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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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"Chinese Internet users very much like to express their opinions, and the environment on the Internet as compared to traditional media is more open to allowing them to do so," said Xing Ming, 39, chief executive of Tianya, which was founded in 1999 in Haikou, a city on an island in southern China.

Xiao Zengjian, founder and editor of another discussion site, KDNet, said that the new openness has done wonders to help China's image domestically. "Our Internet users do not just believe what Xinhua News says," he said, referring to the state-run news service. "They will verify it. The Chinese media wants to cover things up for the sake of China but it backfires. It's better to tell the truth and let people discuss it."

On Tianya, with 20 million registered users one of the largest online discussion sites in China, the conversation about the Olympics is emotional.

"China is in danger," wrote one user. "We should stick together. Even if there is something wrong with the action of the government, we should pull together. Resistance to foreign invasion necessitates internal pacification."

Internet users hailed Jin Jing, the athlete who carried the Olympic torch while in her wheelchair only to be confronted by protesters in Paris; reports say she protected the torch "at the cost of her life." (She was not injured.) Others referred to "stupid Westerners" and compared the Dalai Lama to Hitler.

Postings criticizing the Chinese government or supporting Tibetan independence are rare but prominent -- mostly because they are immediately followed by a storm of angry responses, including ones that call for the "immediate execution" of the authors.

In some cases, the online anger has had real-world consequences.

An Internet mob went after Lobsang Gendun, an ethnic Tibetan who lives in Salt Lake City, after anonymous online posters wrongly identified him as one of Jin's attackers. They posted a Google map of his neighborhood, a photo of his house, and his home phone number, employer and e-mail address. He's gotten thousands of angry e-mails, many he cannot read because his computer does not recognize Chinese characters, and unless he disconnects his phone, it rings through the night. On Tuesday, his boss persuaded him to take his family and move into a hotel until things calm down.

"It's scary," Gendun said in a phone interview. "I replied to some e-mails trying to tell them I'm not the person they saw on the news."

The comments about Wang are mostly unprintable -- they are sexually explicit and violent -- but she is most offended by how online users have targeted her family.

"It's really shocking," Wang said from her dorm room as she looked at an image posted online of her parents' front door in Qingdao, a city on China's east coast. An overturned bucket of excrement is lying in front. "They are directly, physically attacking my parents."

Wang and her mother communicate only though e-mail these days, sending short messages once in the morning and once at night that they are safe. Wang has not telephoned because she fears possible government eavesdropping that could cause more problems for her parents.

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