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News blackout on Wukan revolt, grip tightens on micro-blogs

News blackout on Wukan revolt, grip tightens on micro-blogs

Published on Friday 16 December 2011.
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China’s censorship apparatus has been set in motion in order to suppress reports about an uprising that began several days ago in Wukan, a large village in the southern province of Guangdong, where residents have for months been protesting about seizures of farmland and deals between local officials and developers.

The protests escalated into open revolt after Xue Jinbo, one of the spokesmen for the villagers, died in police custody on 11 December. Wukan’s residents, who dispute the claim that he died from a heart attack, took to the streets in their thousands to demand an investigation by the government in Beijing.

Ignoring the demand, the authorities reacted by sealing off the village and trying to prevent the unrest from being covered by the media or from getting a lot of attention from online social networks, where residents managed to report that police had surrounded the village.

Wukan is now blocked on search engines and “hot tweets” are being closely monitored. Censors on the Sina and Tencent Weibo micro-blogging sites, which are very popular in China, quickly removed a video showing a demonstration by thousands of villagers in protest against the arrest of their leaders. They could be seen chanting slogans such as “Down with corrupt officials” and “Compensation for spilt blood.”

“The Chinese authorities are yet again trying to hush up a local corruption case although it has led to a man’s death and has highlighted a major problem – arbitrary land seizures,” Reporters Without Borders said. “This criminal censorship is indicative of the nervousness that the authorities feel about any repercussions of the Arab Spring and the role played by the Internet and social networks as a sounding board. They are trying to intimidate netizens and get them to censor themselves.”

The methods being used in Wukan are now commonplace in China. In October, reports of rioting in the east of the country were filtered and searches for Zhili, the name of the city that was the centre of the unrest, were blocked.

The same thing happened in Inner Mongolia following protests about the death of a herdsman while trying to protect grazing lands on 20 October. Many Mongolian websites called for demonstrations against the government’s attempts to impose a news blackout on the affair, and access to several sites such as Boljoo, Mongolian BBS and Medege were blocked from 27 October onwards.

“The censors are trying increasingly to prevent the dissemination of unwanted information beforehand,” Reporters Without Borders said. “This has been seen in their recent efforts to step up their control by relying on the leaders of Chinese Internet companies, who have promised to combat online pornography and fraud, and the dissemination of rumours and false reports. The government is using the fight against ‘rumours’ to silence dissident and justify arbitrary arrests.”

As well as trying to control online information and suppress “false information” on Weibo, QQ and online forums, which according to the authorities are having had a “bad influence on society,” the government is also cracking on journalists, especially investigative reporters.

Wang Xiangqian, a reporter for Commerce Daily (商日报) in the northern province of Henan, was assaulted by a representative of the State Bureau for Letters and Visits in the city of Nanyang on 24 November, when he requested information about the bureau’s expenditure, something that officials should provide when requested.

Li Xiang, a journalist with Luoyang Television (洛阳电视台)in Luoyang (in Henan province), was stabbed to death on 19 September after following an illegal cooking oil scandal and writing about it in his blog,

Two young netizens were arrested last weekend in Changsha (in Hunan province) and were sentenced to five days of administrative detention on a charge of “using the Internet to spread rumours and disrupt public order” because they posted a video showing thousands of white-gloved policemen apparently escorting a local wedding procession. Entitled “Changsha’s smartest wedding, thanks to 5,000 policemen,” it was widely circulated online and received a lot of comment from people who assumed the bridegroom was a senior official. The authorities issued a denial, insisting that the presence of the police was just a coincidence.

The Beijing City Hall’s official website meanwhile announced today that anyone wanting to start a micro-blog on a website registered in the capital would have to give their real name. The micro-blogging websites concerned include Sina.com, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, which has 250 million accounts.

Finally, Reporters Without Borders roundly condemns China’s decision to return the well-known human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng to prison “for three years” for allegedly violating his parole. Agence France-Presse today quoted the New China news agency as reporting that Gao had been sent back to prison for “contravening the rules of his conditional release.”

Arrested in 2006, Gao was sentenced to three years in prison and five years on probation on a charge of “inciting subversion of state authority” for posting nine articles critical of the government on opposition websites based abroad. After his release, he was the target of a series of abductions and disappearances orchestrated by the authorities. Until today, there had been no news of him since April 2010. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008.

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