Sunday, December 21, 2008

China clamps down on Internet & protests

Hu Jintao delivers a speech while soldiers yawn. Pro democracy protests and the internet remain heavily policed.

China has reverted to its old practices of blocking internet sites not seen as favourable to the views of the establishment. The latest victim in the flow of information in the New York Times New York Times. The US newspaper said its site was first blocked on Thursday and access was still unavailable on Saturday. The blocking of foreign websites can often be arbitrary and not entirely effective. One reader from Beijing wrote on the New York Times’ blog “The nytimes is indeed blocked, but only on the top level domain for some reason. the pages like and are accessible still”. Others have said the NYT site was accessible if the three w’s were omitted. Using so called proxy servers is another work round, but it can be a frustrating and time consuming affair.

This is just the latest in a series of web restrictions that have been imposed by authorities despite assurances that freedoms allowed during the Olympic games would continue. Other sites that have been blocked in the last few days include the BBC’s Chinese language site and Voice of America website. The Hong Kong-based Ming Pao and Asiaweek have also been affected according to Reporters Sans Frontieres. "Right now, the authorities are gradually rolling back all the progress made in the run-up to this summer's Olympic games, when even foreign websites in Mandarin were made accessible. The pretence of liberalization is now over," a spokesman for RSF said last week.

China has defended its right to restrict access to certain websites. Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao speaking to reporters last week argued that other countries also regulate their internet usage.

China, which last week celebrated 30 years of opening up [BBC / CNN], is getting jittery as unrest builds in the country as millions find themselves unemployed despite promises of prosperity and a booming economy. The economy is already slowing in China and factories are closing across the country leaving many people desperate.

In this climate some are beginning to protest. Many have simply demanded their right to work or to be paid [BBC]. But there is a growing number of academics and scholars who are calling for greater democracy. Under the banner of ‘Charter 08’ protesters have attempted to air their grievances but their voice has been stifled by the authorities who are not keen in letting the world know about the increasing dissent in China. Charter 08, which takes its title and inspiration from the "Charter 77" document that demanded rights for Czechoslovakia in 1977, calls for an extensive list of rights in China. Amongst the demands are free speech, freedom to form political parties, an independent legal system and direct elections [Time].

But association with Charter 08 has already led to arrests. Liu Xiaobo, one of the Charter’s signatories and authors, was arrested on 8th December. There has been no news of his condition or whereabouts since.

U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said last week that Washington was "deeply concerned by reports that Chinese citizens have been detained, interrogated and harassed" since the document's publishing, and was "particularly concerned about the well being of Liu Xiaobo".

However China continues to brush aside such statements with disdain. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told journalists on 16th December that the U.S. position was another example of an unwelcome "interference of other nations in China's internal affairs".
Like it or not, China is now a part of the world community. As such China should begin to understand that adherence to human rights is as important as its playing the rules of international trade. The issues are likely to become ever more divisive as the global downturn worsens. And there is further concern too as China nears another historical landmark anniversary. June 2009 marks 20 years since the pro-democracy rallies in Tiananmen Square which was violently broken up leading to the deaths of many hundreds.

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