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China Tightens Internet Control Three Weeks After Earthquake

The Los Angeles Times reported on June 5th that, “China has begun rolling back many of the media and Internet freedoms that were permitted in the immediate aftermath of last month’s earthquake.”

As opposed to the tight media control during the unrest in Tibet, the Chinese government seemed to adopt a new media strategy in the first three weeks of the devastating earthquake in Sichuan. The government released information in a timely manner, gave foreign and domestic journalists freedom to travel and report, and remained hands-off when there was online criticism of the government. The Korea Times and the Gizmodo stated that Sichuan’s earthquake allowed millions of Chinese netizens to enjoy almost complete freedom from censorship for the first time.

However, in the three weeks since the major earthquake in Sichuan province, public concern has begun to shift from the heroic efforts of rescue workers and the plight of trapped victims to issues of corruption, embezzlement, and shoddy school construction. In response to this pressure on political authority and social stability, China’s government has issued directives to online websites and Internet portals outlining forbidden topics related to Sichuan’s earthquake and urging news websites to “emphasize positive propaganda,” and tighten the control of online forums, including limiting discussions and deleting postings about sensitive topics concerning the Sichuan earthquake.

It was disappointing to see China reverting to its previous position on media control. In the current Chinese context, it is difficult to recognize how much freedom of online speech the government will allow. With the world’s largest Internet user base, the Chinese government hopes citizens’ online activities can promote its political reform efforts and anti-corruption work, but, on the other hand, it worries about the use of the Internet as a threat to its political authority and to social stability. It seems the Chinese government may allow people to exchange information about certain sensitive topics via the Internet within small groups, but tries to prevent large scale dissent on the Web. In the case of the Sichuan earthquake, the government began to tighten its control over online speech when issues of corruption and shoddy school construction became hot topics in Chinese cyberspace, since they had the potential to ignite mass protests. Rebecca MacKinnon stated that, “They [the Chinese government] increasingly recognize they can’t control everything, and pick and choose.” In fact, both the Chinese authorities and Chinese Internet users know the ‘rules’ of the game–China is changing and government control of the media/Internet may relax a bit from time to time, but each side knows where the ‘red line’ is.

At least one positive outcome from the earthquake is that the Chinese government began to directly respond to the outcry from netizens, who grilled local officials about whether it was substandard building codes or even extremely poor construction that led to the death of so many students. Under mounting online public scrutiny, government officials promise to investigate the cause of collapsed school buildings and bring those responsible to justice.

Although China still appears monolithic from the outside, and still keeps a watchful eye on the online activities of Chinese citizens, the Internet seems to be sowing the seeds of free speech in China. That may be the most important lesson in Sichuan’s earthquake.

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