20111030-Human rights in China Wangfujing Street 2.jpg
Jasmine Revolution Protest in
Beijing organized through the Internet
and Twitter-like microblogs
“The surprising power of online communities in China has Communist Party leaders worried about the ability of online social networks to spread viral messages that could ignite social movements, and pose a challenge to the party and its leaders.” [Source: David Barboza, New York Times, April 18, 2010]

“For the government, the scary part of the Internet is the unpredictable power of its organization, said Yang Guobin, an associate professor at Barnard College and author of The Power of the Internet in China (Columbia University Press, 2009). Although people are there socializing, it can provide a platform for lots of other activities, and even turn political, he said. But at this juncture entertainment trumps politics on the Web in China.”

Book: “The Power of the Internet in China” by Yang Guobin, an associate professor at Barnard College, (Columbia University Press, 2009).

Freedom of Speech and Press on the Internet in China

In its annual human rights report released in March 2010, the U.S. State Department accused China of broadening its campaign to suppress information on the Internet. “China increased its efforts to monitor Internet use, control content, restrict information, block access to foreign and domestic Web sites, encourage self-censorship and punish those who violated regulations,” the report said. It also stated the government tightly controlled Internet news, particularly around the time of sensitive events such as the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, and automatically censored e-mail based on a changing list of sensitive words. In response Beijing accused the United States of destabilizing the world’s economy and made note of the U.S.’s gun crime, large prison populations and poverty. [Source: Reuters]

Even with all the controls, filters and restrictions the Chinese government places on it, the Internet is widely used to disseminate stories about scandals, injustices and corruption that are not allowed to be printed or broadcast on conventional media — and it is surprising the amount of stuff that gets through.

The Internet has arguably ended the government’s monopoly on the media and information. While television and the print. media remain under the grip of Beijing the Internet has blossomed as a source of uncensored news and a forum for people to openly express their views — albeit anonymously — and be exposed to the uncensored views of others. Voicing opinions on the Internet has been called the closest thing to voting in China.

When some news events happen, such as a large protest, coverage on television and in the press are controlled by the government while accounts and pictures quickly make their way to the Internet and are circulated on chat lines and forums. The government often tries hard to stop it but there are simply too many sites and ways to avoid censorship and there is no way the government can control all the Internet.

Websites and blogs were vital in disseminating information about SARS, the Harbin benzene spill and protests and riots. Once an issue finds an audience on Internet it can take on life of its own, generating huge interest, and sometimes forcing the government to act and change its policy. Coverage of the beating of college graduate in Guangzhou in 2003 and 2004, for example, led to reform of China’s detainment centers. An outcry over the leniency given a notorious gangsters resulted in the gangster being retried by the Supreme Court and executed. As of early 2006 there were an estimated 4 million to 16 million bloggers in China.

The government may win battles but it doesn’t win the war. When troublesome websites, blogs and posting are deleted their content often quickly reappears on 100 different platforms in a sophisticated cat-and mouse game led by Chinese who quite skilled at outwitting the watchers, censors and minders.

Social Criticism in China Despite Censorship

Even with such pervasive restraints, “China’s press and Internet are capable of freewheeling discourse and social criticism. Newspapers, blogs and online chats have unleashed national outrages over a host of topics, including food and medicine contamination and local corruption. Bloggers continually tweak the censors, leaking their orders and creating an online land of mythical creatures whose names are all homonyms for aspects of the state’s heavy hand.” [Source: Michael Wines, Sharon Lafraniere and Jonathan Ansfield, New York Times, April 7, 2010]

Many bloggers try to get around the censors by publishing a number of blogs, hosted on different Internet sites: because censorship rules are vague and the censors merely human, a post that one blocks may be ignored or overlooked by another. Some bloggers argue that growing restrictions on Internet speech only inflame ordinary users, and that bit by bit people are pushing the wall back.

Chinese Cyber-Activists

20111030-Human rights in China Wangfujing Street 3.jpg
Jasmine Revolution Protest in
Beijing organized through the Internet
and Twitter-like microblogs
There is a growing number of people in mainland China who have started using the Internet in the past few years to speak up for the plight of powerless ordinary people who are oppressed by their local governments. Helped and supported by scores of volunteers, many of whom are victims of human-rights abuse themselves, they hope they can exert pressure on the government to compromise and make changes by exposing injustice. [Source: Verna Yu, Asia Times, March 21, 2009]

These Internet activists are typically in their late 30s, university-educated and 20 years ago were impressionable young adults who witnessed the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement. One activist told the Asian Times, “That movement had a tremendous impact on me ... started rethinking China's political system and recognized that democratization is a world trend and only a democratic political system can prevent another massacre from happening.”

Among the causes the activists take up are land seizures, forced demolitions, harassment of activists and wrongdoings of officials. Lu Jun, a campaigner at the health rights advocacy group Beijing Yirenping Center, said the group's online petitions held a few years ago helped push the central government to make progress on an anti-discrimination law against hepatitis B patients.

Liu Feiyue runs the Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch (“Minsheng Guancha”) website, which exposes cases of rights abuses across the country. Working out of a 20-square-meter home in central China's Hubei province, the former teacher spends most of his waking hours on the Internet and sleeps just six hours a day - but he is no Internet addict, he is one of China's new generation of Internet rights activists. [Source: Verna Yu, Asia Times, March 21, 2009]

Running from a server in the United States, his website is updated every day with new reports of rights abuse incidents - an important source of information for the foreign media and international rights bodies, though it is blocked in China. To gather data he uses a range of Internet communication tools, such as instant messenger programs and e-mail as well as mobile phone text messages and a fax to receive complaints of rights cases.

In 2003, while Liu was still a teacher, he began to raise issues about the country's public heath system and called for reform. Because he was getting more deeply involved with his rights advocacy work, he was first demoted to a remote village school, then his salary was suspended. In 2005, he established his own website and in 2006 he became a full-time rights activist.

Living under surveillance is now part of daily life for him and his family. He is regularly followed and his neighbors are ordered by authorities to watch his movements. He has been detained several times during the past two years and in the months running up to the Beijing Summer Olympic Games in 2008, surveillance cameras were installed and guards were placed outside his home 24 hours a day. “There is a price you have to pay, but I don't have a choice. I think rights advocacy work is very meaningful,” he said. “I see it as our responsibility as citizens to push our nation towards a more healthy path,” Liu told the Asian Times.

Internet-Related Arrests in China

As of early 2007, 52 people were in prison for online activities, more than any other country, according to Paris-based Reporters Without Borders. In comparison 54 people were in prison in February 2004 and 33 people were in prison in November 2002. Amnesty International insists these numbers are only “a fraction” of those actually in jail for Internet-related crimes. Some are activists who have been arrested on charges of trying to overthrow the government for posting an open letter calling for political reform. Many are relatively ordinary people accused of posting material on the Internet that government deemed inappropriate.

20111030-Human rights in China Wangfujing Street.jpg
Jasmine Revolution Protest in
Beijing organized through the Internet
and Twitter-like microblogs

One Chinese man was sentenced to prison for “inciting the overthrow of state power" after he e-mailed 30,000 Chinese computer users about a U.S.-based pro-democracy Internet magazine. A high school teacher was arrested on similar charges for posting articles critical of the government on his website.

In November 2002, Liu Di, a 20-year-old, bespectacled female student who called herself Stainless Steel Supermouse on the Internet, was imprisoned for a year after she posted some Internet articles that 1) defended dissidents who were imprisoned for airing their views; 2) called for more freedoms; and 3) and jokingly demanded the creation of new political party in which everyone could be chairmen. She was never formally accused of a crime. She was released after her case drew international attention.

A high school teacher was sentenced to two years in jail for making the comment "Down with the Communist Party!" on an Internet chat line. A female university student was detained for a year for suggesting in an Internet essay that people should sell Marxist literature on the streets like real Communists and insisting that China’s repressive national security laws made China less secure. People have also been arrested for releasing explicit pictures and obscene stories on the Internet.

In May 2003, four young adults who met at university campuses occasionally to discuss political reform and posted essays from time to time on the Internet were sentenced to long prison terms on charges of “subverting state power.” Their meetings were never attended by more than a dozen people. The members said their meeting were about political theory. They never had any intention of fomenting change.

More Internet-Related Arrests in China

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The United States-based activist Wang Bingzhang was sentenced in absentee to life in prison for espionage and leading a “terrorist group.” He as accused of passing secrets to Taiwan and posting essays on the Internet that threatened national security.

In May 2003, a computer engineer who posted politically sensitive articles on his website was sentenced to five years in prison on subversion charges. He has already spent nearly three years in prison since his arrest in 2000.

See Yahoo

In December 2003, a factory worker was arrested for posting political messages on an international website. Among other things he called for a reversal of the ruling that called the Tiananmen Square protest a counter-revolutionary riot.

In April 2004, a woman was sentenced to 18 months in a labor camp for posting an article on the Internet that criticized the central government for the way it handled public complaints. The women had her home in Shanghai destroyed to make way for development and had tried to petition the government to have something done about it.

In March 2006, a 27-year-old teacher named Ren Ziyuan was sentenced to 10 years in prison for publishing an anti-government essay on the Internet called The Road to Democracy. In May 2006, Yang Tianshui, a veteran dissident writer, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for subversion for posting essays on a blog that supported a movement by exiles to hold free elections. Many have condemned these punishments as being extraordinarily harsh.

In 2007, Zhang Jianhing, the former editor in chief of the Chinese website Aiqinhai, was sentenced to six years in prison for writing articles published on websites that defamed the government and aimed at toppling the government. In the articles Zhang had called for reforms of the current system and accused the government of illegally obtaining organs from living prisoners for transplants. In August 2007, Internet-dissident Chen Shuqing was sentenced to four years in prison for “inciting the government’s overthrow”. Shuqing is an outspoken critic of the government and advocate of democracy.

One very vocal critic of the government that has managed to avoid arrest told the New York Times that the secret to staying out of jail is knowing where to draw the line. “If you talk every day online and criticize the government they don’t care because it is just talk. But if you try to organize — even if its just three or four people — that’s what the crackdown on. It’s not speech; its organizing.”

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Wangfujing Street in Beijing

Internet Clampdown After Charter 08

“Oversight increased markedly in December 2008, after a pro-democracy movement led by highly regarded intellectuals, Charter 08, released an online petition calling for an end to the Communist Party’s monopoly on power. [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, March 11, 2009]

Shortly afterward, government censors began a campaign, ostensibly against Internet pornography and other forms of deviance. By mid-February, the government effort had shut down more than 1,900 Web sites and 250 blogs — not only overtly pornographic sites, but also online discussion forums, instant-message groups and even cellphone text messages in which political and other sensitive issues were broached]

Among the most prominent Web sites that were closed down was, a widely read forum whose liberal-minded bloggers had written in detail about Charter 08. China Digital Times, called it the most vicious crackdown in years.

Clampdown on Social Web Sites in China

In July 2009, the Chinese government restricted access to more social-networking sites. Among the sites that were are inaccessible were Twitter-like Fanfou, Digu, Zuosa and Jiwai. One of features of the targeted sites is the news and opinions can be circulated very quickly on them, and are thus hard for authorities to control. [Source: Brian Womack, Bloomberg, July 21, 2009)]

Internet users in China had difficulty logging on to Facebook and other social-networking sites earlier this month following ethnic clashes in western China that left more than 150 people dead. Access to Google Inc.’s YouTube, a video- sharing site, and the Twitter messaging service also has been limited]

The likely idea is to create some speed bumps for users of social networks, to slow down the spread of news and opinion contrary to the government, said Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

20111030-Human rights in China Wangfujing Street5.jpg
Wangfujing Street in Beijing

New Rules for Video Content in China

In March 2009, the State Administration of Radio, Film, and TV issued new rules on Internet videos that emphasized its concern over vulgarity and listed various types of content that online video hosts should filter from their sites. According to the rules Internet audio-visual program service providers must edit or delete programs that contain any of the following: 1. Distortions of Chinese culture, Chinese history, and historical facts; distortions of the history of other countries, and disrespect to human civilization and the culture and customes of other countries; 2. Disparaging or mocking depictions of revolutionary leaders, heroes, important historical figures, and major domestic and foreign literary works and their main characters; 3. Disparaging depictions of the PLA, people's armed police, the PSB, or the judiciary; depictions of torture of prisoners or of the use of torture to extract confessions from criminals or suspects;

  1. Displays of arrogant criminal behavior, detailed depictions of criminal activity, exposure of particular investigative techniques, or leaks of the appearance and voice of witnesses or individuals whose identity should be protected; 5. Calls for religious extremism, provocation of conflict between religions, religious sects, or between believers and non-believers, hurting the feelings of the public; 6. Promotion of palm-reading, fortune-telling, fengshui, divination, exorcism, and other feudal superstitious activity; 7. Mocking depictions of scenes of catastrophe, including major natural disasters, accidents, terrorist incidents, and war; 8. Detailed depictions of promiscuity, rape, incest, necrophilia, prostitution, solicitation, sexual perversion, and masturbation;

  2. Depictions or suggestions of sexual activity, sexual process, sexual techniques, and excessive related physical contact; 10. Deliberate displays in which private parts are only obscured by limbs or small coverings; 11. Sexually suggestive or provocative content that leads to sexual thoughts; 12. Promotion of unhealthy content including extramarital affairs, love triangles, one-night stands, sexual abuse, and wife-swapping; 13. Use of “adult film,” “pornographic film,” “Cat III film,” “hidden camera,” “indecent exposure,” and other provocative words and pictures in the program title or category; 14. Intense scenes of murder, bloodshed, violence, suicide, kidnapping, drug use, gambling, and the occult; 15. Excessively frightening images, text, background music, or sound effects; 16. Detailed depictions of cruelty to animals, or the capture, killing, and consumption of protected animals; 17. Content that violates personal privacy; 18. Depictions of fighting, humiliation, and obscenity affirmatively or in a manner that invites imitation; 19. Promotion of a negative or decadent outlook, world view, or value system, or deliberate exaggeration of the ignorance and backwardness of ethnic groups or social ills; 20. Clips that SARFT has cut from films and TV shows or has prohibited from being broadcast; 21. Content that violates the spirit of the law and regulations. [Source:, April 1, 2009]

    The rules also sated that Internet audio-visual program service providers must improve their program content administration systems and emergency response mechanisms by hiring well-qualified service personnel to review and filter content, with particular attention paid to online music videos, variety shows, film shorts, and animation, as well as “self-shot”, “hot dancing”, “pretty girls”, “funny” , “original content”, and “netizen reporters”, to insure that program content does not violate the rules.

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police at Wangfujing Street in Beijing

Mystery Crash Leads to Online Ban of “Ferrari” in China

Leo Lewis wrote in The Times: “Censors in China have excised the word Ferrari from the country's biggest social networking sites in an attempt to suppress all public discussion of a sensitive mystery car crash. The ban followed a burst of speculation that the young driver killed in the high-speed accident on Sunday may have been the son of a senior Communist Party official, thus raising awkward questions about how a civil servant could afford to buy his offspring one of the world's most desirable and expensive cars. [Source: Leo Lewis, The Times, March 20, 2012]

China's internet censors have a number of ways of banning particular words or phrases from Sina Weibo and other microblogging sites. The simplest and most regularly used method is to remove the offending term from the site's internal search engine. A more extreme tactic - and the one used in the case of Ferrari - automatically removes any post containing that word. Hints at the extreme political sensitivities surrounding the crash emerged as other words and names joined the list of banned words while newspaper reporters revealed that they had been forbidden from investigating or writing about the crash.

A brief local newspaper report on the crash, which occurred shortly after 4am on Sunday in Beijing and apparently involved a Ferrari F430, was swiftly removed from the website. The ban was imposed with the ruling Communist Party in the throes of its most public political turmoil for more than 20 years after the downfall of Bo Xilai.

Internet censors have been busy since the sacking of Bo Xilai as party boss of the sprawling city of Chongqing. His name and those of other family members have been blocked as search items. The Government appears especially keen to snuff out speculation about Mr Bo amid reports that he may be under house arrest pending a fuller investigation of his conduct. Mr Bo has his own Ferrari link: he recently dismissed as nonsense that his Harrow and Oxford-educated son, Bo Guagua, drove a red Ferrari.

The exact circumstances of Sunday's crash, beyond the fact that pictures of the twisted wreckage clearly showed it was a black Ferrari, are unclear. The driver, thought to have been in his 20s, was travelling with two young women sharing the single passenger seat. They reportedly survived the crash but with severe injuries.

20080318-protest in Xiamen chinadigitaltimes.jpg
Environmental Protest in Xiamen
organized through the Internet
and text messages

Coup Rumors Spur China to Hem in Social Networking Sites

Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Times: China started a sweeping crackdown of its vibrant social networking media over the weekend, detaining six people, closing 16 Web sites and shutting off the comment function for China’s two most popular microblogs, run by and Tencent. The campaign, which was put in place in stages over two days was directly linked to the political instability that has gripped China since one of its most charismatic politicians, Bo Xilai, lost his post in March. That spurred rumors of a coup, which the government-run Xinhua news agency cited as the reason for the measures. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Times, March 31, 2012]

Xinhua quoted an official with the State Internet Information Office as saying that the sites had spread reports of “military vehicles entering Beijing and something wrong going on in Beijing.” The reports, which Xinhua said were carried on the sites, and, stemmed from disagreements among senior leaders over whether to remove Mr. Bo, who is being investigated over accusations of corruption and abuse of power. One of his backers, the senior leader Zhou Yongkang, was said to be behind the planned coup, although most Chinese analysts have discounted this as a fabrication.

In addition to the six detainees — whose names were not released — Xinhua said others were “admonished and educated” and had promised to “repent.” The sites that were closed were relatively minor players in China. More noticeable for most Chinese was the decision to shut off the commenting services for microblogs run by the Sina Corporation and Tencent Holdings, which each have 300 million registered accounts.

On Sina’s Weibo service, users who tried to comment on posts after 8 a.m. Saturday were greeted with a message saying that microblogs contained “many rumors and illegal, destructive information.” The shutdown was necessary, the notice said, “to carry out a concentrated cleanup.” It said comments would be allowed starting Tuesday morning. The measures allowed users to post, but not comment on others’posts.

Even though the actions are linked to the Bo Xilai affair, analysts say the government began to take steps last July, when a high-speed rail crash led to an outpouring of reports and criticism that cast doubt on the government’s version of events. Within a week, most critical posts were deleted.

Despite the official rationale that the measures are justified to promote accuracy, analysts note that China’s official news media itself often is inaccurate and presents only the government’s position. “The whole idea of rumors and interest in accuracy is a ruse,” said David Bandurski with the China Media Project at Hong Kong University. “It’s a moniker for control.”

AP reported: In a further sign of such concerns, a military newspaper urged troops to ignore rumors and remain loyal to the Communist Party. The People's Liberation Army Daily said Friday in an editorial that troops should "resolutely resist the incursion of all kinds of erroneous thoughts, not be disturbed by noises, not be affected by rumors, not be pushed by any undercurrent." [Source: AP, April 7, 2012[

AFP reported: In another sign of the state's tight policing of the web — known as the "Great Firewall" — Xinhua said 1,065 people had been arrested since February 14 during an operation in Beijing to combat Internet crime. More than 3,000 websites had also received warnings after police targeted the smuggling of firearms, drugs and toxic chemicals, and the sale of human organs and personal information online, Xinhua said. In an editorial, the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, pledged to punish those responsible for the "lies and speculation". "Online rumours undermine the morale of the public and if out of control, they will seriously disturb the public order and affect social stability," said the newspaper, according to Xinhua. [Source: AFP, March 30, 2012]

China Lifts Microblog Controls That Sparked Outcry

A few days later AP reported: China's two biggest microblog sites resumed normal service after a three-day ban on posting comments that sparked complaints about censorship amid the country's worst high-level political crisis in years. The temporary suspension by Sina's and Tencent's followed a flurry of rumors online about the downfall of a prominent Communist Party figure, Bo Xilai. [Source: AP, April 3, 2012]

The two companies said in statements on their websites that the shutdown was aimed at "cleaning up" illegal and harmful information posted on some microblogs but gave no details. During the suspension, users could post on their own microblogs but were barred from making comments on others' accounts. It was unclear whether the suspension on Sina and Tencent was ordered by regulators or the companies took action on their own after being scolded about comments on their sites. State media said the two sites were "severely criticized" by regulators.

The surprise suspension triggered indignation from microbloggers. "Commenting is our inalienable right," microblogger Li Xuepeng wrote Tuesday after full service was restored. "What we need to do and must do is to speak up, until the right will not be taken away." "I'd like to call upon the government to release information in an open, timely and transparent manner," Zhao wrote on his microblog.

The main party newspaper People's Daily warned earlier that "rumors and lies packaged as 'facts'" would "disrupt social order" and "harm social integrity." During the suspension, users tried to circumvent the ban by reposting microblog entries that already were online and sometimes adding their own words. "The result of banning comments was a surge in reposting. It did nothing to stop rumors from spreading," Han Han, a popular online commentator, wrote on his own microblog. "This has nothing to do with regulating but power-flaunting and warning. What it says is if I can take away commenting from you for three days, I can make you lose microblogging forever."

China Cracks Down on the Websites of Bo Xilai's Supporters

Dexter Roberts of Bloomberg wrote: It’s the latest crackdown on China’s rambunctious Web. On April 6 nationalist website Utopia, which had run hundreds of articles supporting former Party Secretary Bo Xilai and the Chongqing model, named after the southwestern city he ran with neo-Maoist zeal, was shut down indefinitely. That followed an initial shuttering of Utopia, at the time of Bo’s dismissal on March 15, with the site then allowed to reopen just days later. [Source: Dexter Roberts, Bloomberg, April 09, 2012]

According to a notice posted on Utopia the day of its latest closure, local Internet and public security bureaus informed the site it was being punished for publishing “articles that violated the constitution, maliciously attacked state leaders, and speculated wildly about the 18th Party Congress” (this Congress takes place in the fall and will mark the transition to a new leadership). Utopia was told it must undergo “a self-inspection beginning from noon on April 6, 2012, to be brought back online after an examination was passed,” explained the initial notice. That notice was later replaced by one simply saying, “Website under construction.”

Even as Beijing once again asserts its heavy hand over the Chinese Web, many are wondering why it waited so long. Indeed, more notable than the latest crackdown has been the surprising openness allowed over the past month. That’s not to say there has been any trend of liberalization, however, argues Jeremy Goldkorn, founding director of Beijing-based Danwei, a China Internet and media research firm. He points to the new rule that requires bloggers to use their real names to register — only partially enforced, to date — as proof of a counter, tightening trend.

Rather, the relative looseness seen recently is due to the substantial challenge Beijing authorities face in monitoring the world’s largest Internet population. China has 485 million Internet users and 300 million registered micro-bloggers, according to Zhang Xinsheng, an official from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, as reported by Xinhua late last year. “This is more because it has become a Sisyphean task to monitor the Internet,” says Goldkorn, pointing to how difficult it is for censors and software to keep up with evasive tactics, such as the regular use of puns and homonyms by China’s netizens. To get around censorship on the Web, for example, supporters of Bo Xilai have referred to him by using the characters for “bu hou,” meaning literally, “not thick.” That’s because the Chinese character for “Bo” can also mean “thin” when pronounced slightly differently.

At the same time, it appears the Internet has become a battleground for different factions within China or, more specifically, for those wishing to bring down Bo during the unfolding scandal. “It is true they did not clamp down on the Wang Lijun and Bo Xilai rumors at first. Some of the stuff that was spread online seemed to be allowed in order to blacken Bo Xilai’s name,” says Danwei’s Goldkorn. “I think Bo’s enemies have used the Internet to hasten his downfall.”

AP reported: Another prominent pro-Maoist website,, also appeared to be shut down. The move appears to be part of wider censorship aimed at stifling discussion of Bo's downfall, the highest-level political sacking in years. Websites such as Utopia oppose privatization of the economy and other Western-style reforms, and have sometimes been critical of China's current leadership. They also promote the achievements of Mao, who led a bloody two-decade revolution that ended with the establishment of Communist China in 1949 and held power until his death in 1976. His policies plunged the nation into years of famine and led to the deaths of tens of millions. [Source: AP, April 7, 2012[

Internet Justice in China

The Internet has provided ordinary people with a forum for seeking justice that is otherwise denied in the legal system. Xiao Qian of the Berkeley China Internet Project told the Los Angeles Times, “In other societies you can turn to the media or the legal system but in China neither is credible. People don’t trust the government. They don’t have anywhere else to turn, so they go to the Internet.”

In one celebrated case of web justice a 21-year-old girl was found dead in her dormitory in 2003 and many thought her boyfriend” a young man from a well-connected family — did it even though he was not charged. Tens of thousands of Internet users followed the case and spoke out about it. Finally officials arrested the boyfriend. (He was eventually found not guilty but his family paid the dead woman’s family $75,000).

In the mid 2000s there was a case in which a woman from Heilonjiang Province made a web video in which she slammed a stiletto high heel into a kitten’s eyes and killed the poor creature by crushing its head. People who saw the video were so outraged they launched an Internet witch hunt to find out who she was. Within five days the park where the video was filmed was recognized and with that bit of information Internet sleuths were able to track down the woman’s name and occupation (a nurse) and well as that of the video cameraman ( man who worked for a local television bureau). The woman’s and the cameraman’s names, home addresses, phone and identity card numbers were listed and people were invited to harass them, which they did. [Source: Ching-Ching No, October 16, 2006, Los Angeles Times]

Zhou Jiugeng, an official in Nanjing, was spotted wearing a $25,000 watch, something far beyond the reach of the pay of a civil servants. An investigation launched after the Internet buzz found that Zhu had accepted $200,000 in bribes. He was fired, prosecuted and sentenced to 11 years in jail.

In October 2009, 19-year-old driver Sun Zhongjie was using his company minivan to run errands in Shanghai. A man on the street flagged him down and asked him for a ride. Minutes later police surrounded the van, accusing Sun of operating an illegal taxi, The van was confiscated, Sun was fined $1,400 and was fired from his job. Knowing he had no legal recourse he instead chopped up his left pinkie in public as a declaration of his innocense and hope the publicity would bring attention to his plight. The story of his finger cuting was picked up by a couple of national newspapers and after that word of what he had done quickly spread on the Internet. This prompted an investigation, When the investigation concluded that the police had done nothing wrong, the uproar became louder. Another investigation was launched. This time the ruling was in Sun’s favor and it was decided that he wouldn’t have to pay the fine. [Source: Keith Richburg, Washington Post, November 210]

20080318-protest in Xiamen chinadigitaltimes blogger Jessica.jpg
Environmental Protest in Xiamen
organized through the Internet
and text messages

On Online Viciousness in China

Lu Jingxian wrote in the state- backed Global Times: “The Internet, an important channel for ordinary Chinese to vent their dissatisfaction and expose injustices, has also become a source of defamation and libel...There is no shortage of examples of how the Internet has brought down public officials and celebrities for crossing the ethical bottom line. But the Internet can also reach deep into ordinary people's lives and victimize innocents.” [Source:Lu Jingxian, Global Times, May 18, 2010]

“With the Internet, getting even seems to be so much easier. Deserted by your partner? Desperate wives throw up obscene pictures on popular online forums to humiliate unfaithful husbands. With condemnation from online users, justice is partly done, or so it seems....Mad at your boss? How about posting the internal memos of the company online to entertain the public? Workplace ethics and the consequent business damage count for little when individuals are eager to let their anger out. Loyalty to the company seems like an outdated idea.” “Human flesh searches,” where Internet users hunt down the real names of people who've come to public attention, can haunt the entire family of the target. Don't think that only corrupt officials or hit-and-run drivers can be the prey in such chases. A careless mistake made years ago might be enough to put someone on the list of an online witch hunt.”

“Many of the problems in the virtual world are rooted in the real world. Disrespect to different opinion, ignorance of privacy, racial prejudice, and an inability to compromise and reach consensus are part of our daily life. With the Internet providing the perfect forum, millions of grumpy messages scattered around are accumulated into a formidable opinion strong enough to mute any dissident viewpoint.”

“Traditional law is far from sufficient to rein in online irregularities. Without limits of space or anyone to play gatekeeper, online opinion tends to be more biased and extreme, as long as it gets the most clicks. There are hardly any taboo topics or limits of freedom of speech on the Internet. But technology is neutral, and only the people who use it make the difference.

Chinese Internet forums were then filled with anti-Western diatribes that the ruling Communist Party appears to allow.

Internet Vigilantes in China

There have been some abuses of this system — which is essentially vigilante Internet justice. In 2005 there was a case in which a girl posted an online message saying that she desperately needed money to pay for a transplant operation for her mother. She had collected more than $12,500, including some from overseas Chinese, when web users began questioning the girls’s story after she was allegedly spotted with a fancy new cell phone and expensive clothes. Internet sentiments turned against the girl whose mother was unable to get the transplant and died. After that questions were raised about the cell phone and new clothes report and the source of the report was attacked.

Internet vigilantes, especially those outraged by perceived moral lapses such as marital infidelity, have launched cyberattacks on their victims: sending huge volumes of abusive e-mails, flooding phones, faxes and electronic mailboxes with so much garbage they are unusable.

In April 2008, after the riots in Tibet and surge of nationalism in China, a Chinese student at Duke University in the United States became the target of vicious Internet campaign. The student, a young woman named Wang Qianyuan, attempted to act as an intermediary in a confrontation between a dozen or so Tibetans and 100 or so nationalistic Chinese students at Duke and wrote “Save Tibet” with blue body paint on the back of one of the Tibetans. For that she was branded a traitor and became the object of a Internet vigilante campaign.

Wang’s picture was posted on the Internet with “Traitor to her country” written across her forehead. Someone posted Wang’s national identification number and her parents' address and phone number on the Internet and mercilessly attacked her on Internet chat lines. One user wrote: “Make us lose so much face. Shoot her where she stands.” Her parents were forced to flee their house in Qingdai and go into hiding. The windows of their house were smashed. Attackers dumped a bucket of excrement on their doorstep and posted a picture of it on the Internet.

Human Flesh Search Engines

Blogs sometimes serve as underground police and morality and corruption checks in China. “Human flesh search engines” is the term used to describe the online of community of cyber sleuths and vigilantes that use the Internet to expose perceived wrongdoers and bring attention to mistakes made by the media and the government. The community has millions of members and a following that numbers at least in the tens of million and perhaps hundreds of millions.

Investigators use databases, photo analysis, search engines, social networking sites and hacking into online accounts. The most damaging postings are often video or photographs dug up somewhere that show someone doing something really bad and millions of people see it. The targets are often government officials. The government has a hard time controlling them.

One video that appeared in October 2008, showed an unnamed official in the city of Shenzhen in a confrontation with family members of an 11-year-old girl he allegedly tried to force into a restroom. In it the official said, “I did it, so what? How much money do you want? Give me a price. I will pay it.” Then he points to the girl’s father and says, “Do you now who I am? I was sent here by the Transportation Ministry in Beijing. I have the same seniority as your mayor. So what if I grabbed a little child’s neck.” It wasn’t long before the official was identified, Lin Jiaxiang, a party secretary in the Shenzhen Maritime Administration, and fired. Another cadre was fired when bloggers noticed he was wearing a $15,000 Swiss watch.

In December 2007, in a another well known case, a woman named Jiang Yan committed suicide by jumping from the 24th floor of building. In a blog found after she died she blamed her husband’s affair. Cybersleuths tracked down the husband Wang Fei, and published online details of his life. Wang received death threats and messages like “pay back your wife’s bloody death.” His parents were harassed. People picketed outside his workplace, forcing him to quit his advertising job.

Image Sources: Human Rights in China, Wikicommons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2012

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