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New Freedom, and Peril, in Online Criticism of China

Duke University freshman Wang Qingyuan and her family became targets after a Tibetan independence rally.
Duke University freshman Wang Qingyuan and her family became targets after a Tibetan independence rally. (By Zachary Tracer -- Duke Chronicle)
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By Ariana Eunjung Cha and Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 17, 2008

HAIKOU, China -- Wang Qianyuan did not realize she would cause such a frenzy last week when she ran into a group of American students, Tibetan flags tied over their shoulders, getting ready for a vigil at Duke University to support human rights.

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She used blue body paint to write "Save Tibet" slogans on the bare back of one of the organizers but did not join their demonstration.

Wang, a Chinese national, knew she was treading on sensitive territory. "But human rights are above everything," she said later in a telephone interview. Even national pride.

Before long, a video of the 20-year-old freshman, seen standing between pro-Tibet activists and Chinese counterprotesters, was posted on the Internet. Within hours, an angry mob gathered online, calling her a "traitor" who should be punished.

Someone posted personal information about Wang on the Internet, including her national identification card number, as well as her parents' address and phone number in China. "Makes us lose so much face. Shoot her where she stands," one anonymous user wrote in a comment posted above Wang's portrait from Qingdao No. 2 Middle School.

In the wake of the violence that has rocked Tibet and the protests over the Olympic torch relay, online bulletin boards in China have erupted with virulent comments rooted in nationalist sentiments. On some sites, emotional Chinese have exchanged personal information about critics and hunted them down. Such situations have become so common that some users refer to the sites as "human flesh search engines."

The verbal onslaughts have been made possible in part by the Chinese government, which has allowed online discussion to progress more freely recently than in the past. With the Olympics nearing, China has gradually allowed some sites that had been left on-again, off-again for years -- BBC, CNN, YouTube and others -- to remain accessible for several weeks now.

Even Wikipedia, blocked for years because of its controversial entries about human rights in China, is accessible and contains a lengthy entry on the "2008 Tibetan unrest." It notes that "Tibetans attacked non-Tibetan ethnic groups" but also contains information that "the violence was fueled by rumors of killings, beatings and detention of monks by security forces in Lhasa."

The number of Internet users in China hit 228.5 million in March -- for the first time surpassing the number of users in the United States, 217.1 million, according to the Beijing-based research firm BDA China.

Almost as soon as the news about the Tibet violence broke in mid-March, the Chinese government's initial response was to do what it had always done in times of crisis: It imposed a news blackout. Foreign news Web sites deemed controversial were blocked and faxes were sent to administrators of online discussion sites requesting that certain postings be deleted.

Then, just as quickly as online news and discussion about Tibet disappeared, it reappeared -- overwhelmingly in support of the Chinese government.

The situation in Tibet and the controversy over the Olympic torch relay is now the most popular discussion topic on Tianya, one of the largest online discussion sites in China, even though the site used to follow a very clear rule: No politics.


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