China cracks down on the sex bloggers

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The Independent Online

With about 100 million users, China has the second-largest internet population in the world after the US, and it's growing by millions each month. To monitor what these increasingly curious "netizens" are reading about, the authorities have intensified their internet surveillance by recruiting "web watchdogs" to anonymously police thousands of cyber-cafes and public message forums. And all Chinese websites, bloggers and bulletin-board operators must register with the government - or be fined and shut down.

Furong Jiejie - the name literally means "hibiscus older sister" - seems likely to face that fate. "We have been keeping an eye on sister Furong," said Liu Qiang, an official with the Ministry Of Culture, which is responsible for overseeing the internet. "But there aren't any explicit regulations to control such a phenomenon." The latest in a series of online celebrities, known in China as BB, or bulletin-board, stars, to have emerged in the past couple of years, 28-year-old Furong is an unlikely candidate to run into trouble with the authorities.

Prone to posing in provocative photos - tame by Western standards - Furong has an obvious hunger for fame. She hardly seems a threat to society.

Nevertheless, the publicity department of the central committee of the Communist Party has told BlogChina, the largest provider of blog-hosting services, to relocate content relating to Furong, whose real name is Shi Heng-xia, to less prominent parts of their website.

That's what happened to Mu Zi-mei, a 27-year-old magazine journalist, in late 2003, after she became equally famous by publishing an explicit online diary detailing her busy sex life.

The government's heavy-handed approach is an indication of its ambivalent attitude towards the internet. "The government sees the internet as vital for China's technological progress but, at the same time, they want to stop people from accessing content they see as unhealthy," says Chen Changfeng, deputy dean of Beijing University's School of Journalism and Communications. That includes political dissent and pornography.

Most print and TV media in China are local rather than national, making the internet an even more powerful tool. "The internet is omnipotent now. If something happens in Guangzhou, then people in Beijing will hear about it quickly ... People can check the news and immediately respond to it by posting their opinion," notes Ms Chen. "What the internet in China does is help to form public opinion very quickly."

The anti-Japan protests in March and April began on-line, with millions venting their anger in open forums over a history textbook that downplayed Japanese army atrocities during the Second World War. Only later did the traditional media pick up on the story. It's been the same with Furong Jiejie, whose photo adorned the front pages of many papers last week. Now, though, it seems that her 15 minutes of fame are up.