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China Appears to Tighten Internet Access Around Tiananmen Anniversary

China currently has an estimated 70 million bloggers posting content on subjects from fashion to politics. In January, officials announced that the country’s number of Internet users had hit 298 million, more than any other nation. Bloggers are finding new ways around tightening media restrictions to write more freely, although in recent months, some say they are noticing more sites are being blocked or shut down.

“The state’s online censorship and surveillance is as severe and powerful as it can be, probably more now than at any other time,” said Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at the University of California, Berkeley. The Tiananmen anniversary, combined with the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic itself, the 50th anniversary of Tibet’s uprising, the 10th anniversary of the ban on the Falun Gong movement and growing uneasiness connected to the global financial crisis have all led the government to reportedly shut down thousands of Web sites since the start of the year.

Tiananmen, a large plaza in the heart of Beijing, was the site of a large-scale, weeks-long student protest in 1989 that the Chinese government eventually squelched through military force. Estimates on the number of deaths vary from 300 to 3,000.

In early April, Internet users inside China found the video-sharing Web site YouTube inaccessible for days after footage of Chinese military police allegedly beating Tibetan monks was posted. In January, the Chinese government launched what it explained as an effort to remove vulgar and indecent content from the Web, closing sites it claimed contained pornographic or otherwise offensive material. China also launched a four-month crackdown on unapproved Internet cafes starting June 1, state media reported in late May.

Internet users are finding that some sites devoted to social messaging forums and blogs are either intermittently inaccessible, or possibly permanently removed, including the popular liberal blogging site Bullog.cn, which was shut down in early January.

A blogger who asked to be identified as Xiao Mo was a fan of Bullog. Xiao Mo covers Chinese-language media, both state-run and independent, for the English-language Hong Kong-based blogging site Danwei, which focuses on media commentary and analysis. “They were really good hosts,” she said of the people behind Bullog. “A lot of them were quite political and wrote about things that couldn’t be printed in the newspaper.”

Xiao Mo said that many bloggers in China produce content under different names, so that many of the Bullog bloggers have probably continued writing on other sites. Xiao Qiang has also seen people using what he calls “coded or veiled expressions” for sensitive material, especially content directly related to the upcoming Tiananmen anniversary.

“The strong desire among so many Chinese to express themselves on this topic after 20 years is unprecedented,” Xiao said, pointing to many Chinese people in their 30s or 40s who have personal experiences of the Tiananmen protests and would like to write about it online.

Driven by this desire for expression, many Chinese bloggers take steps to avoid drawing attention. Because key words like “tank” are sure to trip automatic keyword censors, people substitute the word “tractor.” According to Xiao, a new Chinese character that combines the dates “June 4” and “1989,” — another red flag — is being created. Also, a design for a T-shirt that expressed the date in Roman numerals was posted online, where it eluded censors for a time before being blocked.

The Chinese government has a long history of censoring print publications, broadcasts and film, but Xiao noted that although the state has strong resources to monitor online content, the sheer number of Internet users posting material is far too large for its censorship system to completely contain. Therefore, the government tends to focus on what it perceives as the most serious threats to its power.

“They can’t completely prevent people expressing themselves, but they’re most concerned with preventing political organizing and mass demonstration,” Xiao said.

While bloggers have become innovative about posting and accessing content, for many the most unsettling aspect of producing content inside China is not knowing where the line is between acceptable and unacceptable material. The Atlantic’s James Fallows, who has lived in Beijing and blogs about Chinese culture, said he finds that Internet access is so sporadic that it’s difficult for him to even gauge when the censors may be changing their restrictions.

“The very unpredictability and haziness and vagueness with which controls are applied strangely makes them more effective,” he said. “Almost every day, it’s sort of tabula rasa on what you’re going to find.”

Listen to more of his interview here:

Isaac Mao, a software engineer and venture capitalist who co-founded CNBlog.cn, has been referred to as China’s “first blogger” after writing his first post in 2003. Since then, Mao has encouraged more ordinary people from all classes and professions to go online to share ideas and opinions, and he has hosted blogging conferences and advocated the use of overseas servers to allow for greater freedom of expression.

Mao said he is pleased by the huge number of bloggers who have joined him over the past several years, but he acknowledged that the unpredictable nature of Internet access is a problem. “Many Chinese Internet users want to know what the reasons for blocking sites are,” Mao said. “But the censorship systems aren’t at all transparent in China. The government never wants to tell people why sites are blocked.”

Jeremy Goldkorn, co-founder of the media blogging site Danwei, says he doesn’t think about censorship much from day to day because his writers comment on material in the Chinese media, which doesn’t require them to “cross many lines.” But he added that he was initially attracted to this approach because he wanted to create something in China’s media space that would be possible under the censorship system.

“For all of the terrible things that have happened, there’s a tremendous progress in people talking about things like health, sex, and pressuring the government,” Goldkorn said. “And the media and the Internet has been a huge part of fairly real gains of individual freedom in China.”

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