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China: End Censorship of Internet

China: End Censorship of Internet

New Regulations a Major Step Backward

The Chinese government should repeal laws and regulations aimed at complete government control of the Internet, Human Rights Watch said today. Leaders of democracies must press President Hu Jintao at every meeting to adhere to international standards on freedom of expression and to tear down its Internet “firewall.”

China’s latest clampdown came on September 25, when the Ministry of Information Industry and the State Council, China’s cabinet, introduced “Rules on the Administration of Internet News Information Services to ensure that news reports are “serving socialism,” “upholding the interests of the state,” and “correctly guiding public opinion.” As Xinhua, China’s official news agency, stated, only “healthy and civilized news and information that is beneficial to the improvement of the quality of the nation, beneficial to economic development and conducive to social progress” will be allowed.

Official Chinese sources explain away the new regulations by invoking “national security,” the “public interest,” “state secrets,” and “social order,” ever-shifting terms left purposefully undefined in the interests of putting an end to words or activities that might challenge one-Party control.

“China’s leaders claim to be modernizers and that they are leading the country towards greater freedom and democracy,” said Brad Adams, Asia Director of Human Rights Watch. “Yet they still remain afraid of their own citizens and the healthy diversity of news and views which defines a modern society.”

The new regulations, an update of those in effect since 2000, hit at both websites and e-mail. They aim to prevent distribution of any uncensored version of a news event or commentary. Restrictions include all news related to “politics, economics, military affairs, foreign affairs, and social and public affairs, as well as…fast-breaking social events,” such as a coal mine disaster, an official demotion, a strike, or an organized protest against environmental degradation.

To comply, Internet portals must take their news and commentary directly from official news sources. As for e-mail, no private group or individual, even those using “Short Message Service” (SMS) to contact cell phone users, may distribute news or news analysis to a list without registering as a “news organization,” a move that ensures that only groups that parrot the government’s version of events will have e-mail distribution privileges.

Human Rights Watch said that by decreeing that Internet news shall not include content “inciting illegal assemblies, associations, marches, demonstrations and gatherings that disturb social order” or furthering “activities in the name of an illegal civil organization,” China’s leaders seek to prevent the strengthening of civil society mechanisms. They fear the Internet’s use as an organizing tool for unsanctioned causes or protests.

“The new regulations make the government and the Chinese Communist Party the only arbiter of what is ‘healthy and civilized,’” said Adams. “The Chinese authorities apparently think that keeping more than 100 million Internet users in the dark is better than allowing the peaceful exchange of opinions or expressions of grievances. This is Big Brother at its worst, and out of step with the direction of the rest of the world in the 21st century.”

Human Rights Watch said that reports “jeopardizing the integrity of the nation’s unity,” promoting superstitious beliefs, questioning religious policy, or spreading rumors continue to be banned as they were under the earlier regulations.

More than 60 Chinese are serving time in prison for the peaceful expression of their views over the Internet. Zheng Yichun, a freelance writer and poet, was sentenced on September 22, three days before the new regulations were issued, to serve seven years for essays on the Internet advocating political reform; on July 28, a Bengbu (Anhui province) court sentenced Zhang Lin to a five-year term for posting Internet articles and essays that were “contrary to the bases of the constitution” and “endangered national security”; and, on April 27, in a case in which Yahoo! provided his name to the authorities, Shi Tao received a ten-year term for sending information through a Yahoo! email account about a Communist Party decision to a New York-based website. Mr. Shi’s appeal was denied on June 2.

Human Rights Watch condemned the trend of major American-based companies assisting the Chinese government in its efforts to censor free expression on the Internet.

Google has agreed to exclude from a list of links publications that the Chinese government finds objectionable. Microsoft has capitulated to China by sending an error message to Internet users in China who use Microsoft’s search engine to search for the Chinese words for democracy, freedom, human rights, or demonstration, among others. Those who attempt to search for these words receive an error message announcing “this item contains forbidden speech.” And Yahoo! recently provided information to Chinese authorities that led to the ten-year sentence of Shi Tao. Yahoo! later released a statement saying that it had to “ensure that its local country sites…operate within the laws, regulations and customs of the country in which they are based,” without referring to any ethical principles that would also guide its corporate policies.

“There have been great claims by Internet companies and enthusiasts that the Internet would be an unstoppable tool for free expression and the spread of democracy,” said Adams. “But when companies like Yahoo!, Microsoft and Google decide to put profits from their Chinese operations over the free exchange of information, they are helping to kill that dream.”

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