The Great Firewall of China : A Measure of Freedom

Bloggers Who Pursue Change Confront Fear And Mistrust

Zhao Jing, Known as Anti in the blogging world.
Zhao Jing, Known as Anti in the blogging world. (By Philip P. Pan -- The Washington Post)

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By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 21, 2006

BEIJING -- When Zhao Jing moved his blog to Microsoft's popular MSN Spaces site last summer, some users worried the Chinese government would block the entire service. The censors had blacklisted the last site where the young journalist had posted his spirited political essays, and he seemed unwilling to tone down his writing at the new address.

But Zhao, better known by the pen name Anti, told fellow bloggers not to worry. If the government objected to his blog, he predicted, Microsoft would "sell me out" and delete it rather than risk being blocked from computer screens across China.

He was right. Four and a half months after he began posting essays challenging the Communist Party's taboo against discussing politics, Zhao published an item protesting the purge of a popular newspaper's top editors. Officials called Microsoft to complain, and Microsoft quickly erased his blog.

The December incident sparked outrage among bloggers around the world, and in Washington, members of Congress vowed to scrutinize how U.S. firms are helping the Chinese government censor the Internet. But the reaction inside China's growing community of Internet users was strikingly mixed.

Many rallied to support Zhao, but some objected to his "Western" views and said he deserved to be silenced. Others, especially those with a financial stake in the industry, said they worried Zhao's writing could lead officials to impose tighter controls on blogging. And a few said they were pleased that Microsoft had been forced to comply with the same censorship rules that its Chinese rivals obey.

The story of Zhao's blog -- and the ambivalence it met in cyberspace -- demonstrates that those trying to use the Internet to foster political change in China must contend not only with the censors but also with the apathy, fear and mistrust of their fellow citizens. The case also highlights the competing ethical and commercial pressures on companies seeking to profit from the Internet in China, including U.S. firms such as Microsoft, Yahoo and Google.

With as many as 16 million people in China writing blogs, the Internet has provided a platform for citizens to express their views, shattering the Communist Party's monopoly on the media. The state still controls newspaper, magazine and book publishing, but the proliferation of sites that let users publish and even broadcast audio and video online have undermined the party's ability to restrict who can address the public and attract an audience.

Many have used the Internet to produce essays, books and even underground films that question the party's authority. But surveys show most Internet users are members of the urban elite who are benefiting from China's booming economy and have avoided writing about politics.

As a result, people using the Internet to pursue change often encounter resistance, both from those hostile to their views and from others who sympathize but worry that pushing too hard could imperil the freedoms already gained on the Web.

The Internet firms empowering Chinese confront different problems. To build audiences, they often push the censors' limits by offering users an extra bit of news or freedom. But because they need government licenses, there is also an incentive for them to curry favor with the censors. In addition, U.S. firms such as Microsoft must face critics who say they have a duty to do more than their Chinese rivals to promote freedom.

After Zhao's blog was deleted, he posted a message online cursing Microsoft and the young Chinese programmers who are helping the Communist Party censor the Internet. But a few weeks later, he moderated his criticism of Microsoft, still expressing anger but also noting that MSN Spaces remains China's most lightly censored blog site.

"In this political system, everyone has to compromise," Zhao said. "It's not black and white. Many of the people who delete my essays are also my friends."


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