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Chinese Web Surfers Still Face a Backwash

Asia: As Communist conclave nears, regime lifts Google blockade but keeps Internet curbs.

September 13, 2002|CHING-CHING NI and HENRY CHU | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SHANGHAI — Google, the Internet search engine recently blocked in China by the government, appeared to be up and running Thursday. But anyone clicking into sensitive stories that include keywords such as "Falun Gong" or "Jiang Zemin" would probably hit a wall.

It's part of the routine crackdown on the media that happens in China whenever an important public event is on the horizon--in this case, the upcoming 16th Communist Party Congress, which opens Nov. 8.

The Chinese government's watchword is stability: It wants to create an atmosphere of political and social unity before the conclave. Newspaper coverage recently has been sanitized to accentuate positive news and de-emphasize negative stories about official corruption and the like.

Two weeks ago, President Jiang called on the media and other propaganda outlets to create a "sound atmosphere" for the upcoming congress by trumpeting the successes of the Communist Party over the past 20 years of reform.

But China is no longer the same old totalitarian state. The Internet and a thriving market economy have transformed the country into a free-wheeling society much harder to control.

The popularity of the Internet has skyrocketed in recent years. An estimated 45 million Chinese now cruise the Web. Internet police struggle in vain to patrol chat rooms, play cat and mouse with users who try to get around government firewalls, and block material deemed harmful or otherwise critical of the state.

The crackdown on Google and Altavista, both popular search engines in China, triggered a flurry of denunciations from users, including businesses that rely on the Internet for access to information.

"What crime has Google committed that it has to be banned? Alas, I'm speechless!" wrote one Netizen in Strong Country Forum, a chat room.

"Every day that Google is blocked is a day I will protest," wrote another user, whose posting drew several responses in support.

When it comes to the Internet, Communist leaders want to have it both ways--reaping the financial benefits of the global information age but filtering out the freedom that might threaten their hold.

Earlier this week, people trying to search Google were redirected to Chinese sites without access to politically charged materials, such as those related to the intense guessing game over whether Jiang will leave office in November. Most such crackdowns, however, tend to be sporadic and relatively short-lived. By Thursday, the government apparently had found a way to selectively restrict access without the need to shut down the entire Google site.

"The collateral damage was maybe considered excessive, so now there's a more focused approach," said Duncan Clark, managing director of B.D.A. China, a Beijing-based telecommunications consulting film. "Instead of a sledgehammer, it's a scalpel."

It's difficult for the government nowadays to impose full control over the media. But for China's rulers, a lesser effort is better than admitting they have lost that control.

Beijing also apparently has banned the sale of books it thinks reflect badly on Communist rule, past and present. One book advertised on the Internet but banned from sale is "I Have Such a Mother," a scathing account by the daughter of Mao Tse-tung's secretary. The author accuses her mother of putting the party above family during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, to the extent of politically denouncing her own husband.

Another book not found in bookstores blasts the corruption so pervasive in China today.

But another alleged contraband tome, chronicling the plight of peasants displaced by the Three Gorges Dam project, was still available in a Shanghai bookstore.

"In this day and age, it's impossible to order a ban and confiscate everything on the market," said an editor at a state-run publishing house in Shanghai who did not want to give his name.

The cleanup campaign ahead of the congress is not limited to books and media. Even the police have been ordered to intensify their "Strike Hard" anti-crime campaign.

Meanwhile, China has sentenced two veteran pro-democracy activists to prison. Mu Chuanheng and Yan Peng were charged with trying to overthrow the government, according to New York-based Human Rights in China.

*

Ni reported from Shanghai and Chu from Beijing.

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