For China's Censors, Electronic Offenders Are the New Frontier

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 10, 2007

DANZHOU, China -- Li Hua was outraged. The public high school where he had been teaching civics for six years was about to be swallowed up by a fancy private institution. The merger had been ordered by local officials, Li suspected, because they had a financial stake in the big new school and wanted to see it flourish.

Following the literary traditions of this little farm town in the center of Hainan Island, just off China's southern rim, Li gave voice to his anger with a bawdy folk song in the distinctive local dialect. Among other things, it said merrily that Danzhou's leaders "sold us like pigs, sold our flesh and sold our doo-doo." One verse took things a step further: It named as main culprits the Danzhou Communist Party secretary, Zhao Zhongshe; the deputy mayor, Wang Yuehua; and the school superintendent, Li Shenghua.

Li's irreverent ditty was folk art of a kind Danzhou officials did not appreciate. On July 27, five days after the lyrics were posted on various Web sites -- including the school system's -- Li was thrown in jail. He was interrogated twice, he recalled, and forced to translate the song into Mandarin Chinese so his jailers could understand it. At noon on the seventh day, he was released, but only after writing a self-criticism about how naughty it was to compose ribald lyrics describing the actions of party officials.

"I felt the sky was broken and the earth was cracked," Li said, still appearing shaken and dejected as he described his experience six weeks later. "When I made up that folk song, I could never have imagined it would bring me such trouble."

Li, 31, a short, slight native of the nearby countryside who has big, round eyes, fell victim to the Communist Party's enduring determination to decide what Chinese people can read or hear, sing or say, write or perform. His travails were not unusual for modern China, even in a backwater town far from the center of power in Beijing. More than a quarter-century after Deng Xiaoping launched the country on a course of drastic reforms, the party at all levels has clung to rigid censorship over information and art -- including folk songs in a dialect only the locals understand.

But party censors are now turning to China's booming Internet and cellphone networks with particular vigor. Given the easy access to technologies such as text messaging, censors have found it difficult to keep a grip on information.

It hasn't been for lack of trying. The Public Security Ministry, which monitors the Internet under guidance from the Central Propaganda Department, has recruited an estimated 30,000 people to snoop on electronic communications. The ministry recently introduced two cartoon characters -- a male and female in police uniforms -- that it said would pop up on computer screens occasionally to remind people that their activity is being tracked.

Traditionally, the censors' main concern has been keeping political expression in check. That has become particularly urgent, officials say, as the country prepares for the 17th Communist Party Congress in October, during which President Hu Jintao is to solidify his leadership and move a successor into place. But because transmitting information of all kinds through the Internet and cellphone messages is relatively easy, the party's censorship bureaucrats also have been fighting new battles. As Li Hua's case showed, the enemy is not always political.

Satire Stings the Party

Fan Bin, who runs a little-known Web site in eastern China, was about 300 feet from his house in the Hangzhou suburb of Ling An in early June when he saw a police tow truck taking away a car.

Curious, Fan and his intern, Sang Yang, 26, moved closer to take a look inside. What they saw, Fan recalled, was the naked body of the local party secretary, Xu Xinxian, and the equally naked body of one of his female colleagues. The two apparently had been enjoying a tryst in the back seat, he said, and because they had left the motor running to power air conditioning, both were asphyxiated by leaking exhaust fumes.

Sang, the intern, could not resist the opportunity to poke fun at the philandering. Too inexperienced to worry about issues such as taste and official wrath, he immediately posted a satirical report on Fan's Web site.

"It was said that party secretary Xu and the lady had been discussing job issues in the car until the fuel ran out and the air conditioner was cut off. In order to cool down, the two people stripped off their clothes. They kept on talking business until they finally died," he wrote, employing an impressive imagination in describing the episode. "Local people are really lucky to have such a serious party secretary. He kept the people's business in his heart and even took care of the women's rights issue in person."

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