China signals tighter Internet control

The Washington Post

Chinese citizens were last year treated to an unaccustomed number of hard-hitting exposes and investigations detailing the private lives and corrupt financial dealings of the most senior Communist Party officials and their family members.

Most of the reports have come from what one local media expert called “the two Ws,” meaning Western media and weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

So far, Beijing’s response to this growing onslaught of negative publicity has been scattered and sometimes surprisingly restrained. The reaction reflects what many analysts have called Chinese authorities’ more sophisticated strategy for handling adverse publicity, and a recognition that any overreaction might simply draw new and unwanted attention.

Bloomberg News found its website blocked in China after releasing a June story detailing the multimillion-dollar financial holdings of family members of Xi Jinping, who became Communist Party general secretary in November and will take over as the country’s president next year. Likewise, after The New York Times reported in October on the $2.7 billion fortune amassed by close relatives of outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao, its website and its new Chinese-language site have been blocked in China.

Other Western news organizations, including Reuters and the Wall Street Journal, have aggressively pursued corruption and other lurid allegations against deposed former Politburo member Bo Xilai, whose wife, Gu Kailai, was convicted of murdering a British businessman last year.

So far, only one reporter from a major Western media organization appears to have been expelled from China for coverage of the various scandals.

“It’s really difficult for them to target individual reporters,” said Willy Wo-Lap Lam, an analyst of China’s politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “This corruption and enrichment of families has become endemic. It’s difficult for them to issue denials. If they target individual reporters, or take legal action, this will just draw more attention.

After The New York Times article appeared, detailing the $2.7 billion amassed by Wen’s relatives, lawyers claiming to represent his family sent a statement to two Hong Kong newspapers denying there were any “hidden riches” and hinting at legal action against the newspaper. But so far, no retaliatory action has been taken.

Zhan Jiang, a media expert with the Beijing Foreign Studies University, said China’s three decades of opening up has also meant an opening to the foreign media, and authorities are gradually learning to be more cautious in their response to critical stories.

“If they expel reporters, the punishment will be too serious and it will become another piece of news,” Zhan said.

Ren Jianming, a professor at Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics who studies corrupt practices, agreed. During the 1989 Tiananmen Square prodemocracy protests, he said, the response was so harsh because the ideological foundations of the Communist regime were being challenged. Now, he said, exposes of rampant corruption are embarrassing, but not a direct threat to the government’s power.

“To not react is much wiser than to overreact,” Ren said.

Chinese authorities appear to be aiming most of their attention at local information sources, particularly weibo. Controlling weibo “is integral to the interests of the party,” Lam said. “It’s more serious than just embarrassing stories about the assets of some officials. . . . Once they have lost control of the dissemination of information, I think the party sees real trouble ahead.”

In the past two weeks, a torrent of editorials in the state-run media has called for tighter controls over the Internet, ostensibly to better protect users’ personal data and to guard against “irresponsible rumors” and online business fraud. On Friday, a standing committee of China’s legislature approved measures that would strengthen requirements for Web users to supply their real names, which many believe is a way of stifling debate online and making it easier for police to track down and arrest people who post sensitive items.

Media experts see the new measures as gradual steps to try to rein in what, for many young, urban and wired Chinese, has become a powerful new free-speech platform and a source of uncensored news and information.

Officials also appear to have upgraded the censorship apparatus collectively known as the Great Firewall of China. Those who want to gain access to blocked websites now commonly use virtual private networks, or VPNs, to bypass this barrier. But recent upgrades have targeted VPNs and made bypassing the firewall more cumbersome.