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China: Bullying The Bloggers

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has taken new measures aimed at controlling citizens' access to information through the Internet by slapping controls on bloggers. The question remains: can the authorities maintain a one-party dictatorship and at the same time give proper attention to the information needs of a vibrant economy?

China bears the distinction of having the world's second-largest population of Internet users -- about 100 million -- and the planet's most sophisticated system of Internet controls, which has been dubbed "The Great Firewall" (see Acting To Keep Out 'Harmful Information' and Controlling The Internet).

The Ministry of Information announced on 25 September a package of measures designed to control bloggers, informal organizations, and Internet-only newssites, which comes on the heels of recent measures aimed at setting up Internet police and otherwise intimidating people into self-censorship -- sometimes with the help of foreign tech companies.
The question arises as to how the CCP can maintain such control in the midst of a booming economy that requires a free flow of information.

Registered media outlets are already covered by existing regulations. The new measures center on on-line journalists who are not part of a previously licensed organization but must now register. These include not only individual bloggers, journalists, or others distributing news by e-mail, but also unofficial labor, social, and environmental groups, which have been instrumental in publicizing mining accidents, land seizures, riots, and other topics considered too delicate for the official media (see Frustrated Citizens Take To The Streets, and Dying In The Mines).

The new rules aim to promote the dissemination of "healthy and civilized news." They state that "online news service units should...serve the people, uphold the correct leadership of public opinion, and protect the interests of the nation and public." According to the official Xinhua news agency, one may post only information "that is beneficial to the improvement of the quality of the nation, beneficial to its economic development, and conducive to social progress."

Websites and portals must now "give priority" to news and opinion material that have already appeared in the state-run print media. This seemingly puts a stop not only to free-wheeling, opinion-driven blogging but also to the use of the Internet to break and develop news stories that the official media have not reported. The "Los Angeles Times" observed on 27 September that the new rules could be interpreted broadly enough to enable the authorities to punish anyone who sends friends an e-mail describing a local riot.

As with previous regulations aimed at licensed journalistic organizations, the new measures also prohibit things like pornography, on-line gambling, and disseminating news of illegal gatherings, riots, or unofficial groups like Falungong, which are determined to "disturb the public order." Those found guilty of violating the regulations can be fined up to $3,700 and face a shutdown of their operation.

Had the new regulations come into force one year ago, it would have been difficult to organize the anti-Japanese demonstrations that took place in several cities this past spring. The new rules might also have prevented the rapid spread of news of mining disasters or discouraged the networking going on involving peasants, NGOs, journalists, and lawyers who are opposed to land seizures.

Some U.S. and British media have reported that the new measures are part of a campaign dubbed the "smokeless war" against "liberal elements" that CCP Chairman Hu Jintao announced at a secret party meeting in May. If the moves to control the Internet, including the bloggers, do indeed reflect the policies of the top leadership, then they are unlikely to be reversed any time soon.

The question arises as to how the CCP can maintain such control in the midst of a booming economy that requires a free flow of information. Will it be possible for China to effectively utilize the Internet while the authorities restrict its use and try to thwart the networking that is a basic part of its capability?