Wary of Egypt Unrest, China Censors Web
The New York Times
Published: January 31, 2011
BEIJING — In another era, China’s leaders might have been content to let discussion of the protests in Egypt float around among private citizens, then fizzle out. But challenges in recent years to authoritarian governments around the globe and violent uprisings in parts of China itself have made Chinese officials increasingly wary of leaving such talk unchecked, especially on the Internet, the medium some officials see as central to fanning the flames of unrest.
So the arbiters of speech sprang into action over the weekend. Sina.com and Netease.com — two of the nation’s biggest online portals — blocked keyword searches of the word “Egypt,” though the mass protests were being discussed on some Internet chat rooms on Monday. Searching for “Egypt” has also been blocked on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent ofTwitter.
Censoring the Internet is not the only approach. The Chinese government has also tried to get out ahead of the discussion, framing the Egyptian protests in a few editorials and articles in state-controlled news publications as a chaotic affair that embodies the pitfalls of trying to plant democracy in countries that are not quite ready for it — a line China’s leaders have long held.
The English-language edition of Global Times, a populist newspaper, ran an editorial on Sunday about the Tunisian and Egyptian protests with the headline “Color revolutions will not bring about real democracy.” Though Global Times is not the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party, the message of the editorial was consistent with official thinking, saying bluntly that whether democracy “is applicable in other countries is in question, as more and more unsuccessful examples arise.”
“The official Chinese media is reporting the Egypt events — it’s no longer possible for Xinhua and other official media to remain credible if they hide international news that people can learn from the Internet,” said Susan L. Shirk, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, who served as assistant deputy secretary of state during the Clinton administration. “But they reduce the risk that some Chinese might want to emulate them by describing them as ‘anti-government riots.'”
Some Chinese news organizations have also seized on the ambivalent American reaction to the Egyptian unrest to underscore the hypocrisy of the United States in sometimes backing dictators over democracy. They argued that those who appear to be the greatest advocates of democracy sometimes have conflicted feelings about its spread, especially in the Middle East, where the United States fears the proliferation of populist radical Islam. China Youth Daily noted in an editorial on Sunday that “the increasing turmoil in Egypt is causing a ‘headache’ for the decision makers in Washington.”
Some of the news coverage of Egypt that has appeared in People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s main newspaper, and Xinhua, the official news agency, has focused on attempts by China to evacuate its citizens, simply leaving out the political discontent at the root of the unrest. Xiao Qiang, an adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and an expert on Internet censorship in China, said propaganda officials had recently ordered Chinese news organizations and Web sites to strictly follow Xinhua reports on Egypt.
But Mr. Xiao said some Internet forums were closely tracking the events in Egypt. “I can see the Egypt story being followed and discussed by active netizens everywhere — blogs, forums, social networking services like Kaixin and Renren,” he said. “It’s just not on the front page of major Web sites.”
The Chinese authorities’ efforts to censor and shape news on the Internet have evolved over the past few years, as they grappled with unrest during the Tibet riots in 2008 and protests against the Olympic torch relay. The authorities initiated a crackdown on pornography and other “harmful information,” including shuttering a popular liberal forum, soon after the release of Charter 08, an online manifesto calling for gradual democratic reforms that gathered thousands of signatures through e-mail.
Internet controls ramped up in late 2009, when officials observed how social networking sites and other forums helped inflame unrelated outbursts of protests and rioting in Iran and Xinjiang, the restive region in China’s west.
In an August 2009 article on the Iran protests, a monthly journal published by the central propaganda department warned of the challenge posed by sites like Twitter and Facebook, which the authorities had blocked days after riots in Xinjiang. In January 2010, after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced a new United States policy to counter online censorship abroad, an editorial published by People’s Daily charged that the United States had used the Internet — YouTube and Twitter in particular — to stir up “online warfare” against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president.
The Internet’s influence on the volatile events in Iran and Xinjiang “impacted the leadership like an earthquake,” said one media investor with high-level ties to China’s regulators who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of damaging that relationship.
The fact that social networking sites have fueled the protests in Egypt will no doubt spur Chinese officials to further scrutinize such sites. And they may be right to pay attention: Zhao Jing, a liberal Chinese blogger who goes by the name of Michael Anti, said that “it was amazing netizens on Twitter cared about Egypt so much” that they had begun drawing parallels between China and Egypt. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was being called Mu Xiaoping, a reference to Deng Xiaoping, who quashed the 1989 popular protests in Beijing, while Tahrir Square in Cairo was being compared to Tiananmen Square.
Yet, there are intellectuals in Beijing skeptical of any similar protests arising in China, mainly because this nation’s dynamic economy has given many Chinese hope for a better life.
“I don’t think dissemination of such news would cause unrest in China,” said Jia Qingguo, associate dean of international relations at Peking University. “Egypt is a different type of political regime from China. They are also not a socialist country. They have their own particular problems.”
Edward Wong reported from Beijing, and David Barboza from Shanghai. Jonathan Ansfield contributed reporting from Beijing. Chen Xiaoduan contributed research in Shanghai.