Monday, February 20, 2006

Senior Chinese officials slam Communist Party censorship

posted February 15, 2006 at 11:00 a.m.
By Arthur Bright | csmonitor.com

The heat over China's media censorship was turned up Tuesday after a baker's dozen of senior Chinese officials warned that preventing freedom of expression would "sow the seeds of disaster for political and social transition."

Reuters reports that 13 scholars and ex-officials released a letter to the Chinese government, condemning its decision to shut down "Freezing Point," an investigative section of the China Youth Daily. They called the closure a "historic incident" in the struggle between Communist Party controls and media freedoms, and expressed concern over what such censorship would mean for China.

"History demonstrates that only a totalitarian system needs news censorship, out of the delusion that it can keep the public locked in ignorance," they said in a public letter signed February 2 but issued on Tuesday....

They said China's elaborate restrictions on information could have dire consequences for China's political evolution.

"Depriving the public of freedom of expression so nobody dares speak out will sow the seeds of disaster for political and [social] transition."

The BBC notes that the letter "is all the more surprising because of who it comes from." Among the letter's signatories are Li Rui, a former secretary and biographer of Chairman Mao; Hu Jiwei, a former editor in chief of the People's Daily; Zhu Houze, a former propaganda boss; and Li Pu, a former deputy chief of the official Xinhua News Agency.

The government's decision to shut down Freezing Point came in response to an article written by professor Yuan Weishi, Al Jazeera reports. In the piece, Mr. Yuan questioned the official Chinese line on the 19th-century Opium Wars and the 1900 Boxer Rebellion.

Yuan told Aljazeera.net: "Since 1949 Chinese historians have said that the Boxer Rebellion has been an important event in the forming of modern China."

Referring to a Marxist based historiography that has portrayed the rebellion as a struggle against colonialism, Yuan says that from his research, "the Boxers were simply an army bent on destruction".

Yuan suggested Chinese textbooks were factually incorrect and fostered prejudice and resentment among young Chinese.

In a statement, officials said the article had "seriously contradicted news propaganda discipline; seriously damaged the national feelings of the Chinese people ... and it created a bad social influence".

The Times of London writes that Li Datong, the editor of Freezing Point, is encouraged by the letter condemning the publication's closure.

[Datong] told The Times: "This is very significant. It is a an expression of public opinion." He said the Communist Youth League, which is responsible for his newspaper, had refused to file a complaint to the party’s central disciplinary inspection commission. He now plans to approach the party centre, directly challenging the authority of Hu Jintao, the Communist Party chief and state President, who is believed to have approved the suspension personally.

The Chinese government responded to the letter's criticism, as well as to other recent criticism of its Internet censorship policies, in a China Daily article, reports the BBC. Liu Zhengrong, deputy chief of the Internet Affairs Bureau of the State Council Information Office, said that China's Internet controls are similar to that of the US and Europe.

"After studying internet legislation in the West, I've found we basically have identical legislative objectives and principles," Mr Liu was quoted as telling the state-run China Daily newspaper on Tuesday.

"It is unfair and smacks of double standards when (foreigners) criticise China for deleting illegal and harmful messages, while it is legal for US websites to do so," he said.

He also said that only a "very few" foreign websites were blocked, and that was mostly because they contained pornography or terrorist information.

The BBC News website continues to be blocked in China.

Mr. Liu added that "no one in China has been arrested simply because he or she said something on the internet." The BBC noted, however, that Li Zhi, who was sentenced to eight years in jail for "subversion," and four others jailed in 2003 "were posting opinions on the Internet and calling for political change" according to human rights groups.

The shuttering of Freezing Point and subsequent criticism from senior Chinese officials are only part of the latest wave of concern over China's media censorship. The Los Angeles Times reports that the a US House of Representatives panel is scheduled to meet today to examine US Internet firms' cooperation with Chinese censorship efforts.

The U.S. Congress' Subcommittee on Global Human Rights, Africa and International Operations is holding a hearing today on "The Internet in China: A Tool for Freedom or Suppression?" Executives from Google, Yahoo Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc. are scheduled to testify, along with representatives from Reporters Without Borders.

Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft all censor Internet searches in China in accordance with China's propaganda guidelines. In addition, Microsoft has removed blogs that published material upsetting to China, and Yahoo was accused by watchdog group Reporters Without Borders of aiding Chinese officials in capturing Li Zhi in 2003.

The Boston Globe reports that an American diplomat will "express growing US concern about Internet censorship in China" in a visit to China this week.

The Christian Science Monitor notes that while US lawmakers want to end American firms' compliance with Chinese censors, Yahoo may be able to continue thanks to financial manuevering.

A deal in October may insulate the Internet giant. Because it gave up a majority stake of its China service to a Chinese company, Yahoo argues that decisions about cooperating with Chinese officials lie with that company, which has obligations to obey Beijing, not Washington.

However, The Guardian reports that for all China's efforts to censor the Internet, it may be unable to maintain its controls due to the sheer numbers of Web users within its borders.

The number of internet users in China has surged from 620,000 in 1997 to 110 million. It is estimated that there are between 5m and 10m blogs. Censors say they have had to change tactics.

"It is becoming more difficult to block and monitor web traffic so we need to switch to guidance," said an official responsible for internet surveillance. "Strict management didn't work. It is like trying to control a flood. Guiding is more effective than blocking."

Even with an estimated 30,000 internet police, he said it was difficult to monitor bulletin boards. "The technology hasn't reached a level that will allow us to control them. And we must also consider the trend of democratisation, which cannot be stopped," he said.

The offical adds, "China is very big. If you want to control such a large country, mere politics is not enough. You must control minds. You need to win the battle for ideas."

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