Towards Beijing: March 2008 update

My following article appears in the Amnesty International Australia’s Uncensor campaign about human rights in China:

Human rights activists have dubbed the Beijing Games the “Genocide Olympics” over concerns of China’s involvement in the Darfur crisis. The situation there is worsening by the day. Human Rights First claims that China is arming the conflict.

The recent resignation of filmmaker Steven Spielberg as an artistic advisor to the event only heightened fears that China’s rapid push towards economic development has come at the cost of human lives around the world. Human rights group Reporters Without Borders says that, “the influence of China in African affairs has been very toxic for democracy”.

One Chinese blogger sarcastically praised the regime for successfully shielding its citizens from the realities of his country’s foreign policy. The Communist regime is desperate to keep politics and sport diametrically opposed. Human Rights Watch has publicly stated that this is impossible.

The internet has allowed Chinese citizens the opportunity to challenge some of the strict doctrines in the daily media. China’s state-run news agency, Xinhua, was recently forced to run a rare apology after doctoring an image of Tibetan wildlife grazing near a high-speed train. Web users spotted the deception and caused a massive online campaign against the use of Photoshop. It was just one example of the relatively new Chinese public phenomenon of activism, albeit of the non-political kind.

The international community is increasingly concerned over the role of Western multinationals in China’s web filtering. The European Union is currently discussing the imposition of trade barriers for firms that conduct business in nations that restrict free speech. A number of Chinese dissidents, based in the United States, have announced they will sue Yahoo!. The men claim that the internet company removed their names from search returns without legally valid reasons and they risk arrest if they return to the homeland.

Bad publicity is clearly a worry for Yahoo! The company’s Chief Executive, Jerry Yang, has written to the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and asked the Bush administration to lobby the Chinese regime to release dissidents imprisoned after the collusion of his company. The firm spent US$1.6 million in 2007 pressuring the American government in relation to the foreign jurisdiction over US companies.

The Chinese regime fears an avalanche of negative publicity in the coming months. The recent explosion of Tibetan protests both inside Tibet and China itself – with a growing number of young Tibetans rejecting the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Way” towards China – led to a predictable Chinese media onslaught against the uprising. Numerous websites were blocked, including YouTube, and Yahoo! and Microsoft (briefly) appeared to assist the regime in searching for “suspects” in the demonstrations. The vast majority of Chinese bloggers supported the crackdown but an international poll found many global citizens were critical of Chinese policies towards Tibet.

Tightening the limits of free speech online is the officially favoured method of social control. It is bound to fail, not least because users have developed their own language to circumvent the filtering. But the regime is determined, nonetheless. Witness this recent announcement:

“News from the Ministry of Public Security is that 13 Chinese ministries have been taking a joint action since last month to regulate online order, with the emphasis being given to the cleaning out of such content as candid snapshots, nude pictures and “unhealthy” adult literature.”

“During the campaign, the Chinese ministries will focus on cracking down on four kinds of illegal behaviour, including spreading abundant erotic information to make profit by taking advantage of Internet and mobile phones; launching bawdry websites in a foreign country to spread unhealthy content to and develop members in China; organizing obscene online performances or prostitution-related activities; and committing such crimes as online fraud, theft, gambling and sale of forbidden goods.”

“In addition, the ministries will clean out vulgar content such as candid snapshots, nude and adult literature from websites and shut down blogs that help transmit erotic graphics and text. They will ask search engine service providers to take measures to block unhealthy content within the given deadlines and completely eliminate those erotic websites.”

Australia’s former Human Rights Commissioner, Dr Sev Ozdowski OAM, told a conference in Taiwan in late February that China had pledged to improve its human rights record but there was no evidence to support this idea. In fact, the opposite was occurring. He listed the various ways in which citizens were denied basic civil and political liberties – including the refusal to hold open and free elections and the lack of freedom of speech – and put forward a number of demands that Beijing could adopt. These included:

  • The cessation of hostilities against Falun Gong practitioners.
  • The withdrawal of economic and political aid to the Sudanese government.
  • The granting of amnesty to all political prisoners.
  • A moratorium on the death penalty in 2008.

Although the regime has recognised the importance of citizens engaging with officials – netizens were allowed to post questions and advice for Premier Wen Jinbao in early 2008 – these developments are minimal. The success of China’s internet repression is due to a savvy combination of societal pressure and self-censorship. Hundreds of thousands of people have already been employed to manage “security” during the Games. Curiously, the BBC English website became available in late March after years of censorship.

Rumours are currently circulating that engineers with some of China’s biggest technology companies have been tasked to unblock internet access during the August Games, allowing foreigners an unfiltered experience at some internet cafes and conference centres and through access jacks in hotels. The coming period will reveal the lengths to which the Chinese authorities will go to hide its crackdown on dissidents, journalists, human rights activists and the poor. The initial signs are not encouraging.

Antony Loewenstein is a Sydney-based journalist, blogger and author