China moves cautiously on foreign media but signals tighter web control

 

Beijing

Chinese citizens were treated this year to an unaccustomed number of hard-hitting exposés and investigations detailing the private lives and corrupt financial dealings of the most senior Communist Party officials and their family members.

Most of the reports have come from what one media expert here called "the two W's," meaning Western media and weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

So far, the Chinese government's response to this growing onslaught of negative publicity has been scattered and sometimes surprisingly restrained. The reaction reflects what many analysts called Chinese authorities' more sophisticated strategy for handling adverse publicity, and a recognition that any overreaction might simply draw new and unwanted attention.

Bloomberg News found its website blocked in China after a June story detailing the multimillion-dollar financial holdings by family members of Xi Jinping, who became Communist Party general secretary in November and will take over as president next year. Likewise, after The New York Times reported in October on the $2.7 billion fortune amassed by close relatives of outgoing prime minister Wen Jiabao, its website and its new Chinese-language site have been blocked here.

Other Western news organizations, such as Reuters and the Wall Street Journal, have aggressively pursued corruption and other lurid allegations against deposed former Politburo member Bo Xilai, whose wife, Gu Kailai, was convicted of murdering a British businessman.

So far, no reporter for a major Western media organization has been expelled from China for coverage of the various scandals. Melissa Chan, an American correspondent for Al Jazeera English, was expelled in May, but the Chinese government gave no reason, and hers was China's first expulsion of a foreign journalist in 14 years.

"It's really difficult for them to target individual reporters," said Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a longtime analyst of Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "This corruption and enrichment of families has become endemic. It's difficult for them to issue denials. If they target individual reporters, or take legal action, this will just draw more attention.

After The New York Times story appeared detailing the $2.7 billion amassed by Wen's relatives, including his aging mother, son, daughter, brother and brother-in-law, lawyers claiming to represent Wen's family sent a statement to two Hong Kong newspapers denying there were any "hidden riches" and hinting at legal action against the Times. But so far, no action has been taken.

Zhan Jiang, a media expert with the Beijing Foreign Studies University, said China's three decades of opening up has also meant an opening to the foreign media, and authorities are gradually learning to be more cautious in their response to critical stories.

"If they expel the reporters, the punishment will be too serious, and it will become another piece of news," Zhan said. He suggested even the current restrictions on the websites "won't be a long-term policy. They are just temporary measures."

Ren Jianming, a professor at Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics who studies corrupt practices, agreed. During the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests of 1989, he said, the ideological foundations of the Communist regime were being challenged and the response was harsh. Now, he said, rampant corruption being exposed is embarrassing, but is not a direct threat to the government's power.

"To not react is much wiser than to overreact," Ren said.

Chinese authorities appear to be aiming most of their attention at local information sources, particularly weibo.

Weibo has been instrumental lately in exposing several cases of lower-level malfeasance, including the release last month of a surreptitiously recorded sex tape involving a middle-aged Chongqing district party official and his 18-year-old mistress.

Controlling weibo "is integral to the interests of the party," Lam said. "It's more serious than just embarrassing stories about the assets of some officials. . . . Once they have lost control of the dissemination of information, I think the party sees real trouble ahead."

In the past two weeks, a torrent of editorials in the state-run media has called for tighter controls over the Internet, ostensibly to better protect users' personal data and to guard against "irresponsible rumors" and online business fraud.

On Friday, a standing committee of China's rubber-stamp legislature approved measures that would strengthen requirements for Internet users to supply their real names, which many believe is a way to stifle debate online and make it easier for police to track down and arrest people who post sensitive items.

Media experts see the new measures as gradual steps to try to rein in what has become for many young, urban and wired Chinese a powerful new free-speech platform and a source of uncensored news and information.

"Cleaning up the online world demands the self-discipline of Web users, but even more it demands the interventionist discipline of rule of law," warned People's Daily Online in an ominous Dec. 24 editorial.

Chinese officials also appear to have upgraded the sophisticated censorship apparatus collectively known as the Great Firewall. Chinese and foreigners here who want to gain access to blocked Internet sites now commonly use virtual private networks, or VPNs, to bypass the firewall. But upgrades to the firewall have targeted VPNs and made bypassing the firewall more cumbersome.

Three of the most popular companies offering VPNs in China, WiTopia, Astrill and StrongVPN, this month apologized to their customers in China for slow service, blaming China's censors.

Astrill said in a note to its customers that it was working on a way around the new barriers, but the firewall was getting better at seeking out and blocking new VPN pathways. "It's like a cat-and-mouse game," the company said.

- - -

Washington Post special correspondents Liu Liu and Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.

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