Chinese Evade Censors To Discuss Police Assault

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By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 17, 2005

HONG KONG, Dec. 16 -- At first glance, it looked like a spirited online discussion about an essay written nearly 80 years ago by modern China's greatest author. But then again, the exchange on a popular Chinese bulletin board site seemed a bit emotional, given the subject.

"In Memory of Ms. Liu Hezhen," which Lu Xun wrote in 1926 after warlord forces opened fire on protesters in Beijing and killed one of his students, is a classic of Chinese literature. But why did thousands of people read or post notes in an online forum devoted to the essay last week?

A close look suggests an answer that China's governing Communist Party might find disturbing: They were using Lu's essay about the 1926 massacre as a pretext to discuss a more current and politically sensitive event -- the Dec. 6 police shooting of rural protesters in the southern town of Dongzhou in Guangdong province.

In the 10 days since the shooting, which witnesses said resulted in the deaths of as many as 20 farmers protesting land seizures, the Chinese government has tried to maintain a blackout on the news, barring almost all newspapers and broadcasters from reporting it and ordering major Internet sites to censor any mention of it. Most Chinese still know nothing of the incident.

But it is also clear that many Chinese have already learned about the violence and are finding ways to spread and discuss the news on the Internet, circumventing state controls with e-mail and instant messaging, blogs and bulletin board forums.

The government maintains enough control over the flow of information to prevent an event like the Dongzhou shooting from causing a major public backlash or triggering more demonstrations. But the Internet appears to be weakening a key pillar of the party's rule -- its ability to control news and public opinion.

"I learned about it on the 7th," one bulletin board user wrote Monday of the Dongzhou shooting. "Some day, I believe, this incident will be exposed and condemned. Let us pay tribute to the villagers . . . and silently mourn the dead."

At Kdnet, a large bulletin board site based in Hainan province, users flooded forums with more than 30,000 messages of protest and sorrow in the days after the shooting. The site deleted almost all of the messages Sunday night, but a top editor felt compelled to post a note pleading for forgiveness.

"Please understand, what other Web sites cannot do, Kdnet also cannot do," he wrote to the site's users, promising to convey their anger over the shooting to "the authorities in charge."

The party relies on private Internet firms to monitor and censor their own sites, and can shut down those that don't. But officials at these companies often look the other way or drag their feet when they think they can get away with it, because they know customers are drawn to Web sites with less censorship.

Even after the purge of messages on Kdnet, people continued expressing their views on the site by disguising their comments. More than 140 notes and poems were posted in one forum on Lu Xun's essay, for example, almost all of them without any explicit reference to the shooting in Dongzhou, a coastal town about 125 miles northeast of Hong Kong.

"I heard about it a few days ago, but I wasn't surprised. I think it's because I'm already numb," wrote one Internet user. "But now that so many other Internet friends know about it, I am able to feel grief and indignation together with everyone."


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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