on charges of “inciting subversion of state power” after drafting and circulating the prodemocracy manifesto Charter 08. Six of his online prodemocracy writings, in addition to the manifesto itself, were cited as part of the verdict.83 Activist Huang Qi was sentenced in November 2009 to three years in prison for “possessing state secrets,” having published online criticism of the authorities’ response to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.84 Tan Zuoren, who had coordinated citizen efforts to document the death toll from school collapses during the quake, was sentenced in February 2010 to five years in prison on charges of “inciting subversion.” Rather than basing the charges on his earthquakerelated work, however, judges cited a series of e-mail messages sent in 2007 about the Tiananmen crackdown, an indication of the extent of electronic surveillance even grassroots activists may face.85 In December 2009, Zhao Lianhai, whose child had fallen sick from melamine-contaminated milk powder, was arrested and charged with “inciting social disorder” after he set up a website called “Home of the Kidney Stone Baby” (http://www.jieshibaobao.com) that advocated for the rights of victimized families.Zhao’s trial was held in March 2010 and lasted over five hours, but no verdict was announced.87 On November 10, 2010, Zhao was sentenced to 30 months in prison,88 but was subsequently released on medical parole the following month. Sharon Hom, “Google and Internet Control in China: A Nexus Between Human Rights and Trade” (testimony, U.S.
Congressional-Executive Commission on China, Washington, DC, March 24, 2010), http://www.cecc.gov/pages/hearings/2010/20100324/homTestimony.pdfPHPSESSID=0e7517d795355cc4cd7132dcb51f04.
Jane Macartney, “Chinese Quake Activist Huang Qi Jailed on ‘Secrets’ Charges,” Times (London), November 24, 2009, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/asia/article6928412.ece.
Reuters, “Chinese Advocate of Quake Victims Sentenced Over E-Mails,” New York Times, February 8, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/09/world/asia/09china.html.
Tania Branigan, “Chinese Tainted Milk Campaigner Accused of Provoking Social Disorder,” Guardian, February 3, 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/feb/03/china-contaminated-milk-campaign-social-disorder; “ Zhao Lianhai: Bei Pan You Zui de Jie Shi Ba Ba” [Zhao Lianhai: The Guilty Dad of the Kidney Stone Baby], Tennis BBS, March 30, 2010, http://bbs.tennis.com.cn/NewsDetail.aspGroupName=%B9%E0%CB%AE&dp=60&lp=2&id=11023294 (in Chinese).
“Jie Shi Bao Bao Zhi Fu Zhao Lianhai Shou Kao Jiao Liao Shang Fa Ting” [Kidney Stone Baby Zhao Lianhai Handcuffed at Trial], Radio France Internationale – Chinese, March 30, 2010, http://www.chinese.rfi.fr/node/17712 (in Chinese);