Dog Owner Takes On China's Web Censors
Wednesday, December 26, 2007
BEIJING, Dec. 25 -- Outraged that his Internet posting about dogs had been banned, Chen Yuhua wrote to the mayor of Beijing. No answer. He wrote to the city council. Still no answer. When all else failed, he consulted a lawyer, studied China's civil code and marched into court with a lawsuit.
"I was very careful to follow the correct procedure," Chen said, pointing at the official legal manual on his dining room table.
Chen's suit, filed Nov. 26, was a bold challenge to the legal authority of the Communist Party to decide what China's 1.3 billion people can say and read on their computers. It was a rare -- perhaps quixotic -- gesture in a country where the power of the Public Security Bureau and Propaganda Department to regulate speech is usually considered absolute, enforced with the threat of jail time.
But it was also a sign that, beneath the ever more prosperous surface, some of China's educated elite may be growing impatient with a one-party authoritarian system in which anonymous bureaucrats decide what movies, plays, novels or social commentaries are safe enough for public consumption.
Chen's posting was an attack on the Beijing municipal government's regulations barring any dog over 14 inches high and restricting each family to only one dog. These rules are unreasonable and are enforced arbitrarily, he contended in his essay.
"It is so funny that people may have a 35-centimeter-high dog but may not have a 36-centimeter-high dog," he said.
Criticism of government policies and nonconformist political views, however, are not taken lightly in China.
More than 30,000 censors are employed to monitor the Internet alone, specialists estimate. They are equipped with advanced technology to block sensitive sites and sound the alarm when words deemed off-color or politically incorrect show up on the screen. The system, part of a vast apparatus extending to newspapers, theaters and art galleries, remains part of life for most people in a China otherwise modernizing at breakneck speed.
As far as is known, Chen's filing, at the Xicheng District Court in central Beijing, marked only the second time that a Chinese citizen has gone to court over party censorship. The first was a suit filed in Beijing last August by a lawyer, Liu Xiaoyuan, who was upset that his blog denouncing corruption was taken down on orders from the censor.
"I never violated the law," said Liu, whose case is on appeal. "All the cases I talked about had already been reported. I just wanted to express my opinion on them. A blog should be a platform for people to express their ideas. It is not right to make a judgment on someone's blog if it does not violate the law."
Chen, 65, a retired Commerce Ministry official and U.N. Development Program accountant, said he sued because he believes that, under China's law and the Communist Party's declared policies, the censors had no right to scratch his musings off the Internet. To back up his contention, he cited President Hu Jintao demanding at the party's 17th National Congress in October that China follow the path of "scientific development" and make government more transparent.
"What they do is not scientific," Chen said, denouncing Beijing's rules restricting dog ownership.
Chen has been fighting for the right to own the dog of his choice since 2003, when two policemen came to his door and said he had no right to keep his two-foot-high hound with floppy ears and an urge to run. Since then, the dog, a male, has mated with a neighbor's dog and produced a second big hound, which also has become part of Chen's apartment in the distant suburbs of northern Beijing. Officially, both dogs are illegal, he said, but he keeps a low profile and local police are less than zealous in enforcing the rules.
The posting, before it was deleted, had been put up on Chinapet.com, a site set up by Chen and other dog owners struggling to loosen official restrictions on their pets. When it was taken down, Chen in effect sued his own Web site. Although Chen knew the Internet host was acting on orders from a "black hand," or censor, legally his target had to be the host organization that physically knocked him off, he said.
"They explained. It's not their fault, and I understand that," he said.
After Chen filed his suit, the court had seven days to respond according to Chinese legal procedure. But seven days later, it replied it would need more time. On Dec. 14, Chen recalled, he was told by clerks that the district court, after referring to higher-level judges for advice, had decided to reject the case.
"They said, 'You know what things are like in China,' " Chen recalled in an interview. "They said I should understand, since I was a former government official. They said this is a sensitive matter. But for me, that is not sufficient."
The next step, Chen said, is an appeal to the Supreme Court.