In China, Google is forced to censor its search engine, Facebook and Twitter are blocked, U.S. news agencies are barred from selling their services freely, and foreign investment in the media industry is closely watched. Yet when President Obama visits the country in a few days, it’s unknown if he will publicly pressure the Chinese government on issues of censorship or free expression.

The president yesterday defended his position on these issues, saying, “We believe in the values of freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of religion, that are not just core American values but we believe are universal values.”

This is a critical time for him to speak up because China appears to be increasing its efforts to censor Internet content, while also cracking down on journalists and bloggers. At the same time, the Obama administration has been sending mixed signals on democracy and human rights to China. For example, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted the 20th anniversary of the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown, and called on the Chinese government to “provide a public accounting of those killed, detained or missing, both to learn and to heal.” But she also celebrated the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Peoples Republic of China by congratulating the Party for its “truly historic accomplishment” of “lifting millions of people out of poverty.”

Meanwhile, Yang Zili, a young engineer who spent eight years in prison, recently urged President Obama to intercede on behalf of two colleagues still being held in custody. Their offense? Creating a website.

It’s true that gratuitous criticism towards China rarely produces results; but excessive restraint is also ineffective. Human right issues cannot be raised only in private, which is why it’s important to review some of China’s recent abuses of freedom of expression, and its renewed efforts at online censorship.

Cyber-Dissidents in Jail

Beginning around 2003, the Internet started emerging as a major tool for exposing corruption and abuse of power, and for putting pressure on China’s central and provincial governments. Today, China has the largest population of Internet users on the planet. It also has 58 cyber-dissidents in jail. In terms of press freedom, China is ranked 168th in Reporters Without Borders’ 2009 World Press Freedom Index, out of 175 countries.

In Xinjiang, Chinese authorities launched a crackdown that includes blocking many forms of Internet communication. The region’s Internet has been reduced to an intranet that prevents Uyghurs from providing the outside world with detailed information about their situation.

In October, Reporters Without Borders surveyed the level of access provided to websites dedicated to the Uyghur community. These sites, operated by Uyghurs for Uyghurs, are for the most part inaccessible to Internet users based in Xinjiang, and those abroad. More than 85 percent of the surveyed sites were blocked, censored or otherwise unreachable.

On Oct. 1, 2009, Hailaite Niyazi, an Uyghur journalist and the former editor of the Uighurbiz website, was arrested. His family was told three days later that he was suspected of “endangering national security.” His arrest appears to have been prompted by an interview he gave about the Xinjiang regional government’s attitude towards recent riots. (In the past, authorities have accused Uighurbiz of “encouraging violence” in Xinjiang.)

In Tibet, there have been ongoing arrests and trials of journalists, bloggers and Internet users since March 2008. Three young Tibetans from the village of Dara have been held in jail since early October, when they were arrested for allegedly sending information about Tibet to contacts outside of the country.

Erecting Dams on the Internet

Silencing dissidents is only one part of China’s censorship strategy. Last summer, the Chinese government introduced “Green Dam,” new piece of filtering software. Chinese officials claim it’s designed to protect children from pornographic content online. However, a study of Green Dam by the OpenNet Initiative showed that its key-word filtering was not very effective for porn, yet it was very good at blocking political, cultural and news websites, among other targets.

More recently, Internet service providers in the southern province of Guangdong have been installing a new type of filtering software called Landun (which translates to “Blue Shield” or “Blue Dam”). It’s even more powerful than its problematic predecessor. According to an article in the Hong-Kong based Apple Daily, Chinese network providers were given until September 13 to install Blue Shield and avoid being sanctioned. Blue Shield is said to be more powerful than Green Dam and its installation is obligatory, not optional, as the authorities had reportedly promised. It is intended to provide stronger protection against porn sites and to increase the monitoring and filtering capabilities of Internet connections.

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David Wu

Congress has taken notice of China’s stepped-up efforts to control the web. In June, Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.) introduced a resolution “expressing grave concerns about the sweeping censorship, privacy, and cyber-security implications of China’s Green Dam filtering software, and urging U.S. high-tech companies to promote the Internet as a tool for transparency, freedom of expression, and citizen empowerment around the world.”

Chinese Censorship: Made in the USA?

American firms are also involved in Chinese censorship. Cisco Systems helped build the entire Chinese Internet infrastructure, including the mechanisms to censor the web. Yahoo aided the Chinese government in jailing four dissidents by giving their personal data to Chinese authorities. Speaking to shareholders at the Yahoo annual meeting in June, CEO Carol Bartz was questioned about the company’s policies in China in light of Green Dam and other controversies.

“We made a mistake, and you can’t hold us up as the bad boy forever,” she said, referring to the release of information that led to the arrest of the journalists. “It’s not our job to fix the Chinese government. It’s that simple.”

Maybe it’s not Yahoo’s job. But President Obama has a responsibility to advocate for freedom and democracy, and he should do so publicly when he visits China on November 15.

Clothilde Le Coz has been working for Reporters Without Borders in Paris since 2007. She is now the Washington director for this organization, helping to promote press freedom and free speech around the world. In Paris, she was in charge of the Internet Freedom desk and worked especially on China, Iran, Egypt and Thailand. During the time she spent in Paris, she was also updating the “Handbook for Bloggers and Cyberdissidents,” published in 2005. Her role is now to get the message out for readers and politicians to be aware of the constant threat journalists are submitted to in many countries.