China Co-Opts Social Media to Head Off Unrest

February 22, 2011

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Categories: Old News

BEIJING—China’s domestic security chief, Zhou Yongkang, added his voice to calls for tighter Internet controls as censors ratcheted up temporary online restrictions, a day after a failed attempt to use social-networking sites to start a “Jasmine Revolution” in China.

Only a handful of people turned up Sunday for the planned protests, as police detained or confined to their homes dozens of activists across China and Internet censors blocked searches for the word “Jasmine” on Twitter-like microblogging sites and other websites.

From The Wall Street Journal

BEIJING—China’s domestic security chief, Zhou Yongkang, added his voice to calls for tighter Internet controls as censors ratcheted up temporary online restrictions, a day after a failed attempt to use social-networking sites to start a “Jasmine Revolution” in China.

Mr. Zhou, one of the nine members of the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee, the country’s top decision-making body, was quoted in official media Monday as saying Chinese officials needed to find new ways to defuse social unrest.

He made the remarks at a meeting of Chinese officials on Sunday, when police and Internet censors easily thwarted an anonymous online appeal for people to stage simultaneous antigovernment protests in Beijing, Shanghai and 11 other Chinese cities.

“Strive to defuse conflicts and disputes while they are still embryonic,” Mr. Zhou was quoted as saying. On Saturday, President and party chief Hu Jintao also called in a speech for tighter Internet supervision to help prevent social unrest.

Only a handful of people turned up Sunday for the planned protests, as police detained or confined to their homes dozens of activists across China and Internet censors blocked searches for the word “Jasmine” on Twitter-like microblogging sites and other websites.

Communist Party leaders have issued a flurry of statements in the past few days reflecting their concern that social issues such as rising food prices, combined with the unbridled flow of information over the Internet, could trigger the kind of protests that have challenged authoritarian governments in the Mideast and North Africa.

At the same time, the government has demonstrated many of the tools at its disposal to prevent such a protest movement from gaining traction—from thuggery and physical intimidation to media manipulation and a sophisticated Internet censorship system, known as the “Great Firewall.”

Despite the role of Twitter and Facebook Inc. in mobilizing protests in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, China is, for the moment, allowing Chinese social-networking sites to flourish—provided they cooperate with censors by removing or blocking controversial material.

One social-networking site, Renren.com—a Chinese equivalent of Facebook that focuses on entertainment and is rarely used for political discussion—said Monday that it planned a $500 million initial public offering in New York. (Please see related article on page C3.)

A senior foreign-policy planning official said the Chinese government wasn’t worried by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech last week in which she said China and other authoritarian countries were facing a “dictator’s dilemma” on how to control the Internet.

“We’re not afraid,” the official told a small group of foreign and Chinese reporters Monday. “We don’t have anything to worry about, but we have to prevent people from using the Internet to damage or destroy social stability.”

He said China had identified the potential benefits and risks of the Internet early on, and he compared it to a nuclear weapon that could make a country strong, while also exposing it to new dangers.

The official blamed the recent unrest in the Mideast and North Africa principally ontheir relatively slow economic development and their “old methods” of controlling society.

China, by contrast, has maintained rapid economic growth while using a combination of old and new methods to prevent a repeat of the 1989 pro-democracy protests around Tiananmen Square that were crushed by the army.

At one end of the spectrum, China has used traditional judicial and extrajudicial measures, jailing some dissidents, such as Liu Xiaobo, who won last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, while placing others, including his wife, under a form of house arrest that is technically illegal. Before Sunday’s call for a “Jasmine Revolution,” Chinese police detained or confined to their homes dozens of other political activists, according to several human-rights groups.

Earlier this month, rights groups reported that security officers had beaten a blind lawyer, Chen Guangcheng, and his wife after the couple smuggled out a video showing they were being confined to their home, even after Mr. Chen was released from prison.

At the other end of the spectrum, China’s Internet censors have demonstrated a highly sophisticated capacity to control the flow of information online without shutting it down completely—mainly by obliging Internet companies to remove politically sensitive content.

When the protests in Egypt began, for example, censors allowed limited reporting and discussion of the unrest online but kept a lid on the number of people viewing it, mainly by blocking searches for “Egypt” and related terms, first on microblogging sites, and then, starting Sunday, on other sites as well.

They quickly took the controls to a new level on Sunday, after the anonymous appeal for a “Jasmine Revolution” in China appeared on a U.S.-based Chinese-language website and began to be circulated first on Twitter, which is blocked in China, and then on some Chinese microblogging sites.

All references to the appeal were deleted from Chinese sites, and searches for “Jasmine” and related words were blocked on search engines and microblogging sites, and people were temporarily prevented from posting items with photographs and links to other sites. The search function on Sina Weibo, one of the most popular microblogging sites, was disabled.

On Monday, many Internet users reported having problems using the virtual private networks that normally let them circumvent the Great Firewall to view politically sensitive sites.

Many people also reported having problems sending text messages including references to Sunday’s planned protests, such as the word “Wangfujing”—the name of the shopping district where protesters were encouraged to gather in Beijing on Sunday.

Chinese officials appear to be particularly concerned about microblogs, which can spread information so quickly that tens of thousands of users may notice if something is suddenly blocked or a function isn’t available, especially if it was posted by someone popular.

Qiao Mu, director of the Center for International Communications Studies at Beijing Foreign Students University, said Sina Weibo appeared to be deleting more posts since President Hu’s speech Saturday calling for tighter Internet controls. “I think the Internet situation in China will get worse,” he said.

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703610604576158290935677316.html

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