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Beijing’s crusade against the moral corruption of the web

Text by Sébastien LE BELZIC , Henri MORTON , , correspondents in China

Latest update : 2009-01-07

Chinese authorities have launched a nationwide campaign against major websites "to clean up a vulgar current on the Internet". But many see it as yet another censoring attempt by the Communist party to stifle criticism.

'Page cannot be found', 'connection has timed out'… Messages seen more frequently over the last few days, as the Chinese government blocks many new Internet sites on the mainland. The blocked sites are part of a new campaign by Beijing to “clean up” the Internet and protect Chinese citizens from morally corrupting websites.

Despite these official reasons for the crackdown, many see it as yet another attempt by the Communist party to stifle criticism, with posts on forums like Sina or Sohu expressing what many are feeling: “This is just a way to prevent us from expressing ourselves”, ”one should not confuse morality with censorship.”

The government has said that it is strengthening its control of the Internet, with websites allowing content on Taiwanese and Tibetan politics as well as pornography, being targeted in the new crackdown. Google and Baidu, the country’s two most popular search engines, are among 19 websites explicitly named by the government for failing to heed requests to get rid of unsuitable material.

So why has Beijing taken this firmer stance?

Many see it as an early precaution in a year that could cause major headaches for the Communist party. Despite 2009 being the 60th anniversary of the formation of the People’s Republic of China, this year will also see the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the 30th anniversary of the birth of the country’s pro-democracy movement and the 50th anniversary of the uprisings in Tibet that left as many as 87,000 dead and caused the Dalai Lama to flee to India. In other words, plenty of opportunity for people to express discontent with the government on top of growing criticism of Beijing, as the financial crisis continues to hit the country hard.

Internet forums are one of the rare places in China that allow the population freedom of expression, and with 250 million users, they can also be an influential tool in forming public opinion.

Despite the partial loosening of controls during the Olympics, the authorities are now back on the case. A spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs reiterated last month the government had “the right to block sites contravening China’s rights.” These 'sites' usually referring to pro-Taiwanese and Tibetan voices, as well as those attacking the Communist Party, and it appears they will no longer be allowed to use the Internet as a forum. Try to load non-officially sanctioned web pages on “Tibet” or the “Dalai Lama” and you will almost always get an error message saying the page cannot be opened.

Tthough the Internet is a thorn in the side of the Communist Party at times, the authorities are also acutely aware of its potency in spreading party propaganda. On January 23, 2007, President Hu Jintao called on those in charge of the Chinese Communist Party to “create and manage Internet culture with the innovation needed to meet people’s growing spiritual and cultural needs… This can help to improve the whole nation’s ideology and social ethical quality, can help to expand propaganda and ideological work, help to improve the charm and influence of the socialist construction of the ideological infrastructure, and help to enhance China’s soft power.” The Chinese leader telling his cohorts to make thorough use of the Internet to get the party’s message heard has certainly been heeded by the faithful – just look at how the web was used last year to rally support for the government over political tension between France and China.

The Chinese government is turning the Internet into an extremely powerful weapon that enables politicans to simultaneously hush up public criticism and get their own message out to millions of people, particularly the country’s youth, at the touch of a button.

China’s propaganda machine has truly entered the Cybercafe age!

Date created : 2009-01-07