Correction to This Article
This article said that many foreign Web sites, including the BBC's, are blocked. The BBC site is not currently blocked in China but has been on previous occasions.

China's 'netizens' holding officials accountable

Sun Zhongjie, 19, chopped off his own finger as a protest against police entrapment, which cost him his job and forced him to pay a large fine.
Sun Zhongjie, 19, chopped off his own finger as a protest against police entrapment, which cost him his job and forced him to pay a large fine. ((Shanghai) Southern Metropolitan Weekly)
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By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 9, 2009

A severed finger sparked an online uproar that went viral. And very quickly, rattled authorities here took note.

The story of Sun Zhongjie, a 19-year-old driver who chopped off his finger to decry police entrapment, shows how the Internet has become an effective tool of public protest in this tightly controlled country.

Almost every form of open dissent is outlawed in China, but mass protests organized online are increasingly putting pressure on police, judges and other officials -- and getting results.

Last June in Hubei province, an online campaign by netizens, as they are popularly called here, helped free a 22-year-old waitress arrested for killing a local official in what appeared to be a clear case of self-defense. In Nanjing, a top official was expelled from the Communist Party and jailed after angry netizens posted photos online of him smoking expensive cigarettes, sporting a pricey watch and driving a Cadillac.

Across the country, online petition drives and surveys have prompted police to reopen closed cases, authorities to cancel unpopular development projects and the party's national leadership to fire corrupt local officials.

In the view of academic experts, lawyers, bloggers and others here, the Internet is introducing a new measure of public accountability and civic action into China's closed and opaque political system.

"This is the era of disguised accountability," said Hu Xingdou, a sociology professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology. "That means holding government officials accountable by relying on the Internet rather than on traditional means like elections and the checks by the Congress."

For the moment, the central government in Beijing appears to be allowing Internet protests to continue, and in some instances even encouraging them -- as long as the campaigns are confined to local issues and target local officials. It appears to be a way for the central government to keep track of what is happening in the provinces while demonstrating that it is responsive to citizens' concerns.

"Now senior officials go to the Internet to find out what crimes are being committed by local officials," said Mo Shaoping, a prominent Beijing lawyer who specializes in human rights and press freedom. "In some cases, the government wants to know the public mood, or they want to punish some local official who isn't following policies."

"This Internet power has a huge influence on the government," Mo said. "But it's hard to tell if they are worried."

Plenty of control

The Internet is still subject to tight government control in China. Many foreign Web sites are blocked, including human rights sites, news sites such as BBC, and popular U.S.-based social networking sites. YouTube is also blocked.

Instead, China has its own cloned local versions of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube that are more easily monitored and subject to government restrictions.

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