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Little red blogs
On the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown, blogs are booming in China. But are they making any difference?

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By Mat Honan


June 4, 2004  |  Fifteen years ago today, a solitary protestor stood in front of a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square, and faced them down. In doing so, "The Unknown Rebel" became a worldwide symbol of the power of the individual. Over the last decade and a half, as we in the West have watched that video clip again and again, it's easy to forget what the real outcome of the showdown on Tiananmen Square was: hundreds of protesters were killed in the streets, while thousands more were wounded.

Today, the People's Republic of China often appears to be a kinder and gentler nation. Nowhere is this seemingly more evident than on the Internet. When China opened to the door to the Internet a decade ago, the move was widely seen as a huge step towards promoting free speech within the People's Republic. Despite near-constant government monitoring and filtering, China exhibited profoundly more openness than other totalitarian regimes, such as in neighboring Burma where Internet access is still off-limits to the common people, and military intelligence reads each and every e-mail message that crosses the border.

Internet usage, meanwhile, continues to surge in China. Government statistics cite 80 million regular Internet users as of December 2003, up 20 million from the year before. Most of these people go online at Internet cafes; there are some 110,000 of them in the PRC. This explains how China can have 80 million users, with only 40 million computers. Yet old habits die hard.

Last fall, the government announced that it was implementing an "Internet cafe technology management system" to cover the entire nation by 2005. It's already up and running in a few provinces. Amnesty International reports that 2003 saw a 60 percent increase in the number of people detained or sentenced for Internet-related offences. So far, 2004 has been a busy year as well.

On March 19, Chinese dissident Ma Yalian was sentenced to 18 months in a "Re-education Through Labor" camp for posting an article to two Chinese web sites reporting police harassment and abuse of several Chinese petitioners. Over March and April, Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, reported that the government shut down 8,600 "illegal" Internet cafes. In late May, the government announced that it would begin screening all online and mobile phone games in order to protect the morality of the country's youth. Reporters Without Borders described the May trial of Chinese dissident Du Daobin, who was arrested for posting pro-democracy articles to the Internet, as "shocking," noting that he was denied access to his attorney and forced to plead guilty.

Blogs weren't immune from the censor's stamp. On March 11, the government shut down for allowing politically sensitive content to be posted. Three days later, China's other two leading blogging sites, and were also temporarily shut down. As the month went on, the "Celestial Nanny" would also block access to blogs hosted on Typepad.

What kind of effect did this have on Chinese bloggers? As Wang Jianshao, a Chinese blogger who works for Microsoft in Shanghai, put it at the time, "To be safe, I don't want to make any comment on this. It is the hard time for everyone involved in the China blogging world."

But just what is the China blogging world? And where did it come from?

. Next page | Internet users are not a force for revolution; they are the government's power base
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