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China: Internet Activist's Jailing Renews Criticism Of Beijing's Restrictions

  • Breffni O'Rourke --> (epa) China has sentenced yet another Internet-using human rights activist to a stiff jail term. The four-year sentence handed down to Guo Qizhen by a court in Cangzhou on October 16 has brought sharp reactions from international media rights groups, who characterize it as "absurd" and out of line with China's growing profile as a world economic power.

PRAGUE, October 19, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Guo Qizhen was found guilty of the criminal charge of "incitement to subversion" for his criticism of Chinese leaders and their policies on two foreign-based websites.

His views on the Chinese government were forthright. In one Internet article he urged Chinese to "sound the knell of this dire regime." In others he referred to the government as "despotic" and "autocratic," and he was critical of the creation of wealth in one sector of the community while others lived in poverty.

Reporters Without Borders says some 50 Internet campaigners are currently in jail, along with more than 30 journalists, making China the world's leading jailer of people in the media.

Constitutional Right?

Guo's lawyer, Li Jiangqiang, told foreign journalists after the verdict was announced that he believes his client's comments fall within his rights under the Chinese Constitution.

Reaction to the sentencing has been swift. In Paris, the press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RPW) said that when it comes to the Internet, China is the worst in suppressing freedom of expression. The group's China expert, Jules Pain, told RFE/RL that no other country censors the web as methodically as Beijing.

"China [still] does not accept any independent media, and doesn't allow people to speak out and criticize the authorities online, so the situation remains totally unchanged: as soon as you try to criticize the authorities in any way on the Internet you get caught and you get jailed," he said.

Pain expresses disappointment with current Chinese President Hu Jintao, who many hoped would take a more moderate political line than his predecessor, Jiang Zemin.

Turning A Blind Eye

But he says that did not happen, and he also expresses concern that China is now so powerful economically and does so much business in the world that international criticism of China is becoming muted.

"Economically and technically, China is moving forward, and there is no doubt that it is growing, that's why foreign diplomats don't dare actually criticize the Chinese regime but, politically, the [the country's internal] situation remains unchanged, and that is very worrying," Pain said.

Another media rights body, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), says the situation is "absurd."

The CPJ notes that each day 100 million Chinese go online, and as modern citizens of the global community they express their opinions on almost every topic. But not all topics. Guo and dozens of other media figures are in jail for making a verbal critique of the government. As CPJ spokeswoman Kirstin Jones puts it, the Chinese stand is an anachronism.

"These are things that citizens in modern countries should be able to do; and it's absurd that he has been jailed for four years for this," she said.

Rights Groups Protest

Two other media rights organizations -- the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) and the World Editors Forum -- have protested to the Chinese government against the jailing of Guo and other media workers. WAN represents 18,000 newspapers worldwide.

In a letter to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, the two Paris-based organizations called on China to release all jailed journalists and to respect international standards of freedom of expression.

The situation with China and the Internet makes an interesting commentary on the role of modern technology. When the Internet era dawned, people hailed the new technology as a great liberator that would allow the unstoppable spread of ideas around the world. No one could control the Internet, it was said.

Beijing appears to have proven that wrong. Using an army of 30,000 people to trawl the Internet, the authorities know what's going on.

"The Chinese regime managed to control the net just as it controlled the traditional media, so the technology can be used both ways, to control a population, or to give access to more information; in China it is the first path which has been chosen by the authorities, they are using the Internet to spread their propaganda, and at the same time to control their own population," Pain said.

RWB says some 50 Internet campaigners are currently in jail, along with more than 30 journalists, making China the world's leading jailer of people in the media.

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See also:

China: Bullying The Bloggers

China: Acting To Keep Out 'Harmful Information'

Beijing Opens Clinic To Help Internet Addicts